An afternoon with Open Clasp Theatre

Although I had heard of Open Clasp in that vague sort of way working in theatre writing means you’ve sort of heard of everyone, I wasn’t that familiar with their work until I went to see their most recent play, don’t forget the birds – upon which, I was instantly converted.

A North East company whose motto is ‘changing the world one play at a time’, Open Clasp makes woman-focused work that aims to centre theatre in the lives of disadvantaged women and girls, doing so in a collaborative way. (…birds came about because one of the performers, Cheryl Bryon, had worked with the company on an earlier, prison-set piece Key Change, and the company both wanted to continue working with her and to explore life after prison, and how her incarceration and release affected her family, particularly her daughter. It’s a gorgeous piece – if it comes back, see it!)

The company is now celebrating an impressive 20 years, during which they’ve won a slew of awards and an MBE for Artistic Director and writer Catrina McHugh. Reflecting their ethos of openness and collaboration, they are now working with the university to archive their material in a way that means it can be shared more widely.

Yesterday was their Archive Symposium, a day of celebrating the company and allowing people to get better insight into what they do, which included mini-workshops, screenings and exhibitions. Held in the informal setting of the West End Women and Girl’s Centre, where the company has an office, when I arrived in the afternoon – work commitments prevented me from attending the whole day – it was in full swing.

Although the prevalence of post-its and felt pens gave it the worrying vibe of a team-building exercise, the variety of fabulous women – many of whom sported glorious amounts of ink and gorgeously vibrant dyed hair – looked thankfully unlike any corporate away-day I’ve ever seen. Friendly as they all were – I was welcomed by Catrina as I came in, who impressively remembered we’d sat next to one another at … birds – I admit I found myself suddenly a bit anxious about inserting myself into one of the little groups, who had clearly got to know one another during earlier sessions (gobby as I can be, I actually find it pretty stressful being among – and, oh god, talking to – groups of people I don’t know.)

So I decided to let myself settle in by checking out the multi-media exhibition Songlines that was playing in another room. At least then I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone straight away! I’m not usually a fan of multi-media – I’m the one who goes to a gallery, pops my head into any video installation, goes ‘hell no’ and wanders off to find real pictures. But though I went in merely as an anxiety-prevention measure, I was quickly drawn in to the stories of immigrant and refugee women who had relocated into the North East, talking about what the sea meant to them, how it featured in their lives, against a backdrop of a film of waves breaking on the shore that became oddly meditative. (You can read more about it and watch the trailer here.)

Revived – and also schooled a little, since what is a pinch of social anxiety when you’ve been listening to stories of women rebuilding lives in cities where they don’t even speak the language – I headed back to the main event. I talked to some of the women involved in the various projects (I was too nervous to go over and say hello to Cheryl and Abigail, who were talking to people about ...birds, though I did manage to at the end, as I really wanted to tell them how great I thought they were in the show. They were of course lovely.)

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A fascinating short film, Traces in the Script, looked at the physical process of working on a show – down to the notes and reminders scribbled onto printed scripts. Since I am both a nerd about pen on paper – I write all my own books longhand first – and it focused on the one show I’d seen, I loved it, but even if you weren’t familiar with the show, it was a great insight into the thought processes of the performers. A cake and a glass of fizz later we were all mingling and chatting, and I got to talk to some of the women involved both in the theatre company and the archiving project – something I am hoping to follow up with a feature at a later date. All in all, it was a really interesting day with a company that is doing things that are both creatively compelling but also socially important – reminding us that stories and the theatre are for everyone, not just a privileged few. Here’s to the next 20 years.

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