Entertainment & Arts

Key Change: From prison cell to sell-out show

Cheryl Dixon (left) and Jessica Johnson as Lucy and Angie in Key Change Image copyright Keith Pattison
Image caption Cheryl Dixon (left) and Jessica Johnson as Lucy and Angie in Key Change

Changing the world one play at a time.

It's the ambitious aim of a small women's theatre group from Newcastle which works with women on the margins of society.

Its play Key Change was hatched behind prison walls in 2013 and has reached the heights of Broadway. Now it could even influence government policy.

"It was a very small project but it has turned into an epic story," said Catrina McHugh, the co-founder and playwright of Open Clasp.

Originally a small commission from Dilly Arts in 2014 with modest ambitions, the brief was to work with women in Durham's Low Newton Prison, to write and produce a play, perform that play to male prisoners, and do one public show.

But the tiny production soon grew wings, took flight and soared high above the razor wire.

This week it starts a national tour of 16 venues, and even includes a special performance for MPs and policymakers at the Houses of Parliament.

But it started with a single character, Lucy, dreamed up by women taking part in a prison workshop.

"We asked the women what they wanted to say to a captive audience of men," explained McHugh.

"We started to explore who Lucy was, and the women pulled on their own experiences to make that character, like getting kicked out of home at 16, getting pregnant, losing children, having post-natal depression, experiencing domestic violence, and somewhere in that was childhood sexual abuse.

"But then there came a point in the workshops where that character wasn't holding all of the women, it didn't represent the women who'd had a heroin addiction prior to coming to prison, so a new character was created, Angie."

Image copyright Open Clasp
Image caption Catrina McHugh: "What the theatre can do is create empathy"

McHugh is originally from Liverpool but "fell in love with a Geordie" and moved to north-east England where she set up Open Clasp in 1998. As well as prisoners, the company has previously worked with the homeless, the elderly, and those affected by sexual violence.

In Key Change, Angie and Lucy share a stage with Kelly and the older Kim. Alternating between past and present, the audiences learn about their lives before prison and behind bars. They tackle several roles, playing abusive parents and partners and terrified children, among others.

"As a playwright it was my job was to listen to everything that had been said, the characters they had created, and then create a script which held that story," McHugh explained.

After developing the play at Low Newton, the all-female cast and crew took it for a week-long tour in male prisons, It was, McHugh said, "like Alcatraz", all cloying life sentences and concrete walls.

"It is something I'll never forget," she said.

"We look at hard things, but Key Change is beautiful, and it's funny. And you have a captive audience of 100 men thinking 'I don't know why I am sitting here', then they see this piece of theatre and it moves them."

Men's response

Actress Jessica Johnson, who plays the drug-addicted serial offender Angie, said she had found taking the women's stories of domestic abuse and post-natal depression inside the men's prison walls to be a "very moving" experience.

"In one of the prisons, one of the men - and there is a scene featuring domestic violence - said afterwards 'I see myself… I see myself there, that's what I do.' It's that power of theatre where you are one removed, and you can look in on a situation and it changes your perception of things. "

McHugh added: "We shared with the women how the men had responded and they knew then they were part of something that absolutely was going to change things, but none of us knew how far that reach was going to go.

"We had no idea that we had a hit on our hands, that we had this gem, until we went to Live Theatre and had a sell-out performance. They came in the doors and said: 'Oh my God, this is amazing!'

"We knew then it needed need to go further afield, which is why we ended up in Edinburgh.

"And It just snowballed from there. We had an audience of 40, then 50, 60, then by the end of it we were sold out. Then we got the phone call from America saying we had been shortlisted for an award and if we won it we would be going to Broadway for three weeks."

The accolade was the prestigious Carol Tambor Award, which is given annually at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to a play which receives a four- or five-star review in The Scotsman newspaper. Open Clasp won, and Key Change enjoyed rave reviews during their New York run earlier this year.

Johnson said the theatre group was "gobsmacked" to win.

"We went to the awards ceremony in costume, and we had to jump straight in a taxi to the theatre and we were on stage straightaway. That was a really energised show! What we've always kept in mind is that Key Change is about the women's voices, and it was the excitement of carrying those voices all the way to New York."

But the bright lights of Broadway did not dazzle. Just as they had in Scotland, the women took their show into a local women's prison, this time York Correctional Institute in Connecticut.

"The story is international, whether it is women in prison in New York, or in prison here," explained Johnson. "The same issues exist, The response in York prison was amazing. We had women shouting 'Amen!' and 'Respect!' and we got a standing ovation."

McHugh said the prison performance was an important part of the process while they were in the US.

"It grounded us and connected us back to the women at Low Newton. And being inside that prison, knowing that this was connecting all of those women and feeling their voices are being heard across the world, was empowering."

Non-violent crimes

Open Clasp will perform at the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday in front of more than 50 MPs and key policymakers, before continuing its national tour.

It is part of a campaign for alternative sentences for women who commit non-violent crimes backed by the Prison Reform Trust, rehabilitation charity Clinks and the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance.

The play, McHugh explained, "showcases" the arguments for non-custodial punishments in a unique and effective way.

"Key Change tells you this is what life is like before prison and this is why we need to consider alternatives for women," she said. "This is why we need to make sure we fund women's services. Support with housing, domestic violence, and having their aspirations supported.

"What the theatre can do is create empathy. It enables the audience to step into the shoes of the women they have seen on stage and walk in them, and see it from their point of view, and feel, and think, and consider, rather than them have a stereotype in their head. You think: 'OK, this is why we need to think differently.'

"We've always felt our job is to make change happen personally, politically, and socially, but to be sitting there in the House of Parliament and be contributing at that level to alternatives for women to prison is hard to put into words.

"We really are changing the world one play at a time because look, here we are, right at the top."

Where to see Key Change:

•24-26 October: Battersea Arts Centre

•28 October: Gala Theatre, Durham

•31 October: The Bay Theatre, Weymouth

•3 November: The Quarry Theatre, Bedford

•9 November: Mumford Theatre, Cambridge

•10 November: Theatre Royal, Margate

•15 November: Canterbury Gulbenkian

•16 November: Norden Farm, Maidenhead

•17 November: Farnham Maltings

•18 November: Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead

•19 November: ArtsDepot, London

•22-24 November: Contact Theatre, Manchester

•26 November: Arts Centre, Washington

•8-10 December: Live Theatre, Newcastle

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