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Meet Catrina McHugh MBE, founder of Open Clasp Theatre Company, who’s changing the world one play at a time

She’s had her work performed in New York and Los Angeles, promoting social change on a global scale. Yet, instead of living near London’s West End, it’s the West End of Newcastle that’s captured this playwright’s heart…

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 06.08.2022

Ok, full disclosure: we had to cut this article down a lot.

In fact, it almost definitely took longer to edit than it did to write. Why? Well, because we could listen to Catrina McHugh MBE talk about her work, her female co-creators, her zest for social change and her belief in the power of theatre all day long. And, quite frankly, we nearly did.

We have no regrets. We were lucky enough to spend the afternoon at the West End Women & Girls Centre – which houses the offices for Open Clasp Theatre Company – and pick the brains of one of the most inspirational women we have ever met. Which, for those of you who know us, really is saying something. We meet a lot of inspirational women, guys.

But Catrina really takes the biscuit. See, Open Clasp isn’t your average theatre company. Oh, no. Where they differ is that they create plays to empower. To inspire political change, personal growth and to reclaim lost narratives. And they create them with some of the most marginalised women and girls in our society.

Women and girls who, traditionally, are excluded by theatre.

Writing scripts with these groups, Open Clasp then perform their plays in every kind of venue, from theatres to prisons, schools to conferences, local community centres to New York’s Times Square – sharing their stories far and wide while, at the same time, bringing them back to where they started.

It’s a creative approach that has earned Catrina many plaudits, not least an MBE in Her Majesty’s 2017 Birthday Honours. But perhaps it was winning the prestigious Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award at the Fringe Festival of 2015 – which saw Catrina’s play Key Change performed in New York, winning high praise from American theatre critics and opening the door for a US adaptation in Los Angeles – that really put Open Clasp on the map.

Header image credit: NARC

Predictably, it’s not until our interview is nearly over that we manage to squeeze in a question about Catrina’s own career path, rather than talking about politics, plays or the women and girls she works with. And, predictably, the question results in her shortest answer. Theatre was ‘just a consequence’, she laughs, and returns to how much we all need to do to effect positive change.

For Catrina never seems one to dwell on the few when there are the many to help. She’s the kind of personality that, when faced with a breast cancer diagnosis last year, had the initial thought of: but I need to finish this play.

Finish it she did, all while receiving treatment and showing the big C the door, without so much as a pause in her pursuit for a better world. And to us, that’s just about as inspiring as it gets.

What’s Open Clasp Theatre Company all about? 

Open Clasp is about creating a safe space for women and girls to talk about their lived experiences. To laugh and play and see what they have in common. And to give them an opportunity to view the contexts of the world they live in.

We run creative workshops which are not unlike youth and community work. Our plays are powered by the groups we work with, those women and girls who we call our co-creators. They take control in the workshops with what issues they want to look at. They’re the ones agitating for change.

So, how does Open Clasp work?

We start by gathering a group in a room – these are called our methodology workshops – and we take a step each week on a journey towards these women and girls getting to know each other, feeling safe, working democratically and creatively to look at the issues that affect them, the personal and the political. Our job is to gently nurture that. Then the next phase is for the writer to write a response to what’s been said in those workshops. Thus, a play is born.

Why is theatre special in the way it communicates issues of social injustice?

We’re asked to deliver training to police and various agencies. There are loads of training experts out there, but we’re asked because of the way we run our workshops in terms of their creativity. Whoever we work with, we always get our groups to imagine living certain experiences themselves.

You can talk as much as you want, but you have to put yourself in someone’s shoes before you have a chance at understanding them. In our women’s groups, for example, the whole group will create one character based on all their lived experiences. They’ll give her a name, an age, they ask questions about who she is and they’ll answer those questions, too. They really own that character. And the way they answer those questions is by putting scenarios up on their feet.

So, we might ask them: ‘what is that character’s turning point in their life?’ And they could say it was when she was kicked out of home. The reason they choose that is likely because they’ve all been kicked out themselves. But to understand why that was such a turning point for the character, they have to physically act that situation out – and they can do that because they’ve lived it. They’ll position each other within the group and say: ok, I’ll be our character and I’ll stand here, then you stand over there as my ‘mam’, you be the police officer who would do this, you act the part of the social worker who would be here…

Different people help paint the picture. Then we can ask each of them: ok, what are you feeling in this moment? So, while they create a view of the situation based on their own experiences, we ask them to consider that situation from the perspectives of all the other people in that picture. It’s becomes a live debate.

It seems the creation of the drama is just as powerful and political as the performance.

And that’s at the heart of it. Our tagline is ‘changing the world, one play at a time’. We always aim to make the best theatre we can, but it’s the workshops I love. There’s something so powerful about not only sharing your experiences with others, but putting them in front of yourself and then stepping back and going: God, that’s me. Seeing the injustice of the situation you were in. Maybe, at the time, you thought it was your fault, but here you get an opportunity to observe it objectively and see it differently.

 

Image credit: NARC

What makes Open Clasp so special, in our opinion, is that you don’t only create theatre with marginalised groups, but you also make sure you perform to marginalised groups.

We are a professional theatre company and we do tour nationally across theatres, but yes, we always try and perform in the communities, too – youth clubs, women’s centres, prisons, schools. We’ve always had that balance.

When we were at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015 with Key Change – a play written with women in HMP Low Newton – we made sure we performed it to women in Scottish prisons, too. I remember saying to those women: ‘oh, we find out tomorrow if we’ve won this award and go to New York’. They were so excited for us. They were like: ‘oh my God, please tell us if you win!’ So, we rang them as soon as we heard we’d won [the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award] and we rang the women we’d worked with in HMP Low Newton, too. For us, every play has to remain connected to those co-creators, because it’s their story. We’re never far from the women and girls we work with and, for us, that’s the politics of what we do.

Tell us about Key Change – how would you describe that whole experience of taking the play to New York?

It was a total game changer. We’d never even been to the Edinburgh Festival before because it was too expensive. We were already making Key Change for a commission; we’d been asked to go into HMP Low Newton, work with the women there to create the play and then tour it to other male and female prisons. It was really intense. We were working non-stop on it for about six months, we had a small budget, we’d never worked inside a prison before and were then touring across HMP Frankland and all these Category A prisons. But as soon as we started performing Key Change, we realised how special it was.

It’s only an hour, the set is simple, so we thought: why don’t we take this to Edinburgh? The Arts Council had funded about half of what we needed, so we approached the board of trustees who were supportive and up we went. We watched the audiences grow, then it sold out, then Carol Tambor came to see it… it was all just surreal.

And then you won!

And then we won. It was the most incredible moment for all of us. Amazing and also terrifying! Going to New York wasn’t easy. There were a few hiccups along the way. We had to figure out money, logistics, visas. We flew to New York and the actors were left in London! We had to generate an audience when we were there. The award wasn’t a gift. But it was such a game changer.

We went to New York in 2016, then we came back to the UK and did a national tour. There was a real buzz about it. Then I got the MBE the year after, which was totally jaw-dropping. It opened up so many more doors for us, including more international projects. So, although we’re not going to Edinburgh again any time soon, that experience absolutely gave us that platform to develop.

How did you first get into theatre?

It was never a career and always a consequence! I left school at 16. I didn’t have any career path in mind. I got a boring job in Liverpool but I was encouraged to leave because I was messing about, throwing water fights and all sorts! And I was offered a scheme for unemployed teenagers: do drama or hairdressing. I chose drama. I met political people there – Dave Morrissey was on the same scheme as me – and that was me hooked on drama.

In my 20s, I lived in Greenham Common for a year – I was involved in protesting against the storage of US cruise missiles, Section 28, everything. But I always gravitated back to theatre companies. Then I met Huffty, came here, our son was just a baby at the time, my mum had just died, and I went to university in my early 30s. I thought it was just brilliant, because all the theory came flooding into my life. We set up Open Clasp after I graduated and that was it.

Politics clearly still inspires you today. What would you say are some of the most pressing issues of social injustice facing women here in the North East right now?

I would have to say domestic violence. I mean, what’s that about? Why do (in the most parts) men feel they can go into their own homes and perpetrate violence against their families?

Also, poverty. The injustice of the gap between the rich and the poor. And that space in the middle where you have more violence, people putting each other down to climb higher up, and the abuse of money. People absolutely shouldn’t have to decide whether to heat their homes or put food on the table. Your head could spin off with the injustice of it all.

I like people to understand the world that we live in and that’s where youth and community work come in – they help to put things into context. Why, for example, have most of the people in prisons already experienced domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse? Why is there a higher percentage of black people inside prisons that outside them? Why are prisons full of working-class people?! In New York, they’re closing Rikers Island – they’re spending something like $8.7 billion on new prisons instead. Now, imagine if you put £8.7 billion into the communities. What a difference that would make!

There’s so much injustice. Having said that, I do feel like we’re involved in a big movement for change.

To find out more about Open Clasp Theatre Company – including how to work with them on bespoke projects and training courses, or to find out about their latest performances – visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram

Open Clasp Theatre Company, The Stephenson Building, 173 Elswick Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 6SQ

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