“Key Change”: Telling the Stories of Female Prisoners

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From Key Change (via Fb)

The United Kingdom has one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe. More than 50 percent of women in UK prisons report suffering domestic abuse, one in three have endured sexual abuse and nearly 40 percent leave prison homeless. With these statistics in mind, Open Clasp Theatre Company was commissioned by the arts development organization Dilly Arts on an innovative project to give voice to the women in HM’s Low Newton PrisonIn an article in the UK newspaper The Journal, Alison Redshaw, founder of Dilly Arts, explained that

…it’s really important, if you seriously believe the arts can help to transform lives, to work with the prison population because they’re a community within our community.

With this in mind, Key Change was originally performed for audiences of incarcerated men, highlighting that these women were survivors rather than victims. Open Clasp subsequently took Key Change to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it won the annual Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award.

Jessica Johnson and Christina Berriman Dawson in Key Change. Photo by Keith Pattison.
Jessica Johnson and Christina Berriman Dawson in Key Change. Photo by Keith Pattison.

Key Change was written by Catrina McHugh, directed by Laura Lindow, and features Christina Berriman Dawson, Victoria Copeland, Cheryl Dixon, Judi Earl and Jessica Johnson. It is now playing for a limited engagement through Sun., Jan. 31 at the Fourth Street Theater (83 E. 4th St.) in New York City. To purchase tickets, visit www.smarttix.com.

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Originally from Liverpool, McHugh moved to Newcastle in 1993 after falling in love with a Geordie, Newcastle and the northeast of England. Driven by a passionate belief that great theater can bring about social change, she co-founded Open Clasp in 1998. She has been hailed as “the female Lee Hall, only better,” and has unparalleled experience working creatively with the most disenfranchised women, and successfully works with communities to create risk-taking and exciting theater providing powerful stimulus for discussion and debate.

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And now, 5 Questions Catrina McHugh has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
We were very honoured to have two award winning experts in their fields, Dr Rosemary Barberet and Evan Stark, join us in a post-show discussion after Key Change had been performed. I was quite overwhelmed when they spoke about how Key Change was contributing to conversations and research on a global scale regarding women in prison. This perception and critique of our work was the highlight of my experience so far in New York.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I suppose the question that comes up to mind is less idiotic but more frustrating: when we hear that other artists or organisations dismiss the company because it creates theatre from a female gaze, assuming that it’s anti-man or boring or lacks humour. It’s also frustrating to hear that our process of collaborating with communities to make great theatre can downgrade the company, rather than celebrating us as exemplars in creating great arts. This only comes from those who haven’t seen the work, and I’m grateful that this is a minority, but still frustrating.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Never in our wildest dreams did we expect to win.[/pullquote]

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Again its not a question but a comment. One reviewer talked about the women in prison we had collaborated with not having control on their stories. Nothing is further from the truth and its very weird to have our process reflected back this way. Totally inaccurate, and all the women we have worked with would agree.

Catrina McHugh, playwright (via Fb)
Playwright Catrina McHugh

Open Clasp typically tours its plays throughout England. How has bringing Key Change to New York City been similar or different from your usual touring practice? Was it something you’d hoped for when you took the show to Edinburgh?
The thing that is similar is the connections we have made with people who are passionate about challenging discrimination and making change happen. In the UK, we work in partnership with Youth and Community organisations, collaborate with academics, and connect with people who don’t ordinarily see theatre, and we’ve managed to do that in New York, including visiting a women’s prison in Connecticut. The thing that is different is being visible: despite the brilliant reviews, New York is a huge city, with lots of theatre and competition for audiences.

It was our first time in Edinburgh, and we were anxious to see if the play would translate. This was a unique project in terms of how it was created and the audiences we reached (communities in prison). Getting four stars, then five, along with selling out, far exceeded our expectations; then, when we won the [Tambor] award, we were totally overwhelmed. Never in our wildest dreams did we expect to win. Coming to New York wasn’t in our plan and we are all totally embracing the experience, making the most of this amazing opportunity.

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L-R: Judi Earl, Cheryl Dixon, Jessica Johnson, Christina Berriman Dawson and Victoria Copeland in Key Change. Photo by Keith Pattison.
L-R: Judi Earl, Cheryl Dixon, Jessica Johnson, Christina Berriman Dawson and Victoria Copeland in Key Change. Photo by Keith Pattison.

Open Clasp is a primarily woman-run theater, and Key Change is about women in prison. The general populace tends to think of both of those as male-dominated areas. Was there something in the incarcerated women’s stories that particularly resonated with you from a “working in theater” perspective?
I’m very fortunate in that my working practise is independent from traditional theatres and organisations that continue to create work from a male gaze. Our creative teams, office staff, board of trustees are women, and our collaborators are all women and girls. However, we are working within a context where the voices of women on stage are in the minority still, the roles for women are stereotyped and directors and writers lack opportunity to produce. When contracting freelance artists, I often hear their frustration concerning a lack of recognition and opportunity. I feel proud that over the past 17 years, Open Clasp have been able to provide both.

Bonus Question: You ask the women in prison this and their answers sing in the play, so what are your “3 Wishes” and Why?
1) That Open Clasp continues to be supported with funds to collaborate with women and girls, continuing to have opportunities to create great work that makes change happen.
2) I want an equal world, one that celebrates solidarity, one that is free of discrimination.
3) I want my dog, Buster, to stop pulling on his lead — he’s a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and very strong, and my arm is knackered.