Open Clasp Theatre is an award-winning women’s theatre company that collaborates with women on the margins of society to create bold and innovative projects for personal, social and political change. This International Women’s Day, we are proud to be shining a spotlight on the work they do and hear from the theatre company’s Artistic Director, Catrina Mchugh, on the impact their work has had on the lives of many young women in prison.
I’m the Artistic Director, playwright and co-founder of Open Clasp Theatre Company. For over two decades, we have worked directly with women who are affected by the criminal justice system, are part of minority communities or are disenfranchised in theatre and society. We work in prisons and community settings to create and produce theatre of the highest standard. We then link with local and national partners to influence public opinion, train public sector key personnel and influence policy debates. Our model exists to tackle injustice.
Initially I didn’t want to deliver Arts Award; I couldn’t see how it would work or believe it could easily segue into Open Clasp’s existing practice. We are funded by the Arts Council of England, a National Portfolio organisation, and we said we would deliver on the Bronze but I kept putting it off. We were working with Benfield School in Newcastle in 2017 and had a good relationship with the teacher and based on this we agreed to partner on a Bronze Arts Award project. This trusted partnership, gave me the opportunity to test and trust that Arts Award (especially the evidence gathering aspect of it) wouldn’t compromise our practice. Fortunately, it was a huge success, and this gave me further confidence to introduce it to prison.
Our delivery in the prison
In 2018 and 2019 thirteen young women completed Bronze Arts Award as part of our work with HMP Low Newton. We used the same format as we did in the school. For Part A, explore the arts as a participant, the group participated in Open Clasp’s approach to using drama techniques to explore their lived experiences, this involved looking at facilitation skills to support discussion and debate and working creatively on their feet. On the third day spoken word, poetry and creative writing were introduced, performed and created. For Part B, explore the arts as an audience member, they watched Key Change, a play created by women in the prison in 2014 which was filmed by the BBC and watched by 27,000 people across the world. They reviewed the piece, displayed their thoughts and feelings on a public notice board and designed a digital review, viewed by 161 people on YouTube and achieved 953 views on Facebook. The digital review was also watched by all the women in prison via Way Out TV.
Leaders in art
The highlight for me, on both of the occasions when we delivered Bronze was watching young women pass on an arts skill and facilitate work with other women; a challenging feat because they were in a confined space, vulnerable and pushing themselves to take risks. Both times they excelled and I learnt from this. Open Clasp often demonstrates practice but we rarely make space for young people to try out by taking the lead role. It reminded me of why I agreed to deliver Arts Award in the first place; we’re finding the next generation of leaders in the arts and women in prison are best placed to lead alongside their peers.
Rock, Paper, Scissors: Overcoming delivery challenges in prisons
There are many challenges to delivering Arts Award inside a prison. Evidence gathering can be an issue as it needs to be tangible, whether written or visual or through audio. Often women can’t read or write, there is limited/no access to video or audio and taking photographs is a dance with bureaucracy that you don’t always win. You can’t use scissors, glue or string, so you need to be inventive, rip, stick, sing and draw. Be a rock.
This two-week intensive course is not for the faint hearted, they do it against the backdrop of living in prison, being away from family and friends, dealing with the dynamics of the wing and at times feeling powerless, not in control and dehumanised by wider society.
We are a feminist organisation, using the arts to bring about social and political change while ensuring there is no compromise on practice. Gaining a qualification whilst working with Open Clasp is a huge bonus for women in prison and the Trinity stamp and quality of paper with the certificate is the icing on the cake, as it’s valued by each and everyone one of the group members.
Key Change - a digital review the young women created in prison
Read more about Catrina’s delivery of Arts Award in prisons
Check out our new resource Planning and running arts projects with young people