A theatre company whose work aims to be an instrument of positive change in women’s lives, and a charity which exists to get the same results, are charting a synergistic course.
The Girls Are Proud (GAP) project was set up by the charity Changing Lives to provide an innovative service to women who are involved in sex work and exposed to sexual exploitation.
Many of those the charity supports are engaged in what is described as ‘survival sex’, relating to addictions, homelessness and poverty. However, the GAP staff are adamant that focusing directly on the bad things, on problems, is not the place to start. And a partnership with innovative all-female theatre company Open Clasp offers a perfect example of how they’re right.
Laura Seebohm, director of Changing Lives Women’s Services says: “Sometimes we need to turn Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its head and do something different which will motivate, inspire and bring positive experiences to otherwise difficult lives. Our collaboration with Open Clasp, an amazing theatre company which we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep, illustrates this point.”
“Key Change is one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I have seen. In just one hour it explores everything we need to understand about the experiences that are so often faced by women in prison.”
Catrina McHugh, Open Clasp’s inspirational creative director and playwright, sets the scene for this important, long-running and successful collaboration.
“Since 1998, Open Clasp have built a reputation for making truthful, risk-taking and unforgettable theatre from a female gaze to inspire new and young audiences. Based in the north-east of England, our work is directly informed by the lived experiences of marginalised women and young women and is rooted in the belief that theatre changes lives. We want our work to make space for social debate and to encourage our audiences to walk in the shoes of women, including those who are the most disempowered in our society.
“We first collaborated with Changing Lives’ GAP project back in 2009, a year after I had approached Laura [Seebohm], asking if a collaboration that would raise awareness of hidden sex work would be of interest. Laura said ‘yes’ and made it happen.
“Our unique methodology involves using drama techniques to create a safe space for discussion. The GAP women drew upon their own lived experiences and created characters that told their stories and held their voice. A script was presented to the women for their consideration and endorsement and once in rehearsals, the women attended and supported the actors to ensure accuracy.
“Throughout the process Changing Lives had GAP workers wrapped around the women, ensuring support and encouragement to continue to engage despite ongoing chaotic ‘real time’ life experiences.
“In 2010, Rattle & Roll, a play telling the story of ex-sex worker Maria and the first 24 hours after her release from prison was toured throughout the north-east of England. Based on true stories shared by the women, audiences saw the challenges posed by multiple appointments, lack of secure housing, discrimination, trauma and chaotic friends still involved in sex work.
“I can still remember the night the show was performed to a packed church hosted by Changing Lives in the centre of Newcastle. The atmosphere was tangible.
“The GAP women had inspired a unique piece of theatre, one that made the hidden visible. The tour reached communities that don’t ordinarily see theatre as well as those who attend mainstream theatres and encouraged audiences to step into the shoes of people they would see as ‘other’. At times those shoes were uncomfortable, and so they should have been…
“The project’s legacy saw the women create and perform their own piece of theatre to an invited audience at a Newcastle Women & Girls Centre. Even now when I see women from that project they say it’s the best thing they have ever been involved in, and ask for more.
“After Open Clasp won a national award for outstanding contribution to creatively raising awareness of violence against women and children in 2013, we were commissioned by Dilly Arts to work on an innovative project in Low Newton, a women’s prison and young offenders institute, to give women in prison a voice.
“We supported the women to create and perform a play called Key Change, which was then toured by professional actors to male prisons, with one public showing at Live Theatre in Newcastle in June 2014. Laura came to see the show and booked it for the Changing Lives National Conference in September 2015.
“The characters in Key Change aren’t unlike those of Rattle & Roll. There is a common theme that runs through the majority of our work: domestic violence and exploitation.
“The show won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award 2015 in the summer and will be heading off to New York in January 2016. Our intention is to take Key Change into women’s prisons while we’re there, then return to the UK for a national tour in the latter part of 2016.”
Seebohm says: “Key Change is one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I have seen. In just one hour it explores everything we need to understand about the experiences that are so often faced by women in prison.
“The humour, warmth and pain of each character touches the audience experientially. This has more impact than any speech, any article, any campaign, and this is why I am so determined that it be seen by decision makers, policy makers and those who can influence change for women in the Criminal Justice System.
“We would love the opportunity to build on this story and there is no doubt our GAP women would agree as you can tell from the words of one of them: ‘The play was amazing, it had me laughing and crying all the way through. I think it was put together with such precision and it was like seeing myself through it all! You could see that everyone had listened to the girls at GAP so much and thank you for that. It was brilliant. So emotional.’”
For more information on the work of Open Clasp, visit http://www.openclasp.org.uk
To make a donation to Changing Lives, visit http://www.changing-lives.org.uk and click on the DONATE button. Or text CLIV45 to 70070 to donate £5.2925 Views