Many of the stories Catrina McHugh has heard would make your hair stand on end – or they might sound horribly familiar.
It really depends on your circumstances.
They are personal stories told by women who have suffered physical and/or psychological abuse and know the true meaning of fear.
Putting those stories before an audience is the task undertaken by Open Clasp, the Newcastle-based women’s theatre company Catrina set up more than 20 years ago with a mission to “change the world, one play at a time”.
It has certainly made its mark, impressing critics and packing venues. Its play about women in prison, Key Change, went to the Edinburgh Fringe and won a top prize which entailed a run in New York.
Catrina, a Liverpudlian who moved to Newcastle to do a drama degree, was awarded an MBE in 2017 “for outstanding services to disadvantaged women through theatre”.
Open Clasp was also a winner at the Culture Awards in 2016, picking up the Arts Council Award for Key Change.
Two years later Catrina was a winner herself, in the Writer of the Year category for Rattle Snake, her play about coercive control (a form of domestic abuse which became a crime in 2015), and last year another Open Clasp production, Don’t Forget the Birds, won Performance of the Year.
What now then for the company out to change the world?
Catrina, picking up the phone mid laugh, the sense of humour evidently not diminished by exposure to trauma and injustice, says she’s excited by the latest project which is called Sugar.
“I love working on new things and this is very special to me.
“It’s a series of three monologues that I’ve written and it’s not a play. We’re calling it a theatrical piece for film.”
Performances of Key Change and Rattle Snake were filmed. The latter, which some audience members had insisted should be on TV, had some public screenings and was freely available online at the end of last year.
But Sugar has been devised as a work for screen rather than stage with Katja Roberts, of Newcastle-based Meerkat Films, involved from the start.
Catrina spoke about it in a Tedx talk at Newcastle College in the autumn, contextualising it by relating traumatic episodes in her own life and the importance of resilience.
“At the heart of resilience is belief in yourself,” she said. “Resilient people don’t let adversity define them.”
You can find her talk – moving, punchy and all done inside 10 minutes – on YouTube.
To me, in more free-flowing mode – “Sorry, I burble on” – she explains how the idea for Sugar took root after she and Open Clasp colleague Laura Lindow were welcomed back to HM Prison Low Newton, County Durham, where the raw material for Key Change had been gathered in sessions with female inmates.
It was a new group of women they worked with this time, winning their confidence and trust so they felt able to talk.
“At the same time,” says Catrina, “a friend of mine was working in Manchester, providing supported accommodation for homeless women. We’d met years ago, at Greenham Common, and have been on a massive journey together.
“We thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a project together?”
What emerged was this trilogy of monologues, each featuring a fictional character representing the real-life concerns and experiences of the women from the workshops at Low Newton, at the hostel in Manchester and at the West End Women & Girls Centre in Elswick, Newcastle.
‘Tracy’ came out of the Manchester sessions where women, in more formal settings and then over meals, talked about the trauma they had suffered, including rape and childhood sexual abuse.
Catrina accompanied one of the women as she set off on her night-time beat as a sex worker, seeing her tap a favoured oak tree for luck because you can never be sure whose car you’re getting into.
‘Julie’ emerged from the lively Low Newton sessions, where women had also talked about abusive relationships and chaotic upbringings.
The third character, ‘Annie’, who became ‘Poor Annie’, resulted from the sessions with women on probation at the Elswick centre and again the same issues came to the fore.
The stories, Catrina found, were all linked in various ways.
“Women expressed a determination not to get stuck in the revolving door, not to go back to prison or become homeless, and they would often identify a reason why it had happened.
“They would say, ‘The reason I failed before is this…’ But what you find is while they might have identified one reason, there’s usually another behind it; and when you’ve peeled back all the layers you find at the core a child.
“Many of these women started their lives in the same way and then life just happened to them. In the piece I celebrate resilience, but you do wonder how people survive the worst things. I think we owe these women a better service.”
Catrina says she enjoyed the process of writing the Sugar monologues.
“Laura, as director, gives me permission to write and what I’ve learned doing Key Change and Rattle Snake is just write in direct response to what is happening in the workshops… to what I’m observing.
“I think my writing style has changed since those plays. Before it was a lot to do with plot lines: scene one, scene two… This time Laura said, ‘Just write what you want to write’.”
Laura, incidentally, was Writer of the Year at the Culture Awards last year for her scripts for two other theatre companies. At Open Clasp, where she is associate director, she directs.
Sugar is due to be completed next month in time for a June release and it is supported by The Space, the digital agency set up by Arts Council England and the BBC to help arts companies reach audiences online.
In the meantime, Don’t Forget the Birds, another play which came out of the company’s work at Low Newton, and featuring mother and daughter Cheryl and Abigail Byron, is coming back in the autumn.
“They’re so excited to be having another go,” says Catrina. “It’s going to be an eight-week national tour going to all sorts of different places and I hope it opens doors for Abigail.”
Cheryl was an inmate at Low Newton when Open Clasp first worked there while Abigail, on the outside, was keen to get into drama. In the play, full of warmth and comedy, they enact their own story.
The Culture Awards, held in association with Durham County Council, are open for nominations online now.
Go to h ttps://reachplcevents.com/events/northeast/culture-awards-2020/
The closing date is March 21.
If you wish to attend the awards ceremony at Durham Cathedral on May 14, tickets cost £20 and can be purchased from Dawn Owens via email at [email protected] – or phone 0191 201 6430, or write to Dawn Owens, Regional Events Manager, Reach plc, 2nd Floor, Eldon Court, Percy Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7JB.