North East theatre company Open Clasp has been awarded a special commendation at the first ever Digital Culture Awards, celebrating the very best digital and tech innovation in arts and culture.
There was fierce competition for the Content Creation and Distribution award, with a long list including Complicité, National Theatre at Home, and Opera North. The award recognises the development of creative content and innovative uses of digital technology to distribute cultural content into homes, cultural venues, community spaces or further afield. Alongside category winners The Old Vic, Open Clasp were awarded a special commendation.
Based at the West End Women and Girls Centre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Open Clasp has a unique approach and practice developed over 20 years collaborating with women to share their collective experiences to create exciting theatre for personal, social and political change.
Fiona Morris CEO and Creative Director of BBC’s The Space, said:
“Open Clasp are a shining example of a smaller arts organisation that is making use of digital technologies and art to advocate for change on a national level.”
Open Clasp’s Creative Producer Carly McConnell, explains the company’s approach:
“Our aim is to change the world, one play at a time by placing theatre at the heart of transforming the lives of women and girls. For two decades, Open Clasp toured live shows to community venues in the North of England at a subsidised rate, bringing high quality, professional theatre to those communities.
“We told stories that came from the women themselves that explored issues like domestic abuse, homophobia, racism, sexual abuse. As the funding for local community venues and youth programmes was pulled and frontline services could no longer afford to work with us, we created and embedded a digital strategy. That strategy reaches our diverse audiences – community centres can host free screenings of our plays; frontline services, academics and the criminal justice system can purchase the filmed play at a lower fee for training purposes; and audiences who may face barriers to stepping into a theatre can watch online from the comfort of their own home.
“By creating digital theatre and finding new ways to distribute that content, for example by working in partnership with charities and BBC Arts, we’re able to be more responsive to our audiences and what matters to people, using the arts to fight injustice and make tangible, positive change.”
Key Change: working with women prisoners
Open Clasp’s critically acclaimed play Key Change was created with women serving at HMP Low Newton in County Durham. After winning the prestigious Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh award, touring nationally and internationally and receiving a New York Times Critics’ Pick, Key Change reached a global audience when it was streamed to mark the UN campaign to end violence against women and girls in 2017, and was also performed in the Houses of Parliament.
In response to the first national lockdown, Key Change was relaunched, raising awareness of women in prison, and an accompanying education pack was created for teachers who suddenly had to deliver lessons online.
Following a change in the law making coercive control a criminal offence, Open Clasp worked with survivors to create Rattle Snake. The play has since been used to train thousands of front line police officers.
The Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, and Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, co-signed a letter to all 43 police forces in England and Wales to encourage their front line officers and staff to watch Rattle Snake, showing the impact theatre can have on a policy level. And when domestic abuse reports rose by 49% during the first national lockdown, Rattle Snake was streamed for free with BSL during Deaf Awareness Week to raise awareness that deaf women are twice as likely as their hearing peers to suffer domestic abuse.
Made specifically for the screen, Sugar was watched on BBC iPlayer by thousands of households nationwide and screened in 45,000 prison cells across England Wales on Way Out TV. Filmed before the pandemic, the decision to create a piece of digital theatre rather than perform it live helped to remove some of the barriers to access experienced in traditional theatre spaces.
Director Laura Lindow explains:
“Creating theatre for the screen offered us remarkable opportunities to tell these stories in new and different ways. The viewpoint of the camera is powerfully intimate as the characters take us into their confidence. The stark but beautiful theatrical setting sets up different terms for us to encounter them as we step into their worlds.”
Lamia Dabboussy, Executive Editor of BBC Arts added:
“BBC Arts was pleased to be able to bring Sugar to iPlayer – it’s a reminder of the power of theatre, particularly when people are given the opportunity to collaborate with theatre makers to share their own experiences.”
An inspiration to young women and girls
Inspired by the 2021 International Women’s Day theme of #ChooseToChallenge, a short film by Open Clasp in partnership with Teesside University and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) will front the National Careers Week campaign across the school network in England and Wales in March 2022 to encourage young women and girls to use the arts as their rallying cry.
You can watch Choose to Challenge on Open Clasp’s YouTube channel.
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