Birthday Honour for Open Clasp director

Peter Lathan

Catrina McHugh, Artistic Director of Newcastle based Open Clasp Theatre Company, has been awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for outstanding services to disadvantaged women through theatre.

Believing passionately in the power of theatre to bring about social change, in 1998 she co-founded the multi award-winning Open Clasp, a women’s theatre company based in the North East which collaborates with women on the margins of society to create theatre for personal, social and political change. Their work is directly informed by the lived experiences of working class women, women disenfranchised in theatre and society, those from minority communities and women affected by the criminal justice system, and rooted in the belief that theatre changes lives.

“We take a special interest in women and young women from the North of England,” said McHugh, who is originally from Liverpool, “shining a light on their experiences through our work. We make space for debate, encouraging our audiences to walk in the shoes of the most disempowered women in society.”

“This honour values the important and vital role theatre plays in celebrating the strengths and resilience of women,” she added, “those who survive experiences that no-one should have to and many wouldn't be able to. This honour is theirs, they are heroes in their own story to survive and I am honoured to have had their trust, and to tell their stories.”

Open Clasp’s most successful production, in terms of both artistic quality and impact, is Key Change which, first produced in 2014, was created with women in HMP Low Newton in County Durham. Written by McHugh and directed by Laura Lindow, it originally toured to male prisons before moving audiences and critics alike at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, going on to win the prestigious Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award with a New York première in January 2016 receiving a New York Times Critics’ Pick.

The company also presented the show in women’s high-security prisons in both Edinburgh and New York State and, true to their mission to “change the world one play at a time”, to key decision- and policy-makers at the Houses of Parliament in October 2016 in partnership with the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice, CLiNKS and the Prison Reform Trust, contributing to the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper.

Now the play has been commissioned by The Space, a partnership between the BBC and Arts Council England to get more people participating in the arts. The Space will stream Key Change on 25 November 2017 as part of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, designated by the United Nations.

Currently, the company is developing Rattle Snake which will tour in autumn 2017. Coinciding with the change in UK law in 2015 making coercive control in relationships a crime, it was originally commissioned by Durham University and Durham Constabulary, funded by Durham PCC and is used in the training of frontline police officers.

Based on the real life stories of women who have faced and survived coercive control in domestic abuse, Rattle Snake is a new co-production between Live Theatre and Open Clasp. Written by Catrina McHugh and directed by Charlotte Bennett (National Theatre, Live Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Northern Stage and Latitude Festival), Rattle Snake will première at Live Theatre in Newcastle from 21 to 30 September before transferring to York Theatre Royal and Soho Theatre, London, with more tour dates to be confirmed.

Previous productions from Open Clasp, all of which were written by McHugh, include: