WHAT do women in prison say to a captive audience of men? That’s what women at Low Newton prison in Durham had to ask themselves when they were invited to create a play based on their own experiences.

The play, Key Change, produced by North-East women’s theatre company Open Clasp, was originally intended to tour men’s prisons, but had such rave reviews it won the 2015 Best of Edinburgh award, culminating in a three-week run on Broadway. It is now touring nationwide and will return to the North-East in December.

Open Clasp has been working with women on the margins of society since 1998, creating theatre for personal, social and political change and was commissioned by North-East-based arts development company Dilly Arts to develop Key Change and give women a voice.

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Writer Catrina McHugh. Picture: Keith Pattison

“It’s a brilliant, beautiful piece of theatre, it’s raw, honest and very powerful,” says artistic director and writer Catrina McHugh. “People go on an epic journey and just for one hour they step into the shoes of these women and understand their lived experiences that lead them to life in prison.”

The UK has one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe. More than 50 per cent of women report having suffered domestic abuse. One in three has suffered sexual abuse and nearly 40 per cent leave prison homeless.

“What we found was how much domestic violence was a common denominator,” says Catrina. “Sometimes the violence is perpetrated against them in front of their children. Sometimes they are running for their lives and someone is after them with a knife. The other shared experience was thinking it was just them, when they started talking they could see that, actually, it was all of them - they all had a similar journey that leads to life in prison.”

The women who participated ranged from women in their 20s to their 50s with some having been in prison multiple times. The play was initially performed inside Low Newton by the women prisoners themselves, before it was re-developed and performed by professional actors for a tour of male prisons in the North-East. After sell-out performances at Live Theatre Newcastle, it went on to win the prestigious Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award in 2015 followed by a stint on Broadway in New York where it received a New York Critics Pick.

Cheryl Byron, an ex-prisoner who had a lead role and has since been released, says: “These women came in, told me what it was all about – to be strong, have courage and be open about issues in life… they got me through my time in prison. If I hadn’t worked with Open Clasp, I know for a fact I’d have been back on cocaine. I’d have walked out of there and thought, I’ve got no one, I’ve got no job, I’ve been to jail, I’m still carrying my scars from being beaten up. I came out a better person. A different person.”

Open Clasp first worked with women at Low Newton in 2009 when they spoke to sex workers, homeless women and women who had lost their children to adoption, to create a play about the challenges prisoners face after release. “I loved working with the women,” says Catrina. “What struck me most was how like the women on the outside they are – they have the same stories, the same experiences, they just happen to be in prison.”

For all its success, Key Change was low budget and had no set - just three chairs and some tape, and basic prison uniforms. The entire project was done in six months. Once the women created the characters and storyline based around two women who meet in prison, Catrina wrote the play in a week and believes that’s what became its strength. “I took it back to the women and said, what do you think? Does this feel like it represents what you said? And they said yes.”

When the play was taken into men’s prisons the men were invited to write down their thoughts after each performance on what they’d seen.

“It made them think, made them feel and also made them feel valued in terms of their past experiences,” says Catrina. “Some of the men said they could see themselves witnessing domestic violence as a child. Some said they could see themselves as a perpetrator. The women were clear at the beginning that they didn’t want to demonise men or finger-wag, so we were careful about making sure that men felt included rather than preached at, so they could reflect on their lives like the women had done.”

The response was so positive, Open Clasp is hoping to continue working with men in prison as well as women at Low Newton. The play has sparked interest worldwide, prompting calls from Mexico, Australia and New Zealand and in October, Key Change was shown at the Houses of Parliament.

Catrina says the aim of Open Clasp is ‘to change the world one play at a time’. “What we wanted to do was contribute to the debate and bring the real voices of women into the room and I think everyone was very moved by it,” she says.

Open Clasp also took the play to women’s high security prisons in Edinburgh and New York. “The women turned around and said they had the same stories that led to life in prison,” says Catrina. “They gave it a standing applause and said, ‘this issue is global’.”

The company is also working on a project with Durham University and Durham Constabulary to train police officers in coercive controlling behaviour.

“Never in a million years did we expect to win the best of Edinburgh,” says Catrina. “What was amazing was the fact we connected the North-East to Edinburgh and over to New York. We were carrying the voices of all of these women across the world and that is something we were incredibly proud of.”

Key Change will be appearing at Teesside University on December 6 (tees.ac.uk); Arts Centre, Washington, November 26 (artscentrewashington.co.uk); and Live Theatre, Newcastle, December 8-10 (live.org.uk)