PROFILE: Catrina McHugh | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“None of this was what I thought I would do in a million years.”

Catrina McHugh is the founding artistic director of Open Clasp, a Newcastle-based theatre company that’s been working with women in the North East for 21 years. Her play Key Change won the Best of Edinburgh Award in 2015, was performed to MPs at the House of Commons, has played in New York and a US adaptation is soon to be premiered in Los Angeles. She’s been awarded an MBE for her work. Her plays are promoting social change on a global scale – and sometimes she stops and asks herself how.

“Everything that’s happened in my whole life has been a surprise, not what was expected of me, not what was expected of my upbringing…I broke out of a lot of boxes….Everything I’ve done has been in response to everything in my life. None of it was a deliberate plan.”

Originally from a working-class background in Liverpool, Catrina worked as a shorthand typist at 16 and then at 18, joined a theatre workshop for unemployed teenagers and got involved in drama for social change. The Falklands War was happening at the time. Living away from home at 17, she developed a passion for politics, particularly feminist politics. As an actor and facilitator, she fought for social change; became an activist, a loud and proud lesbian; joined the protest at Greenham Common…Following the death of her mother and the breakup of her relationship in her late twenties, she moved to Newcastle with her son to join her new partner, now her wife. She enrolled for a drama degree and loved every minute of it. She was now learning the theory of what she had already been doing for years as an actor and the facilitating techniques that she still relies on today. Open Clasp was formed for a final year project performed at Live Theatre.

The play is changing perceptions and thus changing lives

Catrina McHugh creates works based on real life experience. Gathering the material for a play is a democratic process. As Catrina facilitates discussion, she has no agenda, she forgets about the end result and allows the conversation to unfold. She creates a safe place for women to talk. As experts in the field, they create a character together based on all of their experiences, making suggestions about how she would feel and act and speak in situations that they themselves have lived and survived.

“I feel the moment when they get to the truth of what they’re talking about, the moment when I then go ‘That’s the story that needs to be told’.” When the creative team at Open Clasp have the story, they create the best theatre that they can. They experiment with form and technique. They inject art and creativity into the work. The women say that they can hear their own voices in the plays, that’s how they know for sure that they have been listened to.

Whilst Catrina thrives on the work that she does, she also knows how essential it is to make time to enjoy life: she’s been playing in a local band for 21 years; she knits; she takes holidays; she laughs and loves and lives life to the full. And still she remains politically driven and passionate about social change. That has never left. She’s never forgotten who she is and what she has achieved – “I work with working class young women now and I go ‘you know, I still can’t spell, but I’ve got a first class degree and a Masters with Distinction….what people tell you you can achieve, you can achieve so much more’.”

Open Clasp’s most recent play, Rattle Snake, started out as a commission from Durham Police to use theatre to train police officers to deal with situations of coercive control in domestic abuse. The company have now been approached by another police force. The play is changing perceptions and thus changing lives – the lives of the women involved in the process, theatre audiences and members of the police forces in the region.

Rattle Snake will be performed at Gala Theatre, Durham on Wednesday 30th May and Live Theatre, Newcastle from Tuesday 5th-Saturday 9th June

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