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Alisha is a 35-year-old woman with learning difficulties and an abusive partner. The partner attacks her viciously enough to force her out of her home and into the street where she is confronted by a male acquaintance who sexually assaults her. Her mother is over-protective of Alisha, and when she tries to report the two incidents to the police she is not believed.
This is not a true story. It is a series of true stories put together to make a play with the profoundest of messages: one in three women in the world suffers from domestic and/or sexual abuse, too many never get justice in a system loaded against them, but if you’re one of them you need to know that you are not alone.
Alisha’s Story is the latest production from the theatre company Open Clasp, co-founded almost 25 years ago by Catrin McHugh, now the artistic director and joint CEO. It also marks a turning point for the company, for this is the first play to be written to a commission following a stream of plays the company has produced, all of them written by McHugh. Their aim is to change the world, she says, “one play at a time”, by placing theatre at the heart of transforming the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. Open Clasp puts their lives at the heart of their theatre, for political, social and personal change. They call it urgent theatre, and its patrons include Erica Whyman, acting artistic director of the RSC. “This is a company that does something which is not only unique, entertaining and engaging, but also incredibly important” she says. “They tell stories that need to be hears and they allow their audiences to see the world through unexpected eyes”.
The commission follows research at Durham and Sunderland Universities showing that women with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and that their reports to the police are less likely to be believed or lead to conviction. In fact, a working party from Durham University, Rape Crisis Tyneside and Northumberland, and Northumbria Police found that the criminal justice system actually creates barriers for those with autism or learning difficulties when they report rape and sexual assault. “It’s not just an other world” says McHugh. “Everybody knows it even if they haven’t personally experienced it”.
The modus operandi is to gather groups of women gleaned from communities’ social, professional and welfare networks to meet in a room with an Open Clasp facilitator who stimulates a discussion while a playwright builds from the conversation to create a dramatic but faithful mirror of it. The 2015 play Key Change, written by McHugh but devised with women in Low Newton prison to take on tour to men’s prisons, won a Best of Edinburgh Award. It inspired the company’s first foreign tour and in 2016 was the New York Times Critics’ Pick. The piece was then filmed with support from the BBC and the Arts Council (Open Clasp is an ACE NPO and has received standstill funding for 2023-26). That was a watershed which let the company’s ambitions run free, and this year it launched a workforce development programme to expand its operation. It has its first international collaboration with a New Zealand sex workers' collective for a production with a cast of eight.
Us Too: Alisha‘s Story is the first Open Clasp play not to have been written by McHugh. Commissioned by the two universities, the writer is the award-winning playwright Julie Tsang. one of four the company worked with. The play’s task is to bring change and develop inclusive criminal justice responses to domestic and sexual violence against women with learning difficulties or autism, the lack of which is the theme of the play.
Open Clasp have made the piece by working with the Exeter-based drama group Us Too whose members have learning difficulties or autism, and Holly Wilkinson (pictured in the role), who is a brain injury survivor and has autism, is cast in her first professional role. Having deliberately trawled for disabled actors, in her McHugh believes they have found an original talent. “I responded to the casting call because I don’t think that there is enough representation of disabled performers within the acting industry, which is something that really needs to change in my view” Wilkinson says. “Performers with disabilities need to be seen and heard”.
The 20-minute piece is being released online tomorrow, December 3, the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, running until December 10. It will then be widely used in an Economic and Social Research Council funded project to develop criminal justice practice and to train frontline officers in recognising coercive control, with a team from Open Clasp using the film to train 200 police officers at Durham Constabulary in April and May next year. It will also be made available to schools, and will be a live touring performance as well.
“Even before the pandemic we had moved online, capturing work on film, streaming across worlds and con6nents” McHugh says. “We could see the impact and reach when theatre meets film. This commission joins our catalogue of work, theatre that raises its fist and demands an end to violence against women and girls.”
The co-lead researcher into the treatment of women with learning difficulties in the criminal justice system is Helen Williams, Sunderland University’s senior lecturer in criminology, and she fully approves of the play, its uncompromising content and delivery and the process in which the narrative was built. “It's hard hitting because it is truth, that story is truth. I feel bonded to the women, it’s a special sort of bravery and to speak those words... it’s been a privilege.”