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Women's prison stories to be centre stage of new play Key Change

A new play called Key Change, which is to be performed at the Live Theatre, has resulted from a prison arts project in the North East

Actors rehearsing for Key Change, a play inspired by women's prison stories
Actors rehearsing for Key Change, a play inspired by women's prison stories

A powerful new play based on the stories of women prisoners has been performed in County Durham prisons and now there’s a chance for the public to see it.

A lot of preparatory work lies behind the play, Key Change, but it seems to have paid off.

On the Facebook page of Dilly Arts, the company behind the Key Change project, is this comment from a male inmate of HM Prison Frankland: “Brilliant performance and it really reminded me of the man I once was and the hurt I have caused others, but also it has reminded me of how far I have come and the man I am now... brilliant!”

Alison Redshaw, founder of Dilly Arts, must have been delighted by that. There, in a sentence, is vindication of a project resulting from exhaustive planning and a deep-rooted belief that prisoners need to be understood as well as punished.

Meeting Alison when rehearsals were imminent, she said she set up Dilly Arts in 2011 as a not-for-profit company specialising in arts projects that would benefit artists but also some of those North East communities where life can be a struggle.

Why Dilly Arts? Alison, who lives in Hexham, came over a bit bashful when she explained that ‘dilly’ was the first word she uttered. She insisted it was indeed a word. Take it to mean ‘remarkable’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘delightful’.

All are words related to positive thinking and Alison is a fount of that.

Before setting up her company she was director of Durham City Arts, the arts development agency which was part of Durham’s cultural landscape for more than 20 years until its funding was cut.

Alison left – partly for family reasons –a year before it closed in 2012 but she acknowledges the part it played in shaping her views.

“When I became director of Durham City Arts it became clear to me that if you are going to be serious about working with all communities, you have to include prisoners and also their families.

“We looked at the effect of prison life on families in the North East with Nepacs (the North East Prison After Care Society) and were struck by lots of things, like at any one time in the North East more people are affected by having a parent in prison than by divorce.

“My view is that it’s really important, if you seriously believe the arts can help to transform lives, to work with the prison population because they’re a community within our community.”

Alison, with her passion for community arts, has worked on prison projects for eight years, winning the trust of those running Durham, Frankland, Deerbolt and Low Newton prisons (the latter reserved for women).

“It was just over a year ago that I decided I wanted to do a more in-depth piece of work that would look at the past experiences of prisoners and the lives they’d had before they were sent to prison.

“A lot of the work we do in prisons is invisible to the outside world, which is fine. But I wanted to do something that would reach a wider audience. I approached Low Newton, knowing it was something that would be quite ambitious for them and that they’d need faith in us to deliver.

“I said we wanted to work with 12 female prisoners and bring in artists who would be able to help them articulate their life stories. In doing so we would come to understand their lives and the choices they had made.”

Permission was granted and even some funding given to add to that supplied by Arts Council England. Alison then brought in Newcastle-based Open Clasp Theatre Company which had never done a prison project but has experience of working with with women who have led difficult lives.

The stories were told and Key Change is now a reality. Directed by Laura Lindow, it has a cast of four – Jessica Johnson, Cheryl Dixon, Christine Berriman Dawson and Judi Earl – and will be performed at Live Theatre, Newcastle Quayside, at 2pm and 8pm on Saturday (box office: 0191 232 1232).

Already the play has hit the mark with women prisoners who saw it at Low Newton. One commented: “Very hard hitting. Well acted. Good performance. Overall needs more things like this to make people understand how soul-destroyng men can be.”

Another added: “The storyline was true to life. The women acted it out as real as it happened to me.”

While acknowledging the widespread experience of domestic abuse among women prisoners, Alison said she didn’t want Key Change to be “anti-men”. For this reason the performances at the male prisons are being followed by creative writing workshops led by Richard Walker-Hardwick.

Saturday’s evening performance will be filmed for the women at Low Newton to watch while artist Lindsay Duncanson is working with them to produce a short film.

Men in Durham and Frankland will also make films in response to the women’s stories and all these will eventually be available to watch on www.dillyarts.org.uk.

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