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Women's stories are a window on the world

Women from all over the world have made their homes in the North East and some feature in a moving installation on display in Newcastle

Phyllis Christopher Women involved in the Songlines project masterminded by Open Clasp Theatre Company
Women involved in the Songlines project masterminded by Open Clasp Theatre Company

A Byker community centre on a grey day might not sound like the threshold to another world but, like Lucy in CS Lewis’s famous wardrobe, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Soon after stepping inside you will be transported far away via the stories of women who have wound up in the North East from points all across the globe. Unlike Narnia, though, the worlds they describe are very real... Zimbabwe, Libya, Kosovo, Kuwait.

In pre-publicity the installation, called Songlines, is described as giving a voice to women from minority communities in disadvantaged areas of the North East. While literally true, it hardly does justice to what we see and hear – richly accented voices, sometimes wistful but often bubbling with laughter, and faces wreathed in smiles and full of character. Not worthy, not dull.

There is sadness, if not overtly expressed then occasionally discernible in tone or turn of phrase. But Songlines is much more about resilience in the face of adversity than broken pessimism and hopelessness. You will undoubtedly feel better for seeing it... and hearing it, for this is a multi-faceted installation.

It represents the final phase of a project called A Song to Sing which was initiated by award-winning North East theatre company Open Clasp, founded by Catriona McHugh and a relatively recent recipient of highly coveted Arts Council revenue funding (making Open Clasp, in official Arts Council-speak, a National Portfolio Organisation; in laymen’s terms, an innovator and trailblazer).

An earlier part of A Song to Sing was the funny and exciting play The Space Between Us which toured the region. The latest in a string of successful, socially aware Open Clasp theatre productions, it imagined a group of women from diverse backgrounds brought together in a church where they’ve taken shelter from a ferocious storm.

This is something different. “It’s a first for Open Clasp to do an installation,” says Catriona, ably assisted at this week’s opening by the company’s creative producer Jill Heslop.

“A lot of the women were getting deported when we put on the last show so we weren’t really sure about phase three. We weren’t really sure who would be here, having lost three or four of the women who did the project last time (The Space Between Us was based on the real-life stories of women living in the region, some of them temporarily as their appeals for asylum were dealt with).

“We thought it was an opportunity to bring a different, multi-media team of people in to do a project and see how that would work, using film and photography rather than theatre.

“I think it’s been absolutely brilliant and I think what they’ve captured is absolutely beautiful. The women responded so positively to the photography sessions. They’ve all been taking each other’s photographs.”

Brought together to lead Songlines were Taryn Edmonds and Kate Sweeney, who are both artists and film-makers, and photographer Phyllis Christopher. All are based in the North East although Phyllis is an American who has also been based in San Francisco.

Taryn recalls: “We were clear from the outset that it was going to be an installation and would include elements of film and photography but this was an opportunity to really capture the actual voices of the women who attended the workshops.

“We recorded their stories and their songs and also filmed them on trips to the beach.”

The artists noticed that water and the sea were recurring themes. A woman from Zimbabwe talks about the extreme thirst of her children which drove them to drink dirty water. Another speaks wistfully about Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and recalls how she would fantasise about where it would take her if she jumped in and didn’t sink or drown.

Or how much one of the women loves Saltburn - the beach and the sea, she muses, remind her of the place she left.

So one corner of the Raby Lives Centre has been fitted out like a little cinema. On the big screen is footage of waves breaking gently on a North East beach. From time to time, as I watch, a young woman enters the frame, paddling in the sea and making patterns in the sand with her bare feet.

On the seats are headphones which you wear to hear the voices of the women. In the dark and against the mesmerising splash of the sea, they assume a quiet authority which perhaps they lack as they go about their daily lives in the North East.

But you can’t generalise about the women who took part. For a start, they represent more than 20 different countries. Also, their circumstances are all very different.

“We talked about what it means to be in a minority group but there was such a huge spectrum of issues,” says Kate, who conducted the interviews in what occasionally became “quite intense” sessions.

“There were people in the groups who had led magnificent lives before something catastrophic hit them. But some of the women were quite insistent about not wanting it to be all about them and their terrible and difficult lives.

“They wanted to talk about things they were interested in and they were all quite clear about why the sea should be the theme.”

Kate recorded the interviews and Phyllis took photographs, although she says some of the woman – particularly the younger ones – enjoying taking the camera into their own hands to photograph each other.

The printed programmes available to be picked up at the venue bear not only some of the women’s observations but their portraits, not all taken by the project’s official photographer.

With the words, the photos and the film assembled, it fell to Taryn to decide how it would be arranged and how visitors would navigate the space. So as well as the cinema, there’s an inviting table with chairs and more headphones.

Here you can sit and hear the women and read their words in Songlines books. On the table are some of the objects they refer to – shoes, a jug of water and glasses on a silver tray, a bowl of mangoes.

Women from various North East groups participated in the Songlines scheme. Some were asylum seekers, some economic migrants keen to succeed in business. Perhaps the only thing uniting them was their participation in this project and the fact that they have journeyed far.

Some will stay, some will leave. Songlines, and the wider project of which it is part, at least ensures that those passing through made a mark while they were here and did not go unnoticed.

Songlines can be seen at the Byker Lives Centre, Raby Cross, until Saturday, from 11am to 4pm. It will then be repeated in Middlesbrough, at the Crossroads Community Café, 54 Borough Road, from December 10-14, 11am to 3pm (7pm on the 12th when refreshments will be served).

For Open Clasp Theatre Company the future looks rosy. It has Erica Whyman – formerly of Norhern Stage and now of the Royal Shakespeare Company – as its patron and it recently won an Emma Humphreys Award, given in memory of an abused young woman who served 10 years for murder before succeeding in getting her conviction overturned.

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