Open Clasp premieres its first international and most ambitious production to date, co-created with sex worker activists around the world over four years. Mycelial offers a reality check on assumptions made about people involved in sex work.
From the multi-award winning theatre company behind New York Times Critics’ Pick Key Change and Sugar on BBC iPlayer, Mycelial will also be captured on film and streamed online. It has been co-created with sex work activists across the UK, Ireland - where the law was changed in 2017 to criminalise sex work, and Aoteoroa/New Zealand - the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work in 2003.
There are estimated to be more than 73,000 sex workers in the UK, and more than 70% worked in healthcare, education or the voluntary sector* - yet it remains surrounded by stigma and misconceptions. A 2022 Amnesty International report* on sex workers’ human rights in Ireland found that most of the sex workers interviewed stressed the impact and “chilling effect” of the 2017 criminalisation of sex work on their safety and well-being, and that despite the growth of sex worker-led activist movements, the issue of sex workers’ human rights and their experiences of gender based violence have been largely ignored or dismissed. In response to a Home Office consultation on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) to inform its 2021-24 strategy, Sex Workers Too* was published by National Ugly Mugs, a pioneering, national organisation providing access to justice and protection for sex workers. It highlights the importance of sex workers’ contributions to the VAWG agenda.
When Open Clasp Artistic Director Catrina McHugh MBE facilitated a workshop for the North East Sex Work Forum, she was struck that the voices of sex workers were often missing from the narrative and became aware of two different sides to the debate. She explains, “The debate between the two camps of thought - the Nordic Model and the Decriminalisation of Sex Work - is challenging and complex. Toxic even. People are scared to talk about it. Mycelial aims to make space for debate and discussion. It is activism and theatre at its best, celebrating the strength and humanity of sex work activists who can’t walk by injustice. Underpinned by our co-creator’s principle, ‘nothing about us without us’, Open Clasp is the scaffolding and their voices are centre stage.”
Driven by a passionate belief that theatre can bring about social change, Catrina McHugh co-founded Open Clasp 25 years ago, and in 2017 was awarded an MBE for outstanding services to disadvantaged women through theatre. The company places theatre at the heart of transforming the lives of women and girls excluded by society and the arts to create bold and urgent theatre for personal, social and political change. By standing with activists campaigning for sex workers’ rights to be upheld, and inviting audiences to step into the shoes of others through theatre, Open Clasp aims to influence public opinion and inform UK policy around preventing violence against women in the sex industry.
The project has support from campaigners and experts around the world including Dame Catherine Healy from the Aotearoa/New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective, who said, “Mycelial digs into the whorearchy, exploring that which drives us apart, whilst pushing back against those who would dehumanise us as sex workers.” Dr. Raven Bowen, CEO at National Ugly Mugs who are sponsoring sex worker engagement on advocacy panels associated with the production said, “Mycelial portrays the distinctiveness of individual experiences in sex work and the subterranean, subcultural and sub rosa connectivity among sex workers, trans folx, and black and brown communities. A pulse or ecosystem that is felt and lived but not always apparent, yet ties all struggles for justice together.”
The production features a nine-strong cast representing the diversity of its co-creators from across the UK, Ireland, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The characters reflect those who Open Clasp worked with, including trans women of colour, lesbian, queer, straight and intersex people.
The cast are: Muire McCallion (Luaithríona agus Pósadh an Phrionsa/Aisling Ghéar Theatre Company, Irish language feature film KNEECAP, due for release in 2024); trans actor and performer of mixed descent originally from Northern Ireland, Alexis Meshida (When All Is Said/curated by Travis Alabanza for Fuel Theatre); New York drag artist and comedian Yael Elisheva (Assistant Director on The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs/Soho Theatre, performer at Glastonbury Festival 2023; Chess Tomlinson (Jane Eyre/National Theatre & Bristol Old Vic), Patricia Jones (Road/Northern Stage and UK tour); Bláithín Mac Gabhann (Dancing at Lughnasa/National Theatre); Danielle James (Beautiful Things/Theatre Royal Stratford East), Lexi Clare (Game Face/UK and Aotearoa/NZ); and originally from Wellington in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Michelle Huirama (The Pale Blue Dot short film, selected for Cannes Festival 2023, and The Inside Man TV series).
Cast member Lexi Clare is originally from Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau in Aotearoa/New Zealand and is excited by projects that are deeply rooted in community. She said, “People tend to have strong feelings about sex work so it’s a complex topic to explore. Sex work was decriminalised in Aotearoa when I was 10 years old so I grew up understanding that there was still a level of stigma attached, but never questioning whether it should be criminalised. Researching the sex work industry on an international scale has been really eye opening for me; I honestly didn’t realise how different Aotearoa’s approach was, and still is, compared to other countries.
This project feels like such a rich tapestry of perspectives and experiences. What is brilliant is how the script weaves together so many different stories - I think audiences might be surprised at how many moments and relationships resonate with them. And regardless of how you feel about sex work, we’re also talking about the fundamental right to a safe and healthy working environment, which is something that I would hope people can get behind.”
The creative team includes Writer Catrina McHugh whose writing credits for Open Clasp include Key Change and Sugar, Director Laura Lindow (Key Change/Open Clasp), Set and Costume Designer Amanda Mascarenhas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice/Northern Stage), Lighting Designer Sherry Coenen (Operation Mincemeat/Riverside Studios), Composer and Sound Designer Roma Yagnik (The Mare of Easttown/HBO), Film Director & Editor Katja Roberts (Sugar/Open Clasp & BBC Arts) and award-winning motion graphic designer Simona Knuchel.
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