Nothing sickly sweet about TuckShop

I’ve arrived early to chat to Jimmy Fairhurst, the artistic director. He’s on the stage, guitar in hand, rehearsing an Elvis number with the rest of the cast.

The Not Too Tame theatre collective are back on Creative Scene’s The Local pub circuit after last year’s acclaimed debut with Early Doors. The regulars at Batley’s Taproom are about to be some of the first to see TuckShop, their latest production.

I’ve read on the website that Jimmy set up Not Too Tame while still at drama school. He was keen to make theatre for people turned off by mainstream productions or big venues.

“So performing in pubs is right up your street?” I ask as he joins me.

“Absolutely,” he says, “Did you know 31 pubs are closing each week? The drinking aside, these are really important community hubs we’re losing.”

The son of a hairdresser and miner, Jimmy feels a responsibility to produce shows that resonate. “Our writers tell stories that people can see themselves in. That’s a big thing for me. The audience feel empowered if they can see it’s about their lives. Their own stories become worth something.”

“I didn’t see it myself but Early Doors was a great success, wasn’t it?” I say. “Does TuckShop follow a similar theme?”

“Early Doors has been our signature piece,” says Jimmy, “we’ve toured it all over and had near sellout audiences at the Edinburgh Festival. We’re hugely proud of that. TuckShop stands on its own, it’s a bit different. It’s a series of stories with some common threads. I suppose it’s a stopover, a service station if you like, on the way to the next show.”

Tonight’s audience starts to arrive. As expected, pub regular and self-declared Not Too Tame fan, Gary leads a small group into the bar. He was bowled over by Early Doors last year and has since become a critical friend to Creative Scene, previewing proposed productions and providing frank feedback.

“What are expecting tonight?” I ask, as he orders his drinks.

“I don’t know,” he says, “some laughs and some surprises I hope.”

With every table taken, Jimmy and the cast give out packets of sweets to the expectant audience. “Maybe you’ll get something special in there,” he says cryptically, dropping a striped paper bag onto my table. It is an adult show, after all.

cs_281116_005-editcs_281116_007-editWithout giving too much away the show kicks off and ends with Jimmy as Elvis. “I’ve got a thing about you baby / Ain’t nothing I can do / I’ve got a thing about you baby / A thing about lovin’ you.”

cs_281116_015-editIn between we’re treated to a fast-flowing series of sketches that keep us all glued to our seats. There’s the story about a middle-aged woman debating whether she should donate one of her kidneys to her 72-year-old grumpy mother. “Just coz it stinks and goes in pies, I can’t give it away lightly,” she says.

cs_281116_017-editThen an unemployed ex-soldier lets off steam at the JobCentre; an East Coast train conductor considers how he might answer some interview questions and the whole ensemble celebrate ‘full-of-life’ grandmas. My favourite is the insecure lifeguard who finds love where she’s least expecting it.

cs_281116_020-edit cs_281116_025-edit“What did you make of that?” I ask Gary after the finale.

“Yet another brilliant production. It was really good, I really enjoyed it.”

“And what were the best bits?”

“I liked the one about the kidney,” says Gary’s girlfriend, Rachel.

“The grandma piece was superb and the Elvis thing was brilliant,” says Gary. “They were all good in their own way but there was a lot of heavy stuff. Maybe it needed something softer in the middle.”

“Something softer in the middle? You mean a soft centre?”

“Exactly.”

The Momentum Wheel begins to turn

[Continued from “Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”]

Inside the Market Hall Eleanor, Chemaine and Lou from The Brick Box have set up their Electric Fireside installation. Adorned with twinkly lights the three hosts have also created a ‘drawing room’ where rolls of wallpaper hang from the ceiling.

Five-year-old Thomas is doing his best with a length of bamboo cane with torch and marker pen taped to one end.

cs_261116_098“We only recently moved from Brighouse and I was determined to bring my grandson to the lights this year,” says his grandma Ellie.

“He’s going to have someone’s eye out with that,” I say as Thomas charges about with his giant pen.

“Bizarrely my old neighbour back in Brighouse, who is now in her 60s, recalls her father bringing her to Heckmondwike for the lights each year. He used to say it’s the best in the region. And I can see it’s still lovely.”

As Eleanor and Chemaine predicted earlier in the week, people are gathered around their glowing fusion of fireplaces and mantlepiece. The young people I met at the West Yorkshire Drama Academy are here with friends and family and the Salvation Army is setting up in the corner.

“We’re now going to watch a drama piece by Lucas,” Eleanor says into the mike, “so do all gather round, and next up we’ll have the joy of the Salvation Army choir.”

cs_261116_118cs_261116_140Back on the green the Skiband are whipping up the ever-growing crowd with a rendition of  I’m in the Mood for Love.

“Listen kids,” jokes one of musicians into a little megaphone, “when you go back to school on Monday, work hard and pass all your exams… or you’ll end up doing stuff like this!”

cs_261116_198Father Christmas and his single elf make their way through the tweating mechanical birds of the Aviary Arcadia towards the bandstand stage. The amazing digital projections from the 154 Collective give way to a mesmerising performance by Flame Oz, the warm up act for Santa.

“Hello Heck…mond…wike!” he bellows once on stage. “Did you know Heckmondwike has had Christmas lights for nearly 150 years?” A big cheer follows. “I think you should be especially proud of this great tradition of your wonderful community!” Another cheer.

Once Santa has promised presents to everyone who has been good, he is passed a blow torch to light the blue touchpaper. “Shall we all count down from ten? Ten… nine… eight…”

As planned there are HISSES and WHIZZES, CACKLES and BANGS. The Momentum Wheel begins to turn and a series of digital animations appear in its centre.

cs_261116_309“Ah look,” says a woman to her friends next to me, “it’s a bird. What is it called? It’s a flamingo.”

“A pelican,” I say from behind my camera.

“Oh yes, it’s a pelican.”

As the images complete their cycle the WHOOSHES provide the signal and somewhere in the background Ben switches on the Heckmondwike lights for the 148th time.

“ARHH,” says the town.

cs_261116_322Simon is beside himself afterwards. “Absolutely fantastic,” he says, as if he’s about to wipe away a tear. “People have just taken to it so well, it’s unbelievable. There are people down here from all over Heckmondwike. This is about building communities, this is the way to do it.”

“I thought it was really good,” says Sarah who is here with her friends, Sophie and Helena. “We’ve been coming since we were kids. It’s not the same as everywhere else, is it? And that’s good for Heckmondwike.”

Next I catch up with Pam and Bill from Southport who are down for the weekend staying with the grandkids. “Lovely, really lovely,” says Pam. “It looked amazing. You could really feel the togetherness of the community.” Job done.

“Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”

It’s just after four o’clock and the bright, clear day is giving way to a cold, clear night. All the performers, technicians and volunteers are in place. The stage is set, literally, for HeckmondLIGHT 2016.

“So what can we expect?” I ask Simon Thirkill, stalwart of the Heckmondwike Community Alliance and local café owner.

“That guy on the bike is projecting animated images inspired by the Heckmondwike illuminations,” he says, “and over there are cages with animatronic birds that flap and tweet as you walk past. And then there’s the Momentum Wheel…”

“Which is the centrepiece for the lights switch-on,” I suggest, noticing the ‘blue touchpaper’ elevated by poles, linking the stage and the specially-commissioned sculpture.

cs_261116_253For Simon and his colleagues HeckmondLIGHT is more than just flashing lights and fireworks. “Creating a time and a space for people to experience things together is really important,” he says. “It’s a priority for me to help create those opportunities.”

cs_261116_235Volunteers Sonia and Zane are in position next to the tweeting birds. I’ve met these teenagers before. “So what makes you spend your Saturday evening volunteering at Creative Scene events like this?” I ask Sonia.

“It’s a great way to get involved with the arts, isn’t it?” she says. “There are so many interesting opportunities,” – she and Zane were both ‘lay performers’ at Batley Festival back in September – “and I like the way Creative Scene is making the arts accessible to people in this area.”

“It’s a good way to get to know all the other volunteers,” says Zane. “We’re like a big family, all supportive of each other. That’s why we keep coming back.”

cs_261116_054Zane has helped out at Batley Festival for the last two years, “… and I did  HeckmondFRIGHT last year,” he says.

“I missed that but I saw the film. It looked great.”

“It was really good. We had to carry a coffin around town and the police stopped us and asked if there was a body in it. That was funny.”

Still at school, fifteen-year-old Zane tells me he wanted to be a pilot. “But now I’ve seen what Creative Scene does, I think I want to do something creative like drama or contemporary art.”

cs_261116_222Back near the bandstand Chris from Impossible Arts – co-creator of the Momentum Wheel – is in animated conversation with hi-vis-clad local contractor Ben Hardcastle. Ben and his family have installed the lights in this town for years and it’ll be his job, behind the scenes, to actually flick the switch.

“The firecrackers are quite loud: BANG, BANG, BANG,” explains Chris, “but the final bit is the WHOOSH of the fireworks, that’s your cue to switch on the lights.”

“So when I see the WHOOSH and not the BANG,” reiterates Ben.

“That’s right. The WHOOSH and not the BANG,” says Chris. “Brilliant, that’s great.”

There’s time before the big switch-on at 6.30 to take a look around. Next to the park the bus hub has been transformed into a mini funfair with waltzers, a trampoline and vendors selling the obligatory flashing light sabres and battery-powered windmills. Excited children, wrapped up against the cold, grapple with bags of candy floss and dodgy-looking burgers.

Across the busy road artists Rozi Fuller and Liz Walker have taken over Simon’s Blue Moon Café. With a light box of sand and some technical wizardry they project festive animations onto the window of the caff.

cs_261116_062cs_261116_066“Would you like a go?” ask Rozi.

“No, thanks,” I say abruptly. “I’d love to but there’s so much going on, I’ve got to get round everything.”

[Continued in The Momentum Wheel begins to turn.]

“It’s familiar but also a little bit surreal.”

“Let your arms and legs relax… take some big deep breaths… begin to feel totally relaxed.”

cs_231116_038-editI’m at Heckmondwike Community Centre, host to the local scout group, karate club, and St John’s Ambulance. The after school club has not long packed up and now the younger section of the West Yorkshire Drama Academy has taken over the two-storey hall. It’s a busy place.

cs_231116_013-edit“Do you remember last week I gave you all leaflets about HeckmondLIGHT?” asks Academy head and Creative Scene supporter, Rebecca Foster. “Well tonight we have a couple of visitors who will explain to us how we might get involved.”

cs_231116_070-editEleanor from The Brick Box and her collaborator Chemaine join the circle and begin to tell us about their Electric Fireside installation that’s coming to Heckmondwike this Saturday.

“Light festivals often have something spectacular like fireworks or large illuminations – and HeckmondLIGHT has all of that – but we decided to create something more intimate,” says Eleanor. “So we’ve made something called the Electric Fireside.”

“When I was a kid – back in the 70s – we’d sit round my grandma’s electric fire, eat crumpets and listen to her stories.

“Back in the old days people would sit around an open fire, tell tales, play music and sing songs. Nowadays we gather round the telly, don’t we?”

Eleanor explains that the Fireside itself is made from five old electric fires with a mantlepiece in the middle and ornaments on top. “It’s familiar but, at the same time, a little bit surreal,” she says.

“We’ve taken it all over the country,” says Chemaine, “and each group has done something special that creates a spark around the Fireside. Already we can see this group has something special.”

“We’d like to invite you to come along on Saturday and perform whatever you’d like,” says Eleanor.

“It doesn’t have to be a drama piece,” reiterates Rebecca to the now fired-up young people. “It could be a poem – I know lots of you have written amazing poems – or a song or some sort of story.”

“Pick the thing that you love to do the most,” suggests Chemaine as the performers split into groups to conjure something up. “We work really quickly,” says Rebecca, “it’s all about improv.”

As the emerging performers bounce ideas around and rehearse cameos, I hear that Eleanor and Chemaine have already lined up other groups to host the Fireside this weekend. “We’ve been speaking with the Spen Valley Civic Society,” says Eleanor, “who will be sharing local history stories. And the Salvation Army will sing songs. Oh, and Father Christmas will make an early appearance.”

cs_231116_079-editcs_231116_077-editIn one corner of the hall, under the scout flag, Pheobe, Leah and Ariana are plotting to sing a Shawn Mendis song; elsewhere Spencer and Louis are meditating, thinking up ideas; and sat opposite each other Iara and Olivia are rehearsing a piece with Lucas’ help.

“What’s your idea?” I ask them.

“There are two characters but they’re the same person,” says Olivia whose ambition I’m told is to be the first female Doctor Who. “One of them is before the incident and the other is after it. It’s about what they are and what they’ve turned into.”

“And you’re just making this up on the spot?”

“Pretty much.”

hecky_dramaAfter about half an hour the circle is recreated, the lights switched off and the performers lit by a ring of mobile phone torches.

“So much love, so much light,” says Iara as she and Olivia take their turn to perform.

“So much pain, so much destruction,” retorts Olivia.

It’s a powerful, emotive piece. “Does everything we do have to be light and cheery?” Rebecca asks as the girls sit down.

“You can’t have the light without the dark,” says Eleanor.

The Electric Fireside will be in the covered market between 4-8pm as part of HeckmondLIGHT this Saturday, 26th November.

The power of the network

“This is our last scheduled meeting,” she tells me as we sit in vacant office space above Heron Foods in Dewsbury, “and I don’t want it to end.”

For the last twelve months local artist Harriet Lawson has been an enthusiastic participant of The Faculty, a professional development and mentoring programme for artists set up by Creative Scene and its northern partners.

cs_181116_039-edit“How has The Faculty changed you?” I ask.

“I’m making work now,” she says bluntly. “Before I was more concerned about my part-time job and not about being an artist.”

“So it’s given you permission to be an artist?” I suggest.

“Yes, I suppose it has.”

Harriet, I know, is being characteristically modest. In the time I have been writing about her own personal artistic development she has not only brought other artists together for weekly art interventions around town but has also set up a successful partnership with fellow artist, Ruth Bridges. The duo are up for an O2 Think Big award at a swanky do in London next month.

“We’ve had lots of interest in our litter pick idea,” she says, “and we’re going to make a project out of everything we’ve collected.”

“Is that where you leave a penny in place of the rubbish?” I can’t keep up with all their projects and ideas.

“That’s the one,” she laughs, “and we’ve been pushing an A0 clipboard on wheels around Dewsbury, making an audit of things that are broken and chatting to people along the way.”

Harriet and her fellow artists reconvene for the afternoon session. Today they’re meeting with the directors of the four Creative People and Places (CPP) programmes that established The Faculty.

cs_181116_004-edit“The Faculty has very much been an experiment for us,” says Patrick Fox from Heart of Glass in St Helens. “What’s really been interesting is seeing the power of the network you’ve created, the critical mass of people sharing ideas but also demanding more.

“The CPP network was conceived around audiences and not around artist development but that is beginning to change mainly because of The Faculty and your own experiences.”

cs_181116_019-editHarriet is not alone. None of the participants see today’s meeting as an ending. There’s talk of how to continue with some informal networking to keep the group together. And Jenny Rutter from Left Coast in Blackpool and Wyre encourages everyone to attend the one-day professional development workshops scheduled.

“It’s really important we value ourselves as professionals,” she says, “and invest time in our own training, just like solicitors or plumbers would do.”

cs_181116_031-editWith a room full of socially-motivated artists, talk of the political landscape is not far away. There’s concern that, because of local authority cuts, many practitioners are finding themselves working in vulnerable communities with little or no support from other professionals.

“Sometimes there just isn’t anyone on the ground,” says Creative Scene director, Nancy Barrett. “We’ve been wanting to work in a neighbourhood near here called Dewsbury Moor, but we can’t find the people – youth workers, for example –  who have a paid role to work in those communities to support them. We can’t put artists in risky situations. What do we do? It’s a real challenge. But it’s not going to go away.”

Like so many others, these practitioners are feeling their way through unfamiliar scenarios. Old models of community engagement won’t necessarily fit any more, despite the need for artistic interventions being greater than ever.

I look forward to following Harriet’s journey as she navigates this new terrain.

The Academy professional development workshops continue in Blackpool from now until March.