Seeing Batley in a new light: backwards

“Good afternoon everybody and welcome to our life class. It’s great to see so many new faces.”

It’s Sunday afternoon and our ‘tutor’ kicks off the last performance of IOU’s Rear View for Batley Festival. “Let’s start off with something really simple,” he says, as the model sits rooted to her chair. “Let’s start off with the best stick figure you’ve ever drawn.”

As I make my way around the room, carefully weaving in and out of easels, I review everyone’s efforts, some more confident than others. “You’ve done this before,” I whisper to one woman.

“Not for a long time,” she laughs.

After some advice about shading, the instructor quietly slips out of the room as the model comes ‘alive’. She tells us what she thinks about as she poses, the surrounding artists scrutinising every inch of her now ageing body.

Pencils down, we follow performance poet Cecilia Knapp out towards the cut-up bus. Twelve-year old Elyas is here with his parents. “Did you persuade them to come?” I ask after I’ve introduced myself, “or was it the other way round?”

“My mum actually persuaded me,” admits Elyas.

“Well done mum,” I say, “you’ll have to tell me afterwards what you thought of it.” Elyas is one of the first on the travelling auditorium and bags the back seat.

“Hello and welcome to Rear View,” says IOU’s executive director Joanne Wain. “In front of you is a set of headphones. There’s a small dial in the headrest in front of you to adjust the volume. If you’d like to put your headphones on now, we can get started.”

I ride shotgun inside the cab with David Wheeler, the theatre company’s artistic director. This is the eleventh circuit in the last three days. He must be getting to know Batley well by now. “So what sort of reaction have you been getting?” I ask him.

“I think local people have enjoyed seeing their town in a new light,” he says. “And the audiences have built up steadily over the weekend. As more people have seen us travelling round, they’ve been intrigued and have come to see what it’s all about.”

We park up on a side street where Cecilia is sitting, waiting, as if she’s been magically transported from the life class. From a distance, and without the necessary headphones, it’s like watching the TV with the sound turned down.

Next she is outside the Croaky Frog Café and I position myself down the street to get a view of the poncho-clad punters. All are totally immersed, eyes fixed on our protagonist.

After we’ve visited Fox’s and parked up next to Batley Cemetery, we make our way back and I get to chat to Dave the driver who, with an engineering background and a career in the bus trade, has been a consultant for the project since the beginning.

“Didn’t you think it was a bit bonkers when you first heard about the cut-up bus?”

“Yes,” he replies, far too quickly.

“And have they proved you wrong?”

“They have. But I’m glad they have. It’s the first time this has ever been tried in this country, maybe in the world. It’s a strange idea but it’s really worked.”

Dave reverses back into the starting position next to Batley Library and, before the audience disembarks, Cecilia reappears for the final time to take a bow.

“I thought it would be different,” says Elyas who I think was expecting a scenic tour of Batley. “I didn’t imagine we’d hear a woman telling us all about her life. I was surprised. I’m pleased we came.”

“The hardest part was sitting still and not speaking,” jokes Batley Festival volunteer Donna as she fills out a feedback form. “It was very Batley. I’ve worked in those places. And some of the things she referred to like her father’s sore hands, that really rung true for me.

“Was her character totally fictional, or was she based on a real person? I don’t know. It blurred reality with fiction. Even the sounds in the headset: that police siren. I’m still not sure whether that was a real siren or part of the show.”

The Rear View cut-up bus turns heads in Batley

Parked outside the Croaky Frog Café in Batley the cut-up bus is causing a bit of a stir.

“Do you fancy coming to one of our performances?” asks Creative Scene’s Nancy to the older woman pushing her dog along on a stroller.

“I don’t like things like that,” says Ann, surveying the raked seating. “Besides, I wouldn’t get him up there.”

“Maybe come to the Festival on Saturday?” suggests Nancy, passing on a leaflet. “Everything’s free.”

Ann looks down at her little dog. “I’ll see.”

The highlight at this weekend’s Batley Festival will be IOU Theatre’s immersive bus tour where the 40-strong audience sit facing out the back of this mid-engined Volvo B10M as they follow a 70-minute performance around town.

I first heard about the half-bus, half-auditorium back in November when the Halifax-based arts group pitched their idea to Kimberley Thirkill, chair of the Festival. She liked it, obviously.

And, judging by the tour dates for Rear View, lots of other people liked it too. As well as being co-commissioned by Creative Scene the bus has already performed at Norwich, Greenwich and Blackpool this summer with Great Yarmouth and Redcar still to come.

“Everyone back on the bus,” calls IOU’s artistic director, David Wheeler. Minutes later we’re driving down Commercial Street waving to bewildered pedestrians as if we’re on The Mall. This is a rehearsal run but it might as well be a publicity tour. We’re definitely turning heads.

The bus seats look unremarkable but, as technical manager Dan Powers points out, “underneath each is a bunch of sophisticated microelectronics that allows each audience member to be totally immersed in the show through their headphones. And, for anyone with visual impairments, we can direct a bespoke audio description to their individual headset.” Clever.

“Ah, lovely,” I say, nose in the air, as we turn into the sweet-smelling Fox’s Biscuits compound. Performance poets Cecilia Knapp and Jemima Foxtrot are already here.

Once we’re parked up David gently directs each of them as they take turns on top of an external staircase. “Maybe stay up there for a while longer,” he says to Jemima as she begins her lines.

‘We used to scramble up the painted, padlocked gates to get in here,

to share White Lightning from a two-litre bottle.’

Cecilia explains there are two versions of Rear View which will alternate across the 14 performances in the next three days. “We’ve each written a different script so, depending when you come, you’ll see me or Jemima as we travel around Batley.”

“And in each town you’ve tweaked the script to include elements of that place?” I ask.

“Absolutely. The story is essentially the same – about the memories of a woman we play – but we’ve adapted it to include what we’ve found out about each town.”

Back on the bus we head for the final stop, alongside Batley cemetery where Cecilia rehearses her monologue.

‘I used to write letters I would never send,

I wrote letters to them all before I left.’

A woman passing by looks back at the bus and breaks into a scurry in the opposite direction when she realises she’s in the middle of something big. She is.

Three hours later we are in Empire House, opposite Dewsbury Town Hall. This evening Cecilia and Jemima are leading a creative writing workshop for local writers and poets who’ve been attending Creative Scene’s spoken word events.

“So in these sessions we’ve been asking participants to explore the idea of place,” begins Cecilia, “because that’s what we’re doing in our show.”

“People have strong connections with place,” adds Jemima “and it can trigger strong emotions… it holds so much memory.”

After some warm-up exercises – including thinking up adjectives to describe a fish – we all get stuck in writing a piece about a place where we are happy. Heads down, scribbling, we have no difficulty in getting something on paper and there’s no shortage of volunteers to share their efforts.

“I loved your piece,” I say to Jason afterwards, who produced a seemingly effortless recollection of going out to play as a lad.

“Once they had given us some prompts it just started coming and there was loads to work with and develop,” he says. “I could easily picture my childhood in my mind’s eye as if it was happening in front of me. It was really interesting, I enjoyed it.”

Rear View will be at Batley Festival, Friday 8th-Sunday 10th September. Book tickets here.

Building on the success of The Batley Picture Show

“Len follows us around. He tape records us and takes photographs,” says Nancy to a small group on the steps of Batley Library and Art Gallery. “He’s a fly on the wall.”

“I’m a rather large fly,” I admit.

By chance I’ve stumbled across Creative Scene director, Nancy and Batley Festival chair, Kimberley standing in the sunshine with artists from Halifax-based arts group, IOU.

“So what are you doing today?” I ask.

“We’re introducing IOU’s latest project to Kimberley to see if she thinks it’s right for the festival next year,” explains Nancy. “It has filmic elements that build on The Batley Picture Show and it has an engagement element where writers would work with local groups to develop a storyline.”

“And are you all from IOU?” I ask the group.

Executive director Joanne Wain introduces me to her colleagues and to two freelance performance poets, Cecilia Knapp and Jemima Foxtrot, who are working with IOU for this project. “And we’re waiting for our artistic director, David Wheeler,” says Joanne, “who’s stuck in traffic.”

After Kimberley has explained where the Festival takes place, we all troop inside and sit in the empty children’s section of the library.

iou_montage02-edit“So the project is called Rear View,” says Joanne to Kimberley as she opens her laptop, “and it’s an immersive, location-specific, outdoor performance where the town is the backdrop for the story.”

cs_101116_027-editWe see a photograph of a dismembered double-decker bus in a workshop. “It’s called Rear View because the audience is facing backwards on a raked seating structure.”

“And how many people can the bus take in one go?” asks Kimberely.

“Forty-four including a wheelchair,” says Joanne. “And we can do upto six shows per day.”

She explains how the performance works, how it starts and how Cecilia and Jemima get involved. Already the ‘cut-up bus show’ has been booked by half a dozen major festivals for 2017 and the performance is customised to make it relevant for each location.

cs_101116_050-edit“We’re looking for similar points of interest in each town,” explains Cecilia, “and in the next few weeks we’ll be thinking about the stories you might find in those places.”

“I like it,” says Kimberley.

“For The Batley Picture Show in September we used donated archive film footage,” explains Nancy. “People liked that because they saw both the town’s history and the way that related to their own.

“This takes people’s stories and puts them in an existing framework which can make it even more personalised. And I like the way this can take you around the town.”

“Yes,” says Kimberley, “we’ve been looking at ways to make the Festival more visible. There are still people on the other side of town who say they don’t know about it, no matter how much we market it. Can we promote our festival on the side of the bus?”

“Yes,” says David who has now joined us, “we’re working on ways to brand the bus for each location.”

cs_101116_047-edit“Where did the inspiration for Rear View come from?” I ask.

“We did a show a few years ago where we took people around in a bus,” says David. “We thought it could be more interesting if the journey was as important as the destination… if you could see the show as you went along. The obvious solution was to cut a bus in half so the audience could see out of the back.”

“And was it easy to find a bus to cut up?” I ask.

“To get really nerdy, there is only one sort of bus we could have done it with – the mid-engined Volvo B10M – so it took us a while to find that.”

“Ah yes,” I say. “The mid-engined B10M.”

Bells, balloons, balls and banners

It’s been nearly three weeks since the Batley Festival and we notice the waiter at Roberto’s is still wearing his Festival wristband. Buon uomo.

The bar fills up quickly with Festival committee members and volunteers, Creative Scene bods and the odd bouquet of flowers. Not every post-event evaluation is like this.

cs_290916_276-edit“Good evening everybody, thank you for coming,” says committee chair Kimberley once we’ve all squeezed onto a long table at the back of the restaurant. “As you know, this is a double celebration: to mark the success of the fifth Batley Festival and, as Rebecca is leaving today, to celebrate her time with the Festival and with Creative Scene.”

As we order our food there’s a hubbub around the table. Some are getting together for the first time since September 10th, others are recounting their experiences of the Festival of Thrift the week after.

“I’d really like to bring that den building to Batley Festival,” says Tracey, referring to the hands-on event we saw in a field in Redcar. “It was really family-orientated and had mums, dads and kids all working together and talking to each other. We seem to have lost that idea of communicating with each other.”

At the opposite end of the table Donna is recounting her Batley Picture Show ‘community performer’ experience to Creative Scene’s Nancy.

“Bells, balloons, balls and banners,” she says, tearing a piece of garlic bread, “that’s what they had us doing, and it was brilliant.

“I was so busy focussing on what I was supposed to be doing that I didn’t pay much attention to the actual show. When I saw the video I was nearly crying… it proper moved me.

“I was born in Batley and have always lived here but those Periplum people showed me things about my town I never knew. Amazing.”

Kimberley taps the side of her glass with a knife. “You didn’t think you were coming here without doing any homework, did you?”

Creative Scene notebooks are distributed as Rebecca explains the format: “I’m going to fire some questions at you and, on each page of your notebook, we’d like you to write your answers. Then, at the end, we’ll all hold up our books and reveal our answers together.”

“A bit like Mr and Mrs,” says Kimberley.

“Okay, here’s the first one,” says Rebecca, “and, remember, there are no right or wrong answers: write down three words that describe this year’s Batley Festival.”

For the next 15 minutes Rebecca throws out questions. What did you enjoy most? What did you enjoy least? What’s the Festival’s biggest challenge? How do we get more people involved? And between mouthfuls everyone gets stuck in, scribbling their thoughts down.

cs_290916_304-editcs_290916_300-editThe big reveal is lots of fun. Necks craned to see what everyone else has written, and heated debate about our neighbour’s answers. When we come to the question about what needs to change, there’s broad consensus.

cs_290916_315-edit “It’s all the stuff inside…” summaries Rebecca for my tape recorder, “… the town hall and the library… people want to be doing things outside.”

“That’s been great, very useful,” says Kimberley, bringing the exercise to a close. “We’ll gather up all of the books and we’ll collate your responses.

cs_290916_325-edit“For me, the great thing about this year has been all the new enthusiastic people on the committee, so thank you for that. On the day, I thought the new arts and crafts area worked really well but, I agree, we need to look at the use of the inside spaces.

“Let’s wrap up the de-brief,” she says as oversize plates are brought to the table, “and let’s enjoy Rebecca’s last evening. We’ve brought you some pressies….”

“Pepperoni? Whose is the pepperoni?” shouts the waiter with the wristband.

Seeking inspiration among the reclaimed washing machines

“So why do you organise these trips away?” I ask Creative Scene producer Rebecca as the train leaves Thornaby on the last leg of our journey.

“Volunteers spend a lot of time organising their own festivals,” she says, “so it’s good for them to see other festivals too. It helps you appreciate the visitor experience. Also, you don’t know what you want for your festival until you see lots of others.”

cs_170916_003-edit“And presumably you see lots of things you don’t like,” I say to Batley Festival chair Kimberley who has three-year-old Lydia curled up next to her.

“Oh yes. There’s been lots we’ve seen that we definitely wouldn’t bring to Batley!” she says.

“So why are we here in Redcar at the Festival of Thrift?”

“This should be interesting for our Batley people because of the town’s culture of recycling and shoddy,” says Rebecca. “It’s all to do with living fashionably for less, make-do-and-mend, that sort of thing. There are lots of workshops here which are really popular at Batley Festival too: people enjoy doing rather than just watching.”

It’s a two-day affair and the volunteers are staying over at a bed and breakfast with a wind-turbine-sea-view. We hook up with Tracey and get a cab out of town to Kirkleatham village.

“What are your expectations?” I ask Tracey as we walk under streaming red pennants at the festival entrance.

“I’m looking forward to lots of variety and something very different from what we’ve seen before,” she says. “I always come with an open mind.”

“Before we go any further I’m going to explain your homework,” says Rebecca, pulling notebooks from her bag. This is no jolly. In each book there are questions our investigators are expected to consider.

The vision of the Festival of Thrift is living sustainably with style, a big free weekend of activities designed for all the family, to save money, being environmentally savvy, and living a rich, creative life. So what did you see in the festival that reflects this?

And there are sections on branding, programming, the site, catering, the visitor experience, and participation. “Did you bring any pens?” asks Kimberley.

“I’d encourage you to think of it from your own point of view,” says Rebecca, dishing out biros. “So Kimberley, think about programming and the overall theme; and Tracey, with your interest in site management, you might want to think about how it’s run, what jobs the volunteers are doing.”

cs_170916_030-edit cs_170916_034-editWe start to wander. It’s a sprawling site. Kirkleatham is a collection of Georgian-style buildings that formed the Turner Estate from the 1660s.

There’s a museum (once a free school), a church, a mausoleum, almshouses and a derelict walled garden. Ed from Barrow is selling up-cycled washing machine drums as fire pits on a stall outside some old stables.

cs_170916_061-editNear the walled garden we catch up with Donna, another Batley Festival volunteer, and Andrew – here with his Batley Vintage Day hat on – and his partner, Janet. The mayor and mayoress saunter past and we all say hello as if we’ve known them for years.

“It shows what can be done differently,” Andrew says when I ask him what he’s getting out of the day, “it shows what you do better and what you don’t do as well. It’s good for inspiration. For Batley Vintage Day there’s a lot of stuff that’s relevant. There are some good ideas.

“What have you seen here that you’d like to see in Batley?” I ask as we pass a group of tepees and a storytelling workshop.

cs_170916_089-edit“Some of the workshops are great, they might need to be ‘vintaged-up’ a bit. The make-do-and-mend and the creation workshops, they would translate into Batley Library quite well. We’re collecting business cards.”

“What doesn’t work here so well?”

“The layout,” Andrew says. “It’s a great place and fine if you’re happy to explore but it needs better signposting.”

Which is just about the only criticism I hear from our band of festival factfinders all afternoon. “I found the sign for the stage after I’d found the stage!” Donna tells me as she enjoys the specially-formed Phoenix Choir.

“I’ve struggled to know where things are, even with the map,” admits Kimberley. “I’m glad I’m here for two days because it will take me that long to get my head around it all. But it’s got some fantastic entertainment and activities. It’s certainly given me some ideas.”