Having a lovely time, wish you were here

Our three sheds – now resplendent beach huts – sit incongruously in the Princess of Wales Arcade, taking pedestrians aback as they head for Greggs or The Card Factory.

Any apprehension about no-shows amongst the volunteer actors is unfounded. Everyone is here, eager to quash last minute nerves and get on with the dress rehearsal.

CS_290815_139-EditCS_290815_245-EditSceneMaker Ashleigh is already handing out Creative Scene rock from her plastic seaside bucket. Someone tells me later that lettered rock was invented in Dewsbury, but I don’t believe them.

“They look good,” she says, nodding towards the beach huts, “I hope we get a good audience.”

“We’ve got to do better than the balloon man,” I say of the joyless character round the corner making balloon toys for a burgeoning crowd.

CS_290815_035-EditThe dress rehearsal goes well and before the first of the two ‘proper’ shows, I take a walk around town. It’s a warm morning and already the place is buzzing with kids playing in the giant sand pit in front of the town hall and parents shouting out quiz answers to the local radio presenter.

As well as the beach hut performance Creative Scene has installed a giant whale in the market and organised a pavement artist to create a huge seaside-themed artwork. I have to imagine the colourful bathing caps and fixed grins because I miss the dry land synchronised swimmers.

Back in the arcade Ashleigh has taken it upon herself to do some evaluation. She’s brought a small whiteboard and marker pen and is planning to ask people what they think of ‘art’.

“It’s one thing to put on something like this but we should really be asking if it’s doing what we wanted it to do.” She nods down at her whiteboard. “I’m going to ask the audience and the performers what art means to them. Just one word. They write the word on the board and I’ll take their picture. But I’m feeling a little nervous about asking people I don’t know.”

“Just dive in,” I suggest, “they can only say no.”

CS_290815_100-EditAfter the first advertised show I chat to Sharon, mum of eight-year-old performer Georgia. She’s likes that her and her daughter’s seaside memories have been written into the play and their embroidery efforts are on show.

“We like to get involved in lots of different things,” she says, “What they’ve done here is fantastic, isn’t it?”

Sharon is later collared by Ashleigh and writes the word, Interesting, on her board. “You were a little nervous about asking people,” I say to her later, “so how has it gone?”

“Okay,” she says cheerfully, “people are a lot friendlier than you realise.”

“And what have people written?”

“One man wrote, Enlightening. And one of the mums wrote, Outlet, which is intriguing.” Having seen her son enthusiastically charging around the place, I can see what she means.

The sun peeks over WH Smith’s for the final show which attracts the biggest audience of the day. For twenty minutes Greggs sells no pasties and the grumpy balloon man takes a break.

CS_290815_184-EditCS_290815_283-EditBefore I pack up I put my tape recorder in front of Elaine, one of Connect Housing’s clients who, inspired by the Chol Theatre people, has made some of the ‘cushion fish’ and had a bit part in the play. She’s staying at a refuge for domestic violence victims just now.

“What do you think you’ve got out of being involved?” I ask.

“I’m a long way from home,” she says frankly, “and this has made me realise that whatever my past, I can still start all over again. I’ve got my confidence back working on this project. Life’s worth living again.”

Back at the station I’m impressed that the staff have installed a shower to wash the sand off your feet before getting the train home.

Attached to Dewsbury with an elastic band

“It’s Dewsbury-on-Sea tomorrow,” I hear one bloke say to his mate as we step onto platform one. And, as if to confirm, there’s a trail of those vinyl pavement stickers outside the station promoting the annual town centre celebration.

The team at Creative Scene have needed little encouragement to metaphorically don their bathing suits and organise a number of activities for the big event. Today I’m looking in on SceneMaker Ashleigh who’s helping with the final preparations for an ambitious installation and performance involving three garden sheds-cum-beach huts.

“We’ve been working with Connect Housing,” says SceneMaker Co-ordinator, Ruth as she leads me to the new offices of the local social housing provider. “They’ve been keen to entice clients into their new community space with some arts activities, and Creative Scene has reached a whole set of new people.”

Over the past two weeks a couple of meeting rooms have hosted a series of workshops for both Connect’s more vulnerable clients – domestic violence victims and mental health sufferers –  as well as for the general public.

Inside I meet Nuala Reilly, Community Networker for Connect. “It’s been great to have such high quality workshops for our service users,” she says, “and many have come back for the drop-in sessions.

“One young woman commented that she’d normally be stuck in her out of town hostel but said she’d really come out of herself this last week. It’s been a big win for us.”

CS_280815_071-EditCS_280815_022-EditIn the middle of one of the rooms, amidst an aura of quiet panic, scenic painter Kate is adding finishing touches to the three beach huts. One apparently ‘belongs’ to a reclusive beachcomber; the second is the venue for a Ibiza-style disco and the third is a ‘home sweet home’ hut painted in pastel colours and furnished with fabric fish.

Tomorrow they will be installed in a nearby shopping arcade and become the set of a short play inspired and performed by the workshop participants.

It’s all been coordinated by the wonderful Chol Theatre people who have teased stories out of Dewsbury folk about making journeys and about what ‘home’ means to them.

“And what have people been telling you?” I ask Vicky who’s pulled the script together. “Give me a couple of examples.”

“One guy sticks in my mind,” she recalls. “He says he feels as if he’s got an elastic band attached to Dewsbury. He often goes away but is always drawn back to the town he likes.

“And then there’s 87-year-old Barbara whose grown-up children live all over the world. She says when she comes home it’s always a little strange until, that is, you’ve brewed yourself a cuppa.”

CS_280815_053-Edit“What have you made of it?” I ask Ashleigh who I find sewing a tentacle onto a jellyfish.

“I think the people of Dewsbury are more willing to do things than we realise,” she says. “I’ve heard that local people are very practical and not interested in ‘arty’ things. But that’s not what we’ve found.

“Even those who’ve never done embroidery or sewing before have attempted it, they’ve had a go. And it’s been adults as well as children, I’ve been struck by that.”

Although here as a volunteer, everyone says SceneMaker Ashleigh has been a crucial member of the team. She’s been working with textile artist Gemma who – she tells me as she irons colourful bunting – uses art to connect with people from all walks of life.

CS_280815_034-Edit“The power of art to engage with people is far beyond what you expect and you see the results straight away,” says Gemma. “Everyone is really excited about tomorrow, they’re really proud of what they’ve achieved.”

“What time in the morning?” I ask above the whir of a cordless drill.

“Dress rehearsal outside WH Smith at 10.30,” someone shouts.