Artists put Dewsbury back on the map

“I’m procession manager and assistant creative director,” Corrie tells me as she gathers everyone together outside the butcher’s for the rehearsal.

“Wow. It’s like The Apprentice.”

“That’s what we said. But rather than being competitive, we’re all working together brilliantly.” And then, at the top of her voice, “Can everyone listen please? At the front of the procession is going to be the musician, then comes Shoddy and Mungo…”

It’s the big day, the culmination of Creative Scene’s Make It Happen course. Working with outdoor art specialists Walk The Plank, 25 artists have been learning about staging an outdoor spectacle in the best way possible… by doing one themselves.

The artists have been mentored over six days by a team of specialists in shadow puppetry, fire-drawing design, lantern making and production management. And today it all comes together.

Curious passers-by are handed leaflets and encouraged to return later. “They’ll be lanterns, fireworks and shadow puppetry. This fire drawing will get attached to the scaffold and set alight. You must come back at 6.30.”

I catch up with landscape artist Waheeda Kothdiwala. “Last time I saw you, you were burning things in the park,” I say. “What’s your role for this evening?”

“I’m producer of the lantern parade and I’m terrified,” she says frankly. “But we’ve all been encouraged to step out of our comfort zones and that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

Dewsbury artist Jax Lovelock is helping to add lengths of inflammable rope to a wire frame. “What are you doing now?” I ask, trying to keep my tape recorder in front of her.

“We’re idiot-checking,” she says, “making sure everything connects together so it all burns.”

“What do you think you’ve learnt these last few weeks?”

“There’s not enough time to tell you everything,” she says, twisting a metal tie, “but I have learnt to understand that not all the ideas come at once, sometimes they take time to grow. And ideas change at the last minute but, if we’re all calm, it all comes together.”

“And what will you do with what you have learnt?”

“Oh, gosh, absolutely loads of stuff. I can’t even begin to think about it now.”

“Okay, that’s enough. Perfect answer. Thank you.”

In Brigantia – Creative Scene’s pop up  studio space on the fifth floor of nearby Empire House – final shadow puppet rehearsals are in full swing. Performers are made up and don their costumes.

“Half an hour to go,” someone shouts.

By 6.30 the town square is fizzing with expectation. Freshly-briefed stewards are in place, fire cans lit, and performers gather again in front of the butcher’s. Someone mentions the crowd has hit 400.

Corrie has one hand on her earpiece, waiting for the nod. “Okay,” she says to the clarinetist, “hit it!”

During the next 45 minutes, as lanterns dance and children gawp, you can almost feel the self esteem of the town grow just that little bit. It’s as if there’s a collective, “Wow, this is happening in Dewsbury!” coming from everyone in the crowd.

“It was wonderful,” says Keisha who opened her beauty salon business in the square two days ago, and kindly loaned a power supply for the event,  “very exciting. You kids all enjoyed it didn’t you?”

“It was epic!” one shouts.

“For Dewsbury this is very unusual,” she says. “I’ve never seen so many people here. Let’s hope it continues.”

“We can use creative events to bring the town back up again”

“Stand where you think we should site our fire drawings,” says Carrie English, our workshop leader, as a couple of dozen artists disperse around the adventure playground.

“Okay, that’s good,” she says when they’ve reached a consensus.

This is the third – and much anticipated – day of Make It Happen, an intensive outdoor arts training school for creative practitioners. Born out of feedback from local artists, the course has been commissioned by Creative Scene and is being run by the acclaimed outdoor arts specialists, Walk the Plank.

Already this week the artists have heard talks on production, budgeting, event management as well as getting stuck in with lantern-making and shadow puppetry. In Dewsbury’s Crow Nest Park this afternoon they’re going to be making fire drawings which they’ll set alight at dusk.

“It’s all about teaching new skills and increasing the creative capacity for these artists,” explains Danielle Chinn from Walk the Plank, “and collaborations will certainly flow from that.”

This seven day course will culminate in The Togethering, an outdoor show in Dewsbury town centre on Wednesday, 25th October. Creative Scene have initiated the event as a way to show what the  community can do to present the town in a positive light, and hope it’s the start of a new annual event that will grow much bigger.

The artists unload scaffolding poles, ropes, boxes and steel frames from the back of the van before laying tarpaulins out in the indoor play area.

There are some familiar faces – stalwarts whose artistic journeys are being shaped by their connection with Creative Scene – and lots of new people too.

Waheeda Kothdiwala is an award-winning landscape designer from Dewsbury who is already sparking with ideas about how to incorporate shadow puppetry and fire sculpture into her work; and video storyteller Imram Azam from Mirfield says he is enjoying working with other artists from different disciplines.

“We all had a go at sketching out a design,” says Katie Jones from Bradford who’s poring over a line drawing, “and we voted for our favourite.”

“Okay,” shouts Carrie, “if each team would like to grab a can of paint and start drawing out your design on the grid.”

Soon lengths of rope are being cut and soaked in a paraffin mixture ready to be attached to the grid. I drag another participant away for a quick interview.

Dewsbury artist Jax Lovelock tells me her work is about devised performance and getting people to create artwork for themselves. “I’m Dewsbury born and bred,” she says, “but moved away for a while. When I came back I was surprised how much the town had nose-dived.

“So I just rolled my sleeves up and got on with it. This,” – she looks around – “is about getting up and doing things and that ties in with my work around the town so it’s really good.”

“And what will this allow you to do?”

“I can use this to help local people take part in activities that will bring all parts of the community together. That’s what Dewsbury needs at the minute. We can use creative events to bring the town back up again.”

Once now inflammable ropes have been laid out into fire drawings Carrie recruits a ‘scaff team’. “Let’s decide on the final orientation of the scaffold tower,” she says. “Which way is the wind blowing?”

Three of the group point in three different directions. Someone else throws up a sodden leaf which immediately falls directly to the ground.

The position is decided and the scaffold tower is swiftly built as the artists carry the first fire drawing out of their temporary workshop.

“Brilliant, well done,” says Carrie. “Now we just have to wait until it gets dark.”

The Togethering happens at Market Place, off Northgate, Dewsbury on Wednesday, 25th October 6.30-7.15. It’s free.