“You’re immersed… the whole experience is fantastic.”

“You’ll get all your instructions from the actors through your headphones,” says volunteer steward Jon as he checks in another of the sell-out audience. “It starts here and you’ll make your way down to the bottom of the park.”

“Brilliant,” says Catherine who’s brought two of her grandchildren to the second of today’s three performances.

“How did you find out about the show?” I ask as she leads the kids through Bagshaw Museum to collect the headsets.

“I picked up a flyer in the bus station,” she says, “it sounded really interesting. It’s all interactive, isn’t it?”

Peter Pan in the Park is local theatre company Wrongsemble’s biggest solo project so far and, with six sell-out shows over this bank holiday weekend, is also the most popular on Creative Scene’s On Tour series for family audiences.

The series usually just runs in non-theatre venues during school half term holidays but, to keep audiences growing, this year a summer commission was offered for a site-specific experience here in Wilton Park.

Jon Humpleby, the Community Manager from Batley Bulldogs, one of the venues for the school holiday shows, was invited to be part of the commissioning process.

“As a rugby club it’s good for us to offer something different to the community,” he says after he’s passed on his front of house duties. “And at The Bulldogs the family shows have been really gathering momentum.

“I was on the panel when we met everyone who applied for this commission,” he says. “I’m not from an arts background and that was a new process for me. I probably had more of a community engagement head on and was looking for something that had a wide appeal.”

“And everyone knows Peter Pan,” I say.

“A familiar story is important,” says Jon. “And this company has delivered other shows for us and they always do it with such energy and enthusiasm.”

Sporting hi-tech headsets the audience is introduced to ‘Pan’ and Gwen (a descendant of Wendy) in the Hall before being lead outside to meet the grumpy Tinker Bell.

“All you’ve got to do is think of a happy thought,” says Pan, attempting to teach everyone to fly. “Come on, man,” she shouts to a burly dad skulking at the back, “there’s got to be one in there somewhere!”

The hour-long performance finds ‘Tinks’ taking us through Neverland Border Control where we impersonate pirates and get a glimpse of the dastardly Captain Hook. We then help Smee find buried treasure; we chant along with Tiger Lily from the Lost Camp and finally throw imaginary spells at Hook and his pirate ship.

As the exhausted company eventually take a bow I turn my tape recorder on some of the audience.

“We met you at Savage Hart at Oakwell Hall,” says Karen who’s here with friend Cheryl. “Do you remember? That was a great performance, it stayed with us for days.”

“And so you’ve now brought your folks to this too?”

“Hart was so good, we thought we’d all give this a go. It’s been brilliant, so well thought out. Really clever.”

Batley residents Sonia and Gareth are here with their kids James and Beth. “We know the park really well,” says Sonia, “so it was nice to see it used in such a creative way. Very effective.

“We were just saying what good value for money it was too,” says Gareth, “and the interactivity with the headsets worked really well.”

Jon and I start our climb back up the steep path back to Bagshaw Museum. He’s stewarding for the final show too.

“From the minute you put your headset on, you’re immersed for the whole hour, aren’t you? It’s non-stop. If it’s not the actors talking then it’s music or sound effects… or pirates grunting.

“I took mine off at one point,” he says, “and could hear people singing along, or booing, making pirate noises. It was brilliant.”

“We need to teach you lot how to fly!”

“This is where the audience meets me for the first time,” says Tinker Bell clutching her umbrella as if it’s a wand.

“My character is a prima donna. She’s a bit grumpy and doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“And do you find that challenging, being grumpy?” I ask, cheekily. The rest of the cast burst out laughing.

‘Tinks’ dismisses the banter with a wave of her umbrella. “Elvi has cast us all with our own personalities in mind,” she laughs.

We’re at the top of Wilton Park near Batley, adjacent to the magnificent Bagshaw Museum, and I’m about to follow the Wrongsemble theatre company cast for a run-through of their version of the J.M. Barrie classic.

Written and directed by Elvi Piper, Pan in the Park will lead lost boys and girls through the beautiful Wilton Park that for two days over the August bank holiday will be transformed into Neverland for the West Yorkshire company’s most ambitious project yet.

“Our actors will wear radio microphones and the audience will all have headsets so they’ll not only hear Captain Hook sparring with Peter Pan but they’ll also experience specially created audio effects that will bring the show to life.”

Elvi set up Wrongsemble three years ago after identifying a gap in the market for good quality family theatre. “I’d see lots of shows that young people enjoyed but bored the grown ups or alternatively the adults liked but went over the heads of the young people.

“Family theatre should be an experience for the whole family,” she enthuses, “that’s where the idea for Wrongsemble was born.”

“And that fits in perfectly with the aspirations of Creative Scene,” I suggest.

“Absolutely. They have been a huge supporter. They’ve taken a chance with us and believe in what we do.”

Pan in the Park will be Wrongsemble’s third collaboration with Creative Scene. Their previous productions – Three and Billy Shakes – both went down a storm on the On Tour half term circuit.

“We want theatre for everyone,” says Elvie. “For people who’ve never experienced it before and in places where you wouldn’t expect to experience it. We need to take our work into communities, not expect people to turn up at venues.”

“Wilton Park certainly isn’t your regular theatre venue,” I say as we head down the steep path.

“We can’t close the park,” chips in Kirsty Pennycook who is producing the show as well as playing one of the pirates, “and neither would we want to. So you’ll have dog walkers bumping into Captain Hook hiding in wait, which will be fun.”

“Pirates can be anywhere in Neverland!” declares Tinks from the base of a huge tree.

“Elvi has written and directed the show specially for this park,” whispers Kirsty as the rehearsal continues, “and it wouldn’t be the same show anywhere else. So when it’s steep, that’s part of the narrative and when it’s dark, that’s part of the narrative too. It’s really lovely.”

“And is there a crocodile in the lake?” I ask.

“Not in the lake,” she says, not wanting to give too much away, “but there is a crocodile.”

With Tiger Lily, the head of the Lost Girls, cast as a St Trinian’s-type figure and Wendy replaced by Gwen, her great-great-granddaughter, this adaptation is set to be a hit.

“We try to choose stories that have an air of familiarity so people feel confident they will enjoy them,” explains Elvi as we walk towards a stone bridge across a cutting. “But we also challenge our audiences by giving them something different. You’ve never seen Peter Pan like we’re doing it. It’s modern, punky and very unexpected.”

I’m hooked.

Pan in the Park is on Sunday, 27th August and Monday 28th August, 11.00, 1.30 and 4.00.
Tickets here or from Bagshaw Museum, Wilton Park, Batley, WF17 0AS. Limited tickets available on the day.

Three-headed dogs and ginger cats

“What’s the plan for this morning?” I ask artist Lou Sumray as she lays out art materials.

“The plan,” she says, pulling out a packet of black paper, “is to get people to describe music with marks.”

Her collaborator, musician Nick Lewis, is setting up his acoustic guitar and mini amplifier on the other side of the children’s section at Birstall Library.

This is the last in a series of Easter holiday workshops that has seen artists from the 154 Collective work with children, and their grown ups, to develop ideas for a new Creative Scene On Tour family show.

After some introductions Lou explains the bigger picture to today’s children, parents and grandparents.

“We’re collecting your ideas from these workshops for a show that we’re calling The Search for Wonder,” she says, holding up an illustration. “This is what we’ve got so far. It’s the story of Rabbit Girl written by an eight-year-old girl.”

Lou outlines a tale of campfires, unicorns, rainbow slides and climbing to the moon. “And this is a three-headed dog that guards a cave of fluffy toys,” she says. “Today you can add to our story or create your own.”

The workshops over the last fortnight have involved writers, animators and photographers as well as artists and musicians. Local people are contributing to a family show that they can then watch next year, no doubt looking out for the bits they’ve inspired.

Nick sets everyone off. “I’m going to play some music and we’d like you to draw it,” he says, playing a string of notes. “Would you draw lines, spirals or maybe dots? What colour would it be?”

Everyone gets stuck in and within minutes the children are showing their efforts to Nick. “These are really great,” he says, “awesome.”

Next the tables are turned. “Now we’d like you to draw your own pictures and we’ll ask Nick to turn them into music,” says Lou. “What about using two crayons at once?”

“I’m going to do a picture that shows Rabbit Girl off on a massive adventure,” says eight-year-old Millie, taking another piece of paper.

“This is perfect for Millie,” her mum Claire tells me as she, too, starts a new picture. “She loves drawing and writing. We’d just popped in and saw this was going on. We had no plans, so it’s fallen well for us.”

“We look after Emily and her baby sister during the holidays,” Emily’s grandma explains. “So it’s nice when there are things like this we can bring them to. Emily loves music.”

“Do you think he’s got it right?” I ask the four-year-old as Nick starts to play one of her pictures. She smiles and listens intently, her eyes dancing between her picture and Nick’s fingertips.

“I’m playing this sunny bit in the middle now,” he says.

Soon there’s a backlog of oil pastel pictures that need playing. “There’s some evil in this one,” says Leo.

“That’s it!” says the delighted six-year-old when Nick finishes his musical response.

The soundtrack for The Search for Wonder show will also be developed from these workshops. “I’ve recorded them all on my special loop pedal,” Nick tells the children. “I’ll listen to them all again and use them as inspiration.”

As well as ‘music pictures’ Lou spends the two-hour session encouraging some writing and the creation of cardboard characters.

“My story is about a boy called Donald Jackson,” Leo tells me, “who lives with his great-great-grandparents and a cat called Ryan Ralph.”

“A cat called Ryan Ralph? I can almost imagine what Ryan Ralph might look like,” I say.

“He’s ginger,” says Leo, emphatically.

An exhibition of work created at The Search for Wonder workshops will tour libraries later in the year. Check Creative Scene’s website for details.

“What we make out of it may be different but we all need dough.”

“We’re not sure what to expect but we know it’s going to get messy!” says Julia, as she prepares to welcome this afternoon’s audience in her pinny.

“You’ve been involved in the development of this one, haven’t you?” I ask.

“Yes, I was lucky enough to be part of the commissioning process,” explains Julia, “and we’ve nurtured it and helped it along since then.”

It’s the beginning of half term and The Barn at Northorpe Hall is the venue for the premiere of Dough!, the latest family show in Creative Scene’s successful On Tour series.

For the last few years events manager Julia Robinson and her small team have welcomed touring shows to this elegant, historic barn and the adjoining child and family charity has become a valued partner for Creative Scene.

Part of Dough!’s development phase included sessions with the charity’s young carers group and with Create, an arts activity group of young people with learning disabilities.

“They all made beetroot bread in our kitchens,” says Julia, “and shared a meal together afterwards. Those sessions helped to inform this piece.”

As final technical checks are made and the cast grab a snack, I take the opportunity to put my tape recorder in front of writer and director, Olivia Furber.

“We’ve had a great relationship with Northorpe Hall,” she explains. “We met a lot of young people who were all very generous with their exploration with us: touching, making and smelling different things.

“They were an important part of our research and gave us a good understanding of what textures and smells really interested children. We had a lot of fun.”

Unlike previous ‘off the peg’ productions on the On Tour circuit, Dough! has been ‘home baked’ by Creative Scene. Last year, three production companies were invited to work up proposals that responded to North Kirklees in some way and London-based Olivia was subsequently crowned ‘Master Baker’.

“In North Kirklees I noticed that different communities were living side by side but it didn’t feel as if there was much mixing between them. It’s very multi-cultural where I grew up in London – and I know not perfect – but it feels more fluid and less segregated than here. So I wanted to say something about that in this piece.”

The barn is now full of parents, grandparents and dozens of excited children. As the lights go down Olivia sits amongst the kids on the cushions in the front row.

For the next 50 minutes the children – and their adults – are transfixed by the goings-on of baker Azed and delivery girl Frankie as their paths collide and, through lots of messy dough, they discover common interests.

Afterwards I chat to Jo who’s brought two of her pals from Huddersfield and their respective children. “We saw it advertised and thought we’d give it a try. Really good theatre and not expensive. The children have been totally engaged with it,” she says. “It’s amazing they sat through the whole thing.”

An evaluation session disguised as ‘messy play’ follows the performance as tiny hands are quickly covered in gooey flour and water.

“What was your favourite bit of the play?” asks ‘Frankie’.

“When you were making stuff,” says one five-year-old.

“When you were dancing,” shouts another.

“And what did you make of it all?” I ask Julia as the barn eventually empties.

“It’s been great, very enjoyable. And a good turnout. There have been lots of new faces who now know about the barn, about the charity and about the family shows we put on here. So everyone’s a winner.”

As I leave I do my best to avoid the trail of small doughy footprints that lead out into the car park.

Dough! rises again for the rest of this week: See the Creative Scene website for venues.

The rise and rise of Northorpe Hall Barn

“The site goes back to Tudor times,” explains Julia Robinson as we sit down at one of the large round tables in the Northorpe Hall Barn. “The whole place was left to our charity over 50 years ago by a woman called Audrey Barker ‘for the love of children’.”

cs_061016_030-editI have to get my head around this. I only know Northorpe Barn as one of the venues for Creative Scene’s half-termly family theatre tour. In a couple of weeks it will host an animal beauty contest featuring a walrus and a tree frog.

“The hall itself is home to Northorpe Hall Child and Family Trust, a charity that supports the mental and emotional health of young people,” explains Julia. “The beautiful barn is one of the charity’s biggest asset and we hire it out as an events space.” Got it.

The connection with the charity is the barn’s USP. “People hire us because they know the proceeds go to a young person’s charity. Mostly we host weddings – we’re pretty much booked up for the next 18 months – but since I started four years ago I’ve always seen the potential for small gigs, comedy, children’s theatre.

“Creative Scene has been a great opportunity for us. I was really excited when we were identified as one of the venues for the family circuit because it fits so well.”

cs_061016_013-editFor my benefit Julia has laid out all the promotional leaflets from the half dozen or so shows they’ve hosted. “This was the first,” – she says patting a flyer for The Real Mermaid’s Tale – “which was a lovely puppet show.

“I’m really keen to promote Northorpe Barn to a local audience. People don’t need to travel to Huddersfield or Leeds to see high quality children’s theatre. It’s here on the doorstep, and at a fraction of the cost.

“The Creative Scene model is an interesting one. There are five venues all within about eight miles, each playing the same show in the same week and for several of the shows, we’ve all sold out.”

“And they’re all very different venues,” I say, looking down the list on one of the flyers, “Batley Bulldogs Rugby Club, a couple of community centres. And all developing their own distinct audiences.”

“It’s an unusual model that other organisations around the country have shown interest in,” says Julia.

I can see the collaboration with Creative Scene is mutually beneficial. Both parties share the risk, and the ticket sales. Over time, as the audience grows, Northorpe is seen locally as a venue for high quality family theatre. “Creative Scene has given us the opportunity to test the market. Families now expect a show here during the half-terms. They look forward to it.”

cs_061016_031-edit cs_061016_026-editBut Northorpe is not just a touring venue. Julia and her young staff throw themselves into each performance by dressing up and organising fun activities around each show. And Creative Scene supplement Julia’s extensive experience – she’s managed theatres in the past – by involving her in what is now a commissioning process for new shows.

What, I wonder, happens post-Creative Scene. “Now you’ve built a reputation and an audience, can you see yourselves hosting theatre independently of Creative Scene?”

“It’s already happening,” she says. “At the weekend we’re hosting South Asian dance troupe, Manasamitra, doing their first performance of a show about bees. They’re hoping to take it the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival next month but they’re premiering at Northorpe!”

The Worried Walrus is at The Northorpe Barn on Wednesday, 24th October and at other North Kirklees venues throughout half term.