“We really haven’t learnt anything.”

“Have you done anything like this before?” I ask Iris.

“No, never,” she says, continuing to cut holes in the material.

“But you’d like to do more, wouldn’t you?” says her mum Joanne.

CS_120117_600-EditI’ve come to document the creation of the second ‘Weeping Sister’ for the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in a couple of weeks time. This ‘Sister’ – another giant carnival-type figure –  is based on a Jewish woman from the Lublin Ghetto.

Her sibling is being made by members of the Bosnian community over in Batley. Tonight we’re at the Howlands community centre in Dewsbury where Iris and Joanne are mucking in with Neil from the 6 million+ charity and Creative Scene’s Parveen, all under the supportive eye of costume designer Naomi.

CS_120117_637-Edit“We normally have more here,” Parveen explains kneeling on the floor, ironing, “I think the threat of the snow has put people off this evening.

“We’ve finished the papier mâché hands and face,” she says, “and last week we chose the fabrics. So tonight we’re starting on the construction. This is going to be her apron.”

CS_120117_645-EditLike the Bosnian ‘Sister’, Naomi has lots of photographic references and has sketched out a design. “When the ghettos were first created people looked quite smart,” she explains, tapping one photograph and then another, “but, many months later, before they were deported to the camps, their clothes had pretty much disintegrated.”

“The contrast between the two is really quite stark and emotional,” says Parveen. “Towards the end the figures all have lifeless eyes and look like skeletons – they don’t know what’s ahead of them – it’s really quite haunting.”

“Our figure will have an overcoat, a blouse and a long skirt,” says Naomi, “She would have been cold so there are lots of layers. And remember the wind has to pass through it…”

“So it’s not like a sail?” I say, referring to last week’s discussion.

“Yes, so we’ve cut holes in the overcoat and covered them with a netting and disguised that with patches of fabric.”

Joanne and her 14-year-old daughter are placing squares of fabric around each hole. “It might be nice to lay out those squares more randomly,” suggests Naomi.

“All higgledy piggledy?” says Iris.


CS_120117_681-Edit“Have you learnt anything new about the Holocaust, from doing this project?” I ask no one in particular.

“When you think about the Holocaust you obviously think about Germany, don’t you?” says Joanne. “But being involved in this has made me realise that atrocities are still going on. It makes you think, doesn’t it?”

CS_120117_668-Edit“We haven’t got much better at tolerating difference,” says Parveen as she lays out the giant apron. “Even in this country, there is still discrimination against people who are different. When I think of some attitudes towards refugees and people who are not like us, we really haven’t learnt anything.”

Joanne and Iris are now sewing netting to the holes in the overcoat. “It’s like nailing jelly to a wall,” says Joanne.

“On the night we’ll need volunteers to carry the figure through Huddersfield, would you be up for it?” he asks Joanne.

“I could do a hand,” says Joanne, “if no one else wants to.”

“You could do the other hand,” I suggest to Iris, “or you could do one between you.”

“That would be nice,” Joanne says to her daughter, “we could do one together.”

The Weeping Sisters, accompanied by a ‘mournful’ samba band, will process through Huddersfield on Thursday, 26th January ahead of the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration at the University from 7.15pm. The procession starts at the Bus Station at 6.20pm.

“This will help us tell people what happened.”

“Why do we have to have holes in it?” asks Jasmina.

“Otherwise it’ll be like a sail,” explains Adam, his hands thick with glue, “and the wind will just take it.”

It’s Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of the month and the 6 million+ charity is working this morning with the Bosnian community on a giant female figure as part of the commemorations.

cs_070117_025-edit“We need something big and theatrical,” says costume designer Naomi Parker to the small group of woman, eager to get started, “so we need the fabric to flow from the arms and float around.”

Already this group has made the figure’s papier mâché head and Jasmina’s son Aldin and Dzevad are helping to finish the hands. “Maybe use some of this lighter paper for the edges,” suggests Adam.

This isn’t the first time I’ve followed communities creating work with 6 million+. Last year I documented Put Yourself in Their Shoes where Gaynor and Tracey, a couple of local amateur actors, played out moving stories from the Kirklees Kurdish community.

“This year we’re making something that will be highly visible,” charity director, Adam Strickson explains to me, as he sticks Indian rag paper to another finger. “As well as this figure representing a Muslim woman from Srebrenica, we’re also making another of a Jewish woman from the Lublin Ghetto.”

cs_070117_052-edit cs_070117_053-editThe figures, known as The Weeping Sisters, will head a solemn procession through Huddersfield town centre on Thursday, 26th January to mark the Memorial Day commemoration at the University.

“It’s a cumulative project,” explains Adam. “Next year the Bosnian and Jewish ‘sisters’ will be joined by a couple we’ll make with the local Kurdish and Roma communities. And after that, Rwandan.”

Jasmina, Emsuda and her daughter Medina start to lay material out on the joined-up tables as Naomi positions pipe lagging as arms. Nermina stands on a chair to get an idea of the overall shape.

“The proportions don’t have to be accurate,” says Naomi, “as long as it has a big impact.”

weeping_montageAs the length of the figure’s arms are discussed I ask Aldin how they made the huge face. “We looked at some pictures of a woman and shaped the face in clay first,” he says.

“And how would you describe the face you’ve made?”

“She’s always sad,” he says, “she doesn’t want to talk to anybody.”

After more debate about the costume, some measuring, cutting and pattern-making, Jasmina unpacks a flask and a tower of plastic cups. A plate of homemade biscuits and some Bosnian sugar cubes appear. “Does everyone take milk?” she asks.

cs_070117_077-edit“My story is a little different from other stories,” she says as I take the opportunity to ask Jasmina about her own experiences. “My family came out in 1992 but we were separated.”  She tells how her younger siblings and mother first came to the UK and then her father. She stayed with her disabled grandmother and, despite numerous visa applications, wasn’t reunited with her family for another three years.

“It is heartbreaking. From then until now, it is heartbreaking. Families are broken. Even now my brothers and sisters are all over the world. None of us are in the same country.”

Jasmina hands me a coffee. “Better than Red Bull,” she say, smiling.

cs_070117_037-edit“And this project? How important is it to get involved?”

“It is very important. We know what happened in Srebrenica and we want others to know too. It’s recognised in the UK [as a genocide] but not everywhere. This will help us tell people what happened. So many people were killed just because of their nationality. There are still mothers looking for the bones of their children that they will never find. It’s just wrong. This is a small thing we can do.”

“And it’s important for your son too?” Aldin is now picking papier mâché off his fingers.

“Yes, yes. I don’t feel hate towards anybody but I want him to understand. I want him to understand how it happened and how things can go wrong.”

“It was quite emotional… it brings it all back.”

Continued from “We have stepped into their shoes.”

“I remember it was 11 o’clock at night when the bombing started, it was so dark. I was nine years old. We ran to our neighbours’ cellar. Their son was a chemistry student. ‘You mustn’t go in the cellar,’ he said, ‘the gas is sinking. It’s heavier than the air. Come outside with us.’”

This is the first time Iraqi Kurd, Fatima has heard her words replayed by SceneMaker Gayna. It’s compelling stuff and the 100-strong audience is captivated.

CS_280116_070-EditGayna and Tracey-with-an-e have been working on Put Yourself in My Shoes for the last couple of months. Tonight we’re at Huddersfield University for the 2016 commemoration for Holocaust Memorial Day.

Although centred on Nazi atrocities, the day’s events also shed light on other genocides since. Fatima’s personal recollection of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attempted annihilation of the Kurdish people in Halabja brings the horror right into this room.

Moments earlier Tracey had set the scene: “We’ve been interviewing people in the community and turning those interviews into stories to share with our audience.

“Before this I didn’t know anything about Kurdish people. If anyone had asked me what I knew about Kurds, I would have said, I like curd tart.” It’s the only joke in the performance and there’s tentative laughter.

[Note for non-locals: lacking the export profile of Cornish pasties or Eccles cakes, Yorkshire curd tart is a baked cheesecake delicacy based on curd cheese].

An hour or so earlier the actors and I met with their subjects, Delshad and Fatima, and the Creative Scene team in a local pub. It was an opportunity for some informal evaluation.

“I’m glad we did the preview last week,” Gayna had said. “It was all too bitty until then. But afterwards it felt as if we really had something.”

CS_280116_010-EditTurning to Rebecca, the Creative Scene producer who’s thrown Gayna and Tracey in the deep end, “Has this project done what you’ve wanted?” I ask.

“They’ve both found it incredibly interesting and yet, at times, completely terrifying,” she said as Gayna and Tracey nodded in agreement. “It’s been a totally different way of working for them both.

“For us, it’s been a taster to see how we could bring the amateur and professional sectors” –  she means theatre director Anthony Haddon – “together to create a entirely new piece. In that respect, it’s been very successful.”

“What would you have done differently?” I asked Gayna.

“Started much earlier,” she said. “At times it has felt extremely rushed. And it would have been useful to have interviewed our subjects more than once.”

As well as this production Gayna’s been busy with her Dewsbury Collegians group. A couple of weeks ago she was stage managing Babes in the Wood. “And next week we’re doing Aladdin with a flying carpet and a real life-size elephant,” she said to some bemusement, “which is being delivered today and will need mucking out tomorrow.”

Gayna and Tracey’s piece goes down well with the multicultural audience and is followed by a Hebrew Choir singing about bringing an end to war.

CS_280116_098-EditAs the formalities close and after Fatima and Gayna have lit a remembrance candle together, there’s some hilarity as the actors and their subjects are presented with curd tarts, wrapped in the Kurdish national colours.

CS_280116_120-EditCS_280116_152-EditI put my tape recorder in front of Fatima, who is here with her husband and three children. The eldest is just nine, the same age as her when her community was gassed. “What was it like, listening to your own story?”

“It was really nice,” she says, “sometimes quite emotional. When you’re in the middle of times like those, you don’t realise how hard they are. But when you hear someone else saying those words… it brings it all back.

“It was really well done, I can’t thank them enough.”

“We have stepped into their shoes.”

Continued from Drawing parallels with the Holocaust

“I’m Gayna,” says Gayna.

“And I’m Tracey, with an e,” says Tracey.

“And we’re from Dewsbury Collegians Amateur Operatic Society. Normally we’d do plays, musicals and pantomimes but I can honestly say,” – Gayna slows her delivery down, staring into the small audience – “we’ve never… done anything… like this… before.”

CS_210116_048We’re in the attic space at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre for tonight’s rehearsal of Put Yourself in My Shoes. The short show will be performed this time next week at the university down the road as part of Holocaust Memorial Day.

Today Gayna and Tracey are staging a private view to Kim and Brian from 6 million+ and to Delshad, one of the Kurds whose stories are about to be retold.

I ask Brian how Holocaust Memorial Day and the local Kurdish community are linked. “Since the Holocaust we” – he means mankind – “have failed to learn about genocide. We’ve had Srebrenica in Bosnia; we’ve had Rwanda; Pol Pot in Cambodia and the genocide of the Kurdish people by Saddam Hussein at Halabja.

“We need to learn about persecution and victimisation. We need to bring communities together to learn about each other.”

Still in role as themselves the actors put the refugee stories into context. “The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups, but they don’t have a state, a country of their own,” declares Gayna. “They have a flag and an anthem but there is no such things as a Kurdish passport.”

CS_210116_033We’re going to hear about three Iraqi Kurds that Gayna and theatre director Anthony Haddon have interviewed. There is Delshad who, as a young man, was something of a rebel; there is Fatima who will recount her childhood memories and explain why her scarf is so precious to her; and there is Ahmed who fled a repressive regime and now runs a barber shop in Dewsbury.

“Why are we telling you this?” asks Tracey to the transfixed audience. “In the words of Delshad: staying separate from each other is not the way to live you lives. There are good and bad people in every community. It doesn’t matter how religious you are, it’s character and personality that matter.”

For the next 20 minutes these two Yorkshire women play Delshad, Fatima and Ahmed. It’s not their exact words and neither is it scripted. Instead Anthony has encouraged the actors – more at home with Fiddler on the Roof or Babes in the Wood – to use their notes only as prompts and put themselves in the shoes of their subjects.

For Scenemaker Gayna, this is new territory. It’s broadening her experience of theatre, of performance. Judging by the way she’s now conveying these ‘other lives’, she’s revelling in the experience.

tracey_gaynaWe hear descriptions of beautiful countryside and recollections of harmonious communities. We hear of bereavement, torment and fear. We hear of passion, commitment and hope. Most of all we hear about families wanting to be safe and move on with their lives.

Gayna and Tracey give fervent performances that grip the audience. I notice Delshed wipe his eye. “You told it better than I could,” he says to Tracey afterwards. “The way you described things in my life… even I couldn’t have done it like that.”

CS_210116_054With a tweak here and there, the consensus is the performance is ready for next week’s event. “It’s been a hard slog at times,” says Gayna as she stacks chairs away, “but now we’ve seen it come together… it feels right.”

Put Yourself in My Shoes will be performed on Thursday, 27th January at the University of Huddersfield.

Drawing parallels with the Holocaust

The weathered sign above the blue door suggests the Dewsbury Collegians Amateur Operatic Society has been here for some time.

“We own the building,” says Scenemaker Gayna as she gives Anthony and I a quick tour before the volunteer actors arrive. “We bought the whole mill back in the 60s when you could get one for a couple of hundred quid.”

Also tonight there’s a rehearsal for upcoming panto Babes in the Wood and musical director Jacques is already at the keyboard in the first floor rehearsal room.

“And this is our set workshop,” says Gayna, showing us a whole floor of plywood scenery at the top of the building.

More comfortable with musical theatre, this latest project recounting life stories of Iraqi Kurds is going to push Gayna outside her comfort zone. It’s just what Creative Scene had in mind.

She’s been paired with experienced theatre director Anthony Haddon to produce a short piece next month for a Holocaust Memorial Day event organised by 6 million+.

“By telling the stories of local refugees we’re drawing parallels with the Holocaust,” explains Gayna as she arranges chairs in the downstairs costume store. “Tonight we’re getting the actors together for the first time, so it’s going to be a quick turnaround.”

“Gayna and I have already done the interviews,” explains Anthony, “so now we’ve got to work out a way of presenting them.”

CS_091215_083-Edit“What will be your biggest challenge?” I ask Anthony. It’s one of my favourite questions.

He stares blankly at a crate of padded AAA-size bras, considering his answer. “Getting the actors to own the words of people they’ve never met,” he says, emphatically.

The amateurs arrive. There’s Angela who, says Gayna, has just played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard; and Tracey who’s been on telly recently as an Emmerdale extra. I wasn’t expecting to see SceneMaker Simon here too but, given his immersion into all things creative, shouldn’t be surprised.

CS_091215_009-EditSurrounded by rails of colourful panto costumes, everyone introduces themselves before Gayna pulls some notebooks out of the box in front of her. “I have a little gift for each of you,” she says, distributing the orange books. “The next few weeks are going to be very different: potentially emotional and certainly thought-provoking. We’d like you to keep a diary. It will help us with the evaluation and help you make sense of the process.”

“Can we start tonight with a warm-up?” asks Anthony, encouraging a circle. “It’s always good to get the blood flowing.” He leads the group through a series of arm-swinging, head-massaging, lip-tickling exercises that my camera loves.

CS_091215_071-EditCS_091215_078-EditThen, sitting on the floor, he describes where he is up to with the project. “I knew absolutely nothing about the Kurds,” he admits, “but already I feel quite submerged in the material.

“The Holocaust began because one group of people saw another as ‘other’. In a sense the Kurdish community is, at the moment, ‘other’ to me and probably to you too. It seems foreign and mysterious. With this project, I’d like us to highlight the similarities between us and bring us closer. We should be trying to reverse that feeling of ‘other-ness’.”

I’d imagined I’d be listening to the words of local Iraqi Kurds tonight but Anthony isn’t ready for that yet. As a precursor he splits the actors into pairs and asks each to tell the other about themselves. Minutes later, and to a backdrop of shrieks from the ‘babes’ upstairs, they candidly tell each other’s story. We hear of drunkenness, heart surgery and murderers. It’s a real life pantomime.

“I want you now to be Angela,” Anthony says to Tracey, as she takes the hot seat to relay what she’s just learnt. “I want you to speak in the first person, as if you were her.”

It’s fascinating. Without once coming out of role, Tracey becomes Angela and tells us about her theatrical family, her teaching career and the recent portrayal of faded movie star, Norma. I can see absolutely where Anthony is coming from. Next Gayna becomes Simon – the gender shift irrelevant – and the project becomes alive.

“Thanks Simon,” Anthony says to Gayna.

Continued in “We have stepped into their shoes.”