“It’s a story about how they proved something to themselves”

“The idea is we start off as fans and then we change into our kit,” says Joyce. “Is there time for you to take your tops off?”

I’m in the attic space at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, snapping away during this morning’s rehearsals for The Ruck which premieres on Friday.

Written by Kevin Fegan and commissioned by Creative Scene, it’s a play about the Batley Bulldogs Girls’ Under 16s team tour to Australia, the first ever tour by a girls’ rugby league team.

I’ve been following the evolution of this play on this blog since the girls and their families flew out from Manchester Airport in November 2015. I can’t wait to see how their adventures translate onto this stage this Friday.

Director Joyce Branagh and the eight-strong cast are having a good laugh trying to work out a passing sequence where the Batley Girls triumph down under for the first time.

“What if I run round this way?” asks one of the girls.

“Great,” says Joyce. “And now let’s try all that again to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.”

This whole time the assistant director is recording new stage directions and cues on her copy of the script. Creative Scene stalwart Rebecca Foster – who runs the West Yorkshire Drama Academy – has been invited to work with, and learn from, Joyce.

“Her direction is so imaginative and creative,” Rebecca tells me at the tea break. “As a young director I wouldn’t know where to begin in staging rugby match sequences with just four actors, but Joyce does this fantastic job of making it exciting and fun to watch.

“As you’ve seen she creates an environment where all the cast contribute their own ideas. It becomes a real collaboration and there’s an amazing team spirit in rehearsals.

“Kevin writes very intricately. Every line has got so much to it. He’s really keen to get across the rhythm of his piece and so I’ve been working with the actors to make sure they’ve been hitting the right beats.”

“And what about accents,” I ask, “are any of the actors from Yorkshire?”

“Most of them are from the North,” she explains, “but I’m the only one from Batley. And Batley does have its own fantastic accent. So I’ve been briefing them on how to say ‘Tesco’ properly!”

While Rebecca gets a cuppa, I turn my recorder on Joyce. “How important is a woman director for this play?” I ask.

“As someone who continually bangs on about there not being enough good parts for women in theatre I was very excited to get this role as a female director but, you know, I think it would be fine to have a male director too.

“It’s not just a female story about girls. It’s about their coach and their families and, as all plays are, about miscommunication and its resolution.”

“And, apart from the ball rolling to the back of the stage after an incomplete pass, what would you say has been your biggest challenge?” I ask.

“It’s a wonderfully dynamic play,” says Joyce, “with so many different styles going on. Some bits are kitchen sink drama, some daft comedy, some stylised movement with singing and dancing in there too. Trying to get all those elements feel like they’re the same play and they flow from scene to scene, that’s been the challenge.”

Before the mugs are back in the sink I ask actor Josie Cerise about their trip to the Mount Pleasant Stadium when some of the Batley Girls gave the cast a spot of coaching during a publicity photoshoot.

“We threw the ball around with them,” recalls Josie. “I like to think we picked it up quite quickly. We just have to look as if we know what we’re doing!

“But what really struck me was how passionate the young women are about this play. It’s a story about how they proved something to themselves and I feel a responsibility for telling that story with real truth and authenticity.”

“Okay, right,” calls Joyce. “Let’s get back to it.”

The Ruck is at Lawrence Batley Theatre this Friday and Saturday (tickets here) and then tours from the 18-22 September to the Theatre Royal Wakefield, Cast in Doncaster and finally The Civic, Barnsley.

 

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.

“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.