“We are all different, but still have much in common.”

“After our presentations we’ll ask everyone to get together and make a shelter – a sanctuary – from the twigs we’ve brought back from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park,” says Kim to the circle of Poles, Serbs, Italians, Syrians, Ukrainians and more.

This is the return leg of the European tour by 6 million+ that I wrote about earlier this year. The Kirklees-based charity has partnered with groups in Poland, Italy and Serbia to remember the Holocaust and other genocides and make connections with present day events.

Now some from those groups are visiting rainy West Yorkshire for a few days and together planning activities for next year’s Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). We’ve been invited to host tonight’s event in ‘Brigantia’, Creative Scene’s pop up studio space in Dewsbury.

“In a while we’ll be joined by our invited guests,” explains project co-ordinator Kim Strickson, “some of whom are refugees themselves now living in our community.”

The circle breaks up to give everyone time to prepare. Two huge ‘Weeping Sister’ puppets made for last year’s HMD event are carefully unpacked.

“Poor Kitty, her nose looks a bit bashed,” says Joanne who, with her daughter Iris, helped to make the puppets. “She needs some tlc.”

Each of the participants have been asked to make a ‘creative response’ to their involvement in the project. And it’s some of these responses which are being presented tonight.

“I’ve made a tree from buttons,” says Kate, a volunteer guide at Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, Poland, “which was inspired by the workshop Kim and her team brought to us.

“The roots represent the shared history that we can’t forget and the branches represent a new generation, new friendships and new futures. All the buttons are different – we are all different – but we still have much in common.”

As the local guests arrive, introductions are made and conversations spring up naturally in shared languages.

“There’s a big conversation going on between our four countries,” says Kim by way of introduction. “What leads to genocide? How can we all take responsibility for avoiding it? How do we treat people who are escaping persecution and seeking sanctuary in our own countries? It’s about all of that.

“We’re trying to do it creatively and so we’re going to share a few of those responses with you tonight.”

Joanne bounces to the front to tell of her and her daughter’s experiences of helping to make the Kitty figure last year. “Iris then invited Kim into her school – Batley Girls – to talk about the project and now the school is going to get involved in Holocaust Memorial Day next year, so that’s a result.”

After we’ve watched a moving video of last year’s HMD event the group take turns to introduce each other’s contributions.

“This is Naomi’s response to a visit to the concentration camps,” says Assef, holding up a textile piece which Naomi rotates the right way up.

“That visit had a profound effect on me and I found this piece difficult to do,” explains the Yorkshire-based textile artist, before introducing Assef.

“He’s a Syrian refugee who’s lived with his family in Poland for the last four years where he teaches Philosophy. He’s an excellent musician and tonight will play a piece he’s written, based on the sounds of war in Syria.”

We next hear about Kate’s button tree and see an extract of a film made in Reggo Emilia, Italy presented by Dzvina; Stefan plays the Roma national anthem on his violin before introducing Raf from the UK group, who’s made exquisite, tiny, felted shoes, having seen the shoes in the Polish concentration camp.

The European visitors will be back in West Yorkshire in January when their artwork will contribute towards the HMD activities. In the meantime another two Weeping Sisters – representing Kurdish and Roma atrocities – will be made. Joanne and Iris are keen to help out and, no doubt, more connections and friendships will follow.

“If any of you are interested in helping make the puppets,” says Kim, “please do let us know. We’d love for you to be involved.

“Our final activity has been inspired by the Alfredo Jaar exhibition we saw at the Sculpture Park. He’s used 100 trees to represent sanctuary but also isolation in our world.”

Next everyone – every nation, every religion – gets stuck in together with the twigs and tape. It’s good to see.

“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.

“Actors don’t often get roles like this. It’s very special.”

“Don’t be getting my double chin from that angle,” admonishes one of the Batley Girls as I gatecrash a photo line-up.

There’s a real buzz tonight at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) tonight for the premiere of The Ruck, the much-anticipated story of the Batley Bulldogs Under 16s Girls Rugby tour of Australia.

In the theatre bar with a pint in his hand and a grin on his face team coach Craig Taylor is in no doubt about the potential for this Creative Scene-commissioned collaboration between art and sport.

“It’s great for the girls,” he shouts above the racket his former players are now making on the next table, “but more importantly, it’ll be great for the sport. Hopefully it will inspire other girls to take up rugby.”

The front of house staff do their best to get everyone seated for kick off and, from where I sit in the circle, I can see Craig and the girls getting comfortable in the third row of the stalls, waving at others around the auditorium.

Within minutes of the lights fading, we’re in fits of laughter. And the tissues come out as the characters reveal themselves and the story develops of the team’s preparations for the first ever Australian tour by a girls’ rugby team.

It is, of course, a play of two halves and as the bar staff tackle the interval assault, I ask parents for a reaction. “It’s really good, isn’t it? Really good,” says Casey’s mum as she’s handed a drink, “they’ve got the way Craig would speak to the girls off to a T. We’re really enjoying it.”

With only four actors playing the whole team, writer Kevin Fegan has skilfully combined real and imagined storylines inspired, in part at least, by his time sitting with the girls on the back of the team coach.

One of the girls tells me she recognises the troubled character from the first half who self harms. “To see that played out on stage, I was in absolute tears,” she says, “because I realise now how far I’ve come from that time in my life. It’s brilliant.”

With everyone back in their seats, we’re transported to the Gold Coast for the second half and the whole of the Lawrence Batley Theatre is again in uproar as the team’s challenges on and off the field are played out. The Batley Girls even join in with the chants they’ve made their own.

Later LBT’s Rose Condo introduces a post-show discussion and, to accompanying whoops and hollers, gives a shout out to the Batley Girls as Kevin and Craig clamber belatedly on stage.

“Remember, whatever happened in Oz, stays in Oz,” jokes Kevin, “apart from this play of course.”

Actor Sophie Mercer who plays the young Asian newcomer, speaks on behalf of her collagues: “Actors don’t get roles like this very often. Mostly we play fictional characters so it’s very special when we do something based on true life.

“To be given a story like this where you girls have done something, made footprints that are bigger than your own, it’s been a real privilege.

“And after we came to meet you at the ground and seeing your team bond, then that helped us bond as actors. That was you guys… you are really inspirational.”

More tissues.

Rose takes questions from the audience. “I’m Batley born and bred,” says one woman, “and my father was involved with Batley Rugby Club until the day he died. “He would have been proud to have seen this tonight.

“I go to lots of Creative Scene events,” she continues, “and I think they are fantastic at what they do, bringing everyone from the community along with them. It’s been an unbelievable night.”

An unbelievable night indeed.

“I’ve never been to a theatre before,” says one of the Batley Girls to one of the mums, as they head through the foyer. “I wasn’t expecting it to be half as good as this.”

“Me neither.”

“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.”