“Tell me what interests you and I’ll be the matchmaker.”

Dewsbury seems to have escaped the snow for the second SceneMakers’ meeting downstairs at the Cocoa Lounge.

Tonight both the owner, TJ and his partner, Asyia are joining in. Intrigued by last month’s gathering, and both a bit ‘arty’, they are keen to support any activity that sees North Kirklees prosper.

Nancy welcomes everyone back declaring there are lots of opportunities in the coming months for the SceneMakers to really influence the Creative Scene programme. “Even so,” she says, “we’ll still only be at about 10% of our capacity, so loads more to come.”

And then: “I’d like to welcome the lovely Ruth Bridges who has taken over the coordination of the SceneMaker programme.”

Ruth is a freelance project manager as well as illustrator and, she says, is passionate about the power of the arts in bringing communities together. “My own small contribution is that I’m a founder member of the New Picture House, a community cinema here in Dewsbury that many of you will know.”

Before Nancy leaves – she’s got another meeting – she’s keen to hear how the SceneMakers got on with their ‘colour cards’ from the last session. Each has a word on one side – oasis, link, mirror – that’s intended to start off conversations about other people’s attitudes towards the arts.

CS_220115_0090-EditThere’s plenty of feedback and most everyone has a story to tell. Phil recalls his conversations in the pub: “Most people say they hate contemporary art but they’re not willing to discuss why they don’t like something, instead they just dismiss it as rubbish. That’s a mindset that we need to try and overcome.”

“Art has to resonate with people,” says Duncan. “Sometimes you can look at a piece of art and it feels like it’s laughing at you. People are intimidated, especially in this area.”

“Remember last time,” says project manager Rebecca, “Andrew talked about wanting people to be awake. Some people are just not tuned into trying new experiences.”

The group is fired up – it doesn’t take much – and now there’s talk of how Creative Scene is able to combat a deep-rooted apathy for the arts. “People have pushed art and creativity out of their lives,” says Hillary. “It’s not for me, they say. We need to think of ways to combat that negativity.”

With her experience in local theatre Gayna emphasises the power of ‘getting art to the people’ rather than expecting audiences to travel. There’s universal agreement from around the white sofas, which is a relief as Creative Scene, we are told, is already compiling a list of day-to-day venues – community centres, pubs, working mens’ clubs – to stage art activities. With a dearth of cultural venues around North Kirklees, it’s the way to go to attract new – maybe unsuspecting – audiences.

In many ways the SceneMakers are the eyes and ears of Creative Scene. They feedback about the festivals, plays, concerts and exhibitions they have seen and, if inspired, pass on recommendations for what they think other local people would enjoy.

CS_220115_0119-EditAfter a brainstorm about critically evaluating an arts activity, Ruth asks the group how they’d like to present their reviews. “I really don’t want to give you a feedback form,” she says, “that would be just so dry.”

To some hilarity, Simon responds: “I really like feedback forms!”

“What about scrapbooks?” someone suggests. That would be interesting.

Before the meeting draws to a close the SceneMakers hear about the projects they can get involved in. There’s a ‘really big digital project’ in Dewsbury to do with robotics and coding; a visit to Blackburn to see a pop-up arts centre; and a theatre production about the Brontë sisters, performed exclusively by local, young South Asian women.

“Just let me know what interests you,” says Ruth in conclusion, “and I’ll act as matchmaker between the projects and you SceneMakers.”

I can’t wait.

Large ladies with horns on their heads

“Wouldn’t it be great to stage a free opera in Batley’s Market Place one Saturday night?”

It was a question that Andrew Marsden and his colleagues at Batley Business Association posed a few years back. And then put on the back burner.

CS_300115_0004-EditAndrew, a solicitor in the town and now a SceneMaker, has since resurrected the proposal. “Creative Scene has picked up on it quite quickly,” he says. “Hopefully, with fingers crossed, we might be able to make it happen.”

Which is why I’m interviewing him in the dress circle bar of the Leeds Grand Theatre before tonight’s performance of The Marriage of Figaro. He’s come for some creative inspiration and, at the interval, to introduce himself to the Opera North people.

“Why an opera?” I ask, thinking it wouldn’t be a lot of people’s first choice for a night out. A dozen or so young people, resplendent in best frocks and dickie bows enter the bar, as if to challenge my assumptions.

“Oh, lots of reasons,” replies Andrew, “not least because it is the least obvious thing you would do. I could fairly easily drum up some acts and stage a mini pop concert… but the majority of people would never choose to see an opera.”

“So, you’re imposing it on them?” I suggest, playing devil’s advocate.

“Yes, why not?” says Andrew. “People could try it and if they don’t like it, then that’s fine. But you shouldn’t say you don’t like something before you’ve given it a chance.”

And why not indeed. Andrew reminds me that we’re already familiar with many of opera’s most famous songs, as they’ve crept into popular culture over the years.

Nessun Dorma was the theme to the World Cup TV coverage some time ago and the Flower Duet from Lakme was featured in that British Airways ad,” he says. “And then there’s Toreador from Carman: everyone would recognise it but not realise where it came from.”

“And if it did happen in Batley,” I ask, “are we talking about professionals parachuting in and doing it to the community or would local people be involved?”

“That’s currently a blank page,” he says. “Ideally I think the main performance should be by professionals. Simply, if you’re going to do this at its best then you want the best doing it.

“However, it would be great to involve as many people from the community as possible.
Maybe local groups could help with set-staging or lighting and sound. Local singing groups could possibly get involved with the backing. I imagine there’d be lots of opportunities.

CS_300115_0017-Edit“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I’m not some fanatical opera buff. And opera isn’t just about large ladies singing in German with horns on their heads. It’s not. We could maybe tweak a traditional opera and make it hip-hop or bangra… we could really explore what opera is about.”

Sure enough, after we’ve heard the first half of Mozart’s 230-year-old musical comedy Andrew meets the company manager who outlines some of Opera North’s extensive community programme. There’s no shortage of enthusiasm for Andrew’s idea but, as ever, finances would be an issue.

As we return to our seats I suggest that Creative Scene – with its expertise, contacts and, not least, funding – may have opened up a window of opportunity for the Batley opera idea.

“I guess you’d be really pleased if this came off,” I say.

“I’d be delighted,” says Andrew.

“Think about it with both sides of the brain.”

Why am I surprised when a large transparent teapot filled with a steaming peach and apple brew is set in front of Duncan? He is, after all, a tea aficionado and makes his living selling the stuff.

“Mmm, can I have a whiff?” asks Ruth, “or is that rude?”

“Go ahead,” says Duncan, “although, of course, it will be never as good as ours.”

We’re doing a double-header interview with Duncan Macintyre at Café Society in Huddersfield. SceneMaker project manager Ruth Bridges wants to find out about his interests, his skills, his ambition as a SceneMaker. She’s the one who matches the volunteers with the projects, finding the best fit.

CS_100215_0024-EditA couple of years ago Duncan considered opening his own café in the town, serving speciality teas. Instead he set up a new business – 6teas – that sells such wonders as ‘Big Daddy’ and ‘Russian Earl Grey’ in bottles that, with hot water, are drunk like a cordial.

“We go to a lot of local markets and events,” he explains as he shows us a sample bottle and I sheepishly sip my Americano, “and we get a lot of interest there.”

Ruth and I discover that Duncan has an extensive background in marketing and, before that, studied Creative Design and Marketing. He’s become a SceneMaker because he wants to be ‘more visible’ in his community and to re-ignite a passion for the arts that’s derailed a bit since his Art and Design A-level.

I’d like to hear about his SceneMaker role as one of the panel that decided on the first round of DO IT funding. Creative Scene is offering a series of small grants to start North Kirklees thinking more creatively.

“They’re each £500,” Ruth explains to me. “And they are for new, high quality activities that reach new audiences.”

“And Duncan sat on the panel with some of the Creative Scene team?”

“I did,” he says, “and it was really good. I was very much involved and surprised how I took to it.”

Duncan tells us that there were 24 written applications to consider and, by the end of the evening, seven grants had been awarded.

“I hope the rest of the panel found it refreshing to have an outsider’s point of view,” he says. “I found myself considering each application in terms of added value: how many people is this activity going to impact? What benefit will it have to its community?”

“It sounds like you really enjoyed the process,” I say.

“I did, yes. And I’d certainly be up for doing it again. It’s given me a bit of thirst for that sort of thing to be honest.”

“And what advice would you give anyone applying next time round?”

“Be bold,” he says. “There’s scope for more creative applications and maybe potential for something that’s about changing a community’s perceptions about art.”

“The odd crazy idea, then?” asks Ruth.

“Yes, and think about it with both sides of the brain. The ideas need to be creative but also keep an eye on the budgets.”

“Creative yet pragmatic?” I suggest.

“And tailor your ideas to the audience. Always the audience.”

As the tea and coffee are drained, I ask Duncan what he thinks Creative Scene could achieve over its two years.

“I’d like people to see North Kirklees as a pioneering area for the arts in the UK,” he replies, but admits it’s a bold ambition. “We’re not, all of a sudden, going to be like the West End, but we do need to make our art activities more relevant to our communities.”

And he’s absolutely up for helping make that happen.

Modest in opera terms but a near perfect fit

“The inner sanctum,” someone says quietly as we are led from the theatre’s stage door up an ornate Victorian staircase, across a modern glass bridge and finally into the meeting room of Opera North’s education team.

Things are moving quickly on the Batley opera idea. Andrew and his colleagues, Ruth and Richard from the Batley Business Association are here, together with Simon Thirkill, a SceneMaker from Heckmondwike.

This Monday evening they are meeting Jacqui Cameron, education director of Opera North who has just led us through the labyrinth.

CS_160215_0015-Edit“Batley is probably not one of the top opera towns,” begins Andrew, explaining again how the rather unorthodox suggestion came about.

“It’s pretty much a blank page,” he says as Jacqui asks how far the idea has progressed, “other than wanting to bring something to the town that local people would not normally experience. If we could build a project that involves schools and community groups then all the better.”

Andrew’s aspirations – in opera terms – are relatively modest: a stage out in a public place, a few performers, musicians, some well-known tunes. Enough to put on an ‘opera experience’.

“There is something that might fit,” says Jacqui. “Next year we are experimenting with a project called Whistle Stop Opera. We’re devising a shortened version of one of our main stage operas which might only be up to half an hour long with three musicians, three singers and a narrator.

“From each of our touring theatres we’ll also visit community venues such as care homes or museums and perform to those who might not necessarily come to the main performance. Would something like that be of interest?”

“That’s almost exactly what we were thinking of doing,” says Andrew from the edge of his seat.

“It’s quite easy and effective to do,” continues Jacqui. “You don’t need any scenery, probably just a handful of props.”

“Fantastic. And could we programme some work with schools around it?” asks Andrew. “Maybe the young people could hear about the background of a particular piece, about the composer, or even learn to sing some of it?”

For Opera North’s education team this is bread and butter. Jacqui says that this year they’ve been working with 15 secondaries and seven primaries as well as an immersive project with one particular school in south Leeds where all 450 kids get to play a classical instrument.

I can almost see Andrew’s cogs whirring. Hosting the ready-made Whistle Stop Opera sounds ideal; linking with local schools seems straight forward enough. But there are other considerations he needs to explore.

“In Batley we have a varied ethnic community,” he says, “is there any way of taking a very traditional musical form and putting a spin on it?”

It’s a challenge the professionals are familiar with and, Jacqui explains, although they don’t like to mess with Mozart’s or Verdi’s compositions, they do make other attempts at making opera relevant to different audiences.

“I know the Whistle Stop team are considering contemporary costumes, for instance,” she says.

“If the ‘opera experience’ is the centrepiece of an evening of performances,” suggests Ruth, “then maybe we can wrap other types of music around it.”

I’m beginning to visualise a programme here: one type of audience might come for the opera but experience bangra or hip-hop by default and a different audience might get the opposite. Perfect.

Andrew and his team are this evening invited to the dress rehearsal of an opera double bill: Gianni Schicchi and La vida breve. It starts shortly and so there’s a brief discussion about programming. Opera North has a packed schedule and a single performance in Batley would have to fit in. March next year is suggested but that would scupper the aspiration of an outdoor event.

CS_160215_0024-Edit“Maybe I could investigate late summer 2016,” suggests Jacqui, helpfully. “Once we’ve done it on our tour, replicating it again could be quite easy.”

It’s been a productive meeting and already there’s more than a skeleton of an idea that Andrew and his colleagues can work with. As Jacqui leads us across the bridge again and back into the entrance of the Grand Theatre they agree to talk again soon and keep the ball rolling.

“She won’t go on stage without a Birkenshaw chip in her belly.”

“I performed alongside Lady Gaga at the Batley Variety Club in 1968,” she says, deadpan. “Not many people know that but it’s a true fact. Because I am Miss Inform, you see, telling people the true facts behind the exhibits here at the Bagshaw Museum.”

I cannot hold in a giggle and one of the women being ‘miss-informed’ turns to me and asks, “Why are you laughing? Is she lying?”

Miss Inform is on a roll. “Some people don’t believe me about Lady Gaga,” she tells her increasingly-bemused audience, “but she has been very well preserved like me, using mummification techniques.”

There are giggles all round now as the penny drops.

CS_070315_0015-Edit“Have you seen our Egyptian collection which does, in fact, include some 3,000-year-old figs? Slightly older than me. Shall I show you?”

To these explorers of Batley’s Bagshaw Museum, Miss Inform in her six-inch heels is an unexpected and formidable sight. Altogether less formidable is Philip Arrowsmith, a SceneMaker who has come along to witness this immersive theatrical experience.

“And what sort of reaction has Miss Inform been getting?” I ask him.

“Very interesting,” says Philip and then, in a whisper, “some of the blokes are a bit taken aback and some of the kids are a bit scared. But, by the time she’s chatted to them, telling stories about the crocodiles and Egyptian mummies, then everyone finds it funny and really quite informative. It certainly makes them engage more with the artifacts.”

“And what are you getting out of it?”

“I have an interest in putting on theatre outside conventional performance spaces. I like the idea of theatre coming to the people rather than an audience having to go somewhere specific to see it. Engaging with the public in their own spaces is really interesting and something I’d like to pursue a lot more.”

“Are you just here to observe?”

“No, no,” he says. “It’s my role to ask people afterwards if they have enjoyed being Miss Informed,” – he’s giving out badges declaring they have been Miss Informed – “and that they have the opportunity to bring their own artifacts back to the museum for a special display we’re staging.”

Miss Inform is back from her 3,000-year-old fig expedition. “The idea is visitors come back and show us anything they collect – it could be a mug off the kitchen table – but as long as it is special to them. They bring it in, tell us its story, and we will together create a people’s exhibit which will open here on the 18th April with a bit of a celebration.”

The ‘bit of a celebration’, it turns out, is a special Museum Varieties Night with live music and a DJ which is all free. Phil’s literature tells me it’s on for a couple of hours from 5pm for the kiddies and 7.30-9.30 for the big kids.

CS_070315_0035-EditThe four women – who I’ve since discovered are two middle-aged sisters and their respective teenager daughters – are being offered complimentary refreshment.

“These were the very chips that Shirley Bassey ate before her performance at Batley Variety Club in 1967,” says Miss Inform, chip wrapper in hand.

“And are they still warm?” I ask.

She throws me a glance. “Well no, obviously. That would be ridiculous. These are some I bought this afternoon from the same fish and chip shop. Ms Bassey insists on having them flown out to her wherever she is performing in the world. She won’t got on stage without a Birkenshaw chip in her belly.”

The women decline the chips but accept some literature from Philip who tells them about the upcoming workshops and about Creative Scene.

As the bewildered woman head for the Egyptian mummy who, if we are to believe our eccentric tour guide is colloquially known as The Batley Spitfire, I ask whether they enjoyed the Miss Informed experience.

“I was scared when I first saw her,” admits one of the young women. “I thought she was a statue but then she moved!”

“I really believed her to begin with,” adds her cousin, “she has such a straight face. But it’s a good idea, isn’t it? It’s good entertainment.”