“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.”

The future’s bright. The future’s orange

I like Creative Scene’s philosophy. Pretty much everything they do is with one eye on the future. I envisage them building a big imaginary springboard off which the arts can launch themselves.

I haven’t met Madeleine Irwin before. She’s a new part-time Project Manager who’ll be in charge of a Creative Scene programme called Future Talent.

Part of her brief is to support young people’s artistic development and today she’s looking for allies. So SceneMakers Rebecca and Gayna are sitting on a settee in Dewsbury’s Cocoa Lounge with Madeleine, Ruth [SceneMaker Project Manager] and I.

“Can you all bunch up a bit?” I ask. “It’ll be better for the photographs if you’re all in a line.”

CS_200515_0004-EditRuth starts the introductions but stops short. “I’ll let Madeleine tell you,” she says.

We hear some of her background and in particular she tells of the Orange Box, a venue for young people in Halifax which she worked tirelessly to set on its way.

Madeleine, I can see, has young people’s interests at heart and she’s in good company.

“For Future Talent, we want to develop a sophisticated mentoring scheme around the arts,” she explains. “And work with young people who have a specific interest but don’t know what to do about it.”

This is where Rebecca and Gayna come in. Rebecca runs her own drama academy in Heckmondwike and Gayna, who until recently worked at a local school, heads up Dewsbury Collegians and, we find out, is well connected to all things theatrical.

The coffees arrive. “Americano?” asks the waiter. “Tea?”

“Mine’s the Americano,” says Madeleine.

“I used to teach him,” says Gayna as he heads back to the counter.

“It happens everywhere you go!” exclaims Ruth remembering back to the Aakash Restaurant where Gayna knew the barman.

Rebecca tells us about the West Yorkshire Drama Academy which she runs voluntarily in what spare time she has after teaching English. “I love it,” she says. “Our focus is on helping young people get started in the arts. And some of our older students work as directors, mentoring the younger ones.

“There’s no transition period for them,” she says, “They are with me until 18 and then it’s university. So if the mentoring opportunity can happen before they go, that would be amazing. I have lots of young people who would be interested.”

CS_200515_0011-EditMadeleine explains it might be a while before the mentoring gets off the ground and so, in the meantime, she has another opportunity to divulge.

“The Lawrence Batley Theatre is staging Jungle Book in August and the auditions are in the half term holidays. As well as performers, we’re looking for local young people to work on some flash mob activity to promote the show.”

“Flash mob?” I ask, imagining riot shields on the streets of Dewsbury.

“There might be half a dozen performers in costume who’d just appear in say, a shopping centre,” says Madeleine, “and do a sketch to get people’s attention.”

“I could be Baloo the Bear,” I suggest, flippantly.

“You’d make a good Baloo,” says Rebecca. I take it as a compliment.

After another 15 minutes of the SceneMakers and Madeleine bouncing ideas about I get a little bemused. “There’s obviously a spark between the two of you,” I say to Rebecca and Gayna who clearly share the same passion, “and you’re both involved in groups that are geographically quite close to each other. Why have you never met before?”

“Each town is very segregated,” explains Gayna. “That’s part of the problem, people haven’t mixed in the past.”

“Historically people have thought of Heckmondwike, Dewsbury, Cleckheaton and Batley as being worlds apart,” says Rebecca, “but we’d like to challenge those perceptions and break down the barriers.”

It’s going to have to be a very large springboard.

Warning: Animator at Work

Its website says it’s the largest in the world and in the flesh Cleckheaton’s Aakash Indian Restaurant is truly huge.

CS_070515_0016-EditBuilt in 1850 as a Methodist Chapel its congregation back then were workers from the eleven ‘carding’ factories that made the Spen Valley world famous.

Tonight the SceneMakers are on a trip to see animator, Rozi Fuller, one of Creative Scene’s artists at work. For the next few weeks she’ll spend some of her evenings at table 55, making animated portraits of diners and staff and even encouraging them to make their own.

“First I take their photograph and download it to my laptop,” Rozi explains. “Then I draw it digitally and animate the drawing.” She shows us a recently completed portrait of a bartender.

“I used to teach him!” laughs Gayna, who worked in a local school. “I’ve just been over to say hello.”

Creative Scene producers are here too and so I ask Vicky what they hope to achieve with the Artist at Work scheme. “With local businesses we’re exploring how we can make art part of everyday life for customers and employees,” she says. “We’re looking for new ways  for artists to show their work, get other people involved and have conversations about how they might take part in the future.”

“At the moment Creative Scene commission the artists, don’t they?” I ask. I know there have already been artists at work at a local market, a café and at Fox’s Biscuits. “But in the long run, you’d like businesses to employ their own?”

“It’s already happening,” says Vicky. “You remember meeting Cassandra at The Mill in Batley? She’s now been hired directly by the centre management because they realise her workshops are good for business.”

CS_070515_0061-EditAfter Rozi has taken us all outside for a group portrait – she’s going to animate it later – she asks Duncan about the SceneMakers. She’s as curious of them as they are of her.

“We meet every six weeks or so,” he explains, “often for a brainstorming session with Creative Scene staff. In essence, it’s about helping to deliver things which make art more accessible, like your work here.”

“People like to see you doing something,” Rozi says. “The process engages them, and there’s an opportunity for discussion and making suggestions.”

Duncan agrees: “If something is static, there’s no story to be told, no journey. That’s why people like theatre. They can follow it and be swept along by it.”

Rozi settles back at her table to demonstrate the animation process to SceneMakers Zainab and Ammaarah. While she’s uploading photos I catch up with general manager, Fawaad and asks what the restaurant gets out of the residency.

“It makes the customers’ experience more memorable, doesn’t it?” he says. “We do a lot with the local community and we were keen to get involved in this. It’s a really good idea.”

“And what about your staff? What do they make of it?”

“They love it,” he says, “Rozi is interacting with the kitchen staff and waiters, and they are enjoying having her here.”

CS_070515_0078-EditCS_070515_0092-EditBack at her ‘studio’ – table 55 – and now with Vicky looking on, Rozi draws around the shape of a face, adding the eyes, mouth and nose. “It looks weird at first but then I will colour and shade it.”

CS_070515_0107-Edit“What do you do with the portraits afterwards?” I ask.

“With the subjects’ permission they’ll appear on the Aakash website and on a digital photo frame we’ll put in reception.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could project them onto the side of the building,” I suggest, “Imagine pulling up in the car park to see these massive moving portraits.”

“That’s exactly our ambition for the end of this project,” says Vicky.