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.

Building on the success of The Batley Picture Show

“Len follows us around. He tape records us and takes photographs,” says Nancy to a small group on the steps of Batley Library and Art Gallery. “He’s a fly on the wall.”

“I’m a rather large fly,” I admit.

By chance I’ve stumbled across Creative Scene director, Nancy and Batley Festival chair, Kimberley standing in the sunshine with artists from Halifax-based arts group, IOU.

“So what are you doing today?” I ask.

“We’re introducing IOU’s latest project to Kimberley to see if she thinks it’s right for the festival next year,” explains Nancy. “It has filmic elements that build on The Batley Picture Show and it has an engagement element where writers would work with local groups to develop a storyline.”

“And are you all from IOU?” I ask the group.

Executive director Joanne Wain introduces me to her colleagues and to two freelance performance poets, Cecilia Knapp and Jemima Foxtrot, who are working with IOU for this project. “And we’re waiting for our artistic director, David Wheeler,” says Joanne, “who’s stuck in traffic.”

After Kimberley has explained where the Festival takes place, we all troop inside and sit in the empty children’s section of the library.

iou_montage02-edit“So the project is called Rear View,” says Joanne to Kimberley as she opens her laptop, “and it’s an immersive, location-specific, outdoor performance where the town is the backdrop for the story.”

cs_101116_027-editWe see a photograph of a dismembered double-decker bus in a workshop. “It’s called Rear View because the audience is facing backwards on a raked seating structure.”

“And how many people can the bus take in one go?” asks Kimberely.

“Forty-four including a wheelchair,” says Joanne. “And we can do upto six shows per day.”

She explains how the performance works, how it starts and how Cecilia and Jemima get involved. Already the ‘cut-up bus show’ has been booked by half a dozen major festivals for 2017 and the performance is customised to make it relevant for each location.

cs_101116_050-edit“We’re looking for similar points of interest in each town,” explains Cecilia, “and in the next few weeks we’ll be thinking about the stories you might find in those places.”

“I like it,” says Kimberley.

“For The Batley Picture Show in September we used donated archive film footage,” explains Nancy. “People liked that because they saw both the town’s history and the way that related to their own.

“This takes people’s stories and puts them in an existing framework which can make it even more personalised. And I like the way this can take you around the town.”

“Yes,” says Kimberley, “we’ve been looking at ways to make the Festival more visible. There are still people on the other side of town who say they don’t know about it, no matter how much we market it. Can we promote our festival on the side of the bus?”

“Yes,” says David who has now joined us, “we’re working on ways to brand the bus for each location.”

cs_101116_047-edit“Where did the inspiration for Rear View come from?” I ask.

“We did a show a few years ago where we took people around in a bus,” says David. “We thought it could be more interesting if the journey was as important as the destination… if you could see the show as you went along. The obvious solution was to cut a bus in half so the audience could see out of the back.”

“And was it easy to find a bus to cut up?” I ask.

“To get really nerdy, there is only one sort of bus we could have done it with – the mid-engined Volvo B10M – so it took us a while to find that.”

“Ah yes,” I say. “The mid-engined B10M.”

Bells, balloons, balls and banners

It’s been nearly three weeks since the Batley Festival and we notice the waiter at Roberto’s is still wearing his Festival wristband. Buon uomo.

The bar fills up quickly with Festival committee members and volunteers, Creative Scene bods and the odd bouquet of flowers. Not every post-event evaluation is like this.

cs_290916_276-edit“Good evening everybody, thank you for coming,” says committee chair Kimberley once we’ve all squeezed onto a long table at the back of the restaurant. “As you know, this is a double celebration: to mark the success of the fifth Batley Festival and, as Rebecca is leaving today, to celebrate her time with the Festival and with Creative Scene.”

As we order our food there’s a hubbub around the table. Some are getting together for the first time since September 10th, others are recounting their experiences of the Festival of Thrift the week after.

“I’d really like to bring that den building to Batley Festival,” says Tracey, referring to the hands-on event we saw in a field in Redcar. “It was really family-orientated and had mums, dads and kids all working together and talking to each other. We seem to have lost that idea of communicating with each other.”

At the opposite end of the table Donna is recounting her Batley Picture Show ‘community performer’ experience to Creative Scene’s Nancy.

“Bells, balloons, balls and banners,” she says, tearing a piece of garlic bread, “that’s what they had us doing, and it was brilliant.

“I was so busy focussing on what I was supposed to be doing that I didn’t pay much attention to the actual show. When I saw the video I was nearly crying… it proper moved me.

“I was born in Batley and have always lived here but those Periplum people showed me things about my town I never knew. Amazing.”

Kimberley taps the side of her glass with a knife. “You didn’t think you were coming here without doing any homework, did you?”

Creative Scene notebooks are distributed as Rebecca explains the format: “I’m going to fire some questions at you and, on each page of your notebook, we’d like you to write your answers. Then, at the end, we’ll all hold up our books and reveal our answers together.”

“A bit like Mr and Mrs,” says Kimberley.

“Okay, here’s the first one,” says Rebecca, “and, remember, there are no right or wrong answers: write down three words that describe this year’s Batley Festival.”

For the next 15 minutes Rebecca throws out questions. What did you enjoy most? What did you enjoy least? What’s the Festival’s biggest challenge? How do we get more people involved? And between mouthfuls everyone gets stuck in, scribbling their thoughts down.

cs_290916_304-editcs_290916_300-editThe big reveal is lots of fun. Necks craned to see what everyone else has written, and heated debate about our neighbour’s answers. When we come to the question about what needs to change, there’s broad consensus.

cs_290916_315-edit “It’s all the stuff inside…” summaries Rebecca for my tape recorder, “… the town hall and the library… people want to be doing things outside.”

“That’s been great, very useful,” says Kimberley, bringing the exercise to a close. “We’ll gather up all of the books and we’ll collate your responses.

cs_290916_325-edit“For me, the great thing about this year has been all the new enthusiastic people on the committee, so thank you for that. On the day, I thought the new arts and crafts area worked really well but, I agree, we need to look at the use of the inside spaces.

“Let’s wrap up the de-brief,” she says as oversize plates are brought to the table, “and let’s enjoy Rebecca’s last evening. We’ve brought you some pressies….”

“Pepperoni? Whose is the pepperoni?” shouts the waiter with the wristband.

Seeking inspiration among the reclaimed washing machines

“So why do you organise these trips away?” I ask Creative Scene producer Rebecca as the train leaves Thornaby on the last leg of our journey.

“Volunteers spend a lot of time organising their own festivals,” she says, “so it’s good for them to see other festivals too. It helps you appreciate the visitor experience. Also, you don’t know what you want for your festival until you see lots of others.”

cs_170916_003-edit“And presumably you see lots of things you don’t like,” I say to Batley Festival chair Kimberley who has three-year-old Lydia curled up next to her.

“Oh yes. There’s been lots we’ve seen that we definitely wouldn’t bring to Batley!” she says.

“So why are we here in Redcar at the Festival of Thrift?”

“This should be interesting for our Batley people because of the town’s culture of recycling and shoddy,” says Rebecca. “It’s all to do with living fashionably for less, make-do-and-mend, that sort of thing. There are lots of workshops here which are really popular at Batley Festival too: people enjoy doing rather than just watching.”

It’s a two-day affair and the volunteers are staying over at a bed and breakfast with a wind-turbine-sea-view. We hook up with Tracey and get a cab out of town to Kirkleatham village.

“What are your expectations?” I ask Tracey as we walk under streaming red pennants at the festival entrance.

“I’m looking forward to lots of variety and something very different from what we’ve seen before,” she says. “I always come with an open mind.”

“Before we go any further I’m going to explain your homework,” says Rebecca, pulling notebooks from her bag. This is no jolly. In each book there are questions our investigators are expected to consider.

The vision of the Festival of Thrift is living sustainably with style, a big free weekend of activities designed for all the family, to save money, being environmentally savvy, and living a rich, creative life. So what did you see in the festival that reflects this?

And there are sections on branding, programming, the site, catering, the visitor experience, and participation. “Did you bring any pens?” asks Kimberley.

“I’d encourage you to think of it from your own point of view,” says Rebecca, dishing out biros. “So Kimberley, think about programming and the overall theme; and Tracey, with your interest in site management, you might want to think about how it’s run, what jobs the volunteers are doing.”

cs_170916_030-edit cs_170916_034-editWe start to wander. It’s a sprawling site. Kirkleatham is a collection of Georgian-style buildings that formed the Turner Estate from the 1660s.

There’s a museum (once a free school), a church, a mausoleum, almshouses and a derelict walled garden. Ed from Barrow is selling up-cycled washing machine drums as fire pits on a stall outside some old stables.

cs_170916_061-editNear the walled garden we catch up with Donna, another Batley Festival volunteer, and Andrew – here with his Batley Vintage Day hat on – and his partner, Janet. The mayor and mayoress saunter past and we all say hello as if we’ve known them for years.

“It shows what can be done differently,” Andrew says when I ask him what he’s getting out of the day, “it shows what you do better and what you don’t do as well. It’s good for inspiration. For Batley Vintage Day there’s a lot of stuff that’s relevant. There are some good ideas.

“What have you seen here that you’d like to see in Batley?” I ask as we pass a group of tepees and a storytelling workshop.

cs_170916_089-edit“Some of the workshops are great, they might need to be ‘vintaged-up’ a bit. The make-do-and-mend and the creation workshops, they would translate into Batley Library quite well. We’re collecting business cards.”

“What doesn’t work here so well?”

“The layout,” Andrew says. “It’s a great place and fine if you’re happy to explore but it needs better signposting.”

Which is just about the only criticism I hear from our band of festival factfinders all afternoon. “I found the sign for the stage after I’d found the stage!” Donna tells me as she enjoys the specially-formed Phoenix Choir.

“I’ve struggled to know where things are, even with the map,” admits Kimberley. “I’m glad I’m here for two days because it will take me that long to get my head around it all. But it’s got some fantastic entertainment and activities. It’s certainly given me some ideas.”

“We always try and make something magical.”

The light has faded, a crowd has gathered, it’s almost time for The Batley Picture Show.

Periplum Theatre Company has been commissioned to produce a bespoke show as a finalé to The Batley Festival and we are about to see the culmination of months of planning, research and editing.

“The people we’ve met have been really keen to talk about their community which, I guess, is a reflection of recent events,” says Periplum director Claire Raftery, as she takes up a position amongst the audience. “Everyone has been really friendly. Batley is an easy community to talk to.”

“And what’s been your biggest challenge?”

“To get enough footage that reflects the diversity of the community,” she says. “We got there in the end but, yes, that was a bit of a challenge.”

“Part of what Creative Scene does is about building audiences,” I say. “What sort of legacy do you think Periplum will leave for Batley?”

Claire smiles. “Well, we hope we’ve made something magical. We always try and make something magical.”

The local performers in their donkey jackets congregate back stage. Creative Scene supporter Ammaarah is amongst them. “How was the dress rehearsal last night?” I ask.

“It came together really well,” she says. “I think we executed it almost perfectly. We worked together really well as a team.”

“You’re only saying that because they’re all here,” I joke. Apparently Claire and Damian and the team were so impressed with the enthusiasm of the volunteers, they’ve created a bigger role for them in the performance.

Musician Mike, resplendent in his evening dress, takes to the central podium as if he’s at the Albert Hall. Lights, pyrotechnics, action. The show begins as the first pre-recorded poem competes with whoops from the crowd.

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The town I was born, the town I was raised

Look, the town, it’s coming alive

In between each of five short films about Batley life – school days, industry, ‘horror’, nightlife, and sport – the Periplum actors and their entourage perform cameos involving bells, flares and lots of fireworks that keep the crowd guessing where to look next.

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The biggest communal ‘Ah’ comes as Ammaarah and her colleagues simultaneously release their white balloons into the black sky.

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From the twinkling edifice of Mr Smith’s

To the final waltz at the Xclusive

Wipe your feet on your way outside

Look, the town, it’s coming alive

The show culminates with a group of chanting junior rugby players advancing through the crowd, “Batley, Batley, rah, rah, rah!”

“Batley, Batley, rah, rah, rah!” repeats Mike, waving his arms to encourage everyone to join in.

As if from nowhere a line of purple banners appear to flank the watchtower as aerial performer Florence – dressed as a Batley Bulldogs RLFC prop forward – dashes for the try line in mid air. More flares, more fireworks and more cheering from the appreciative onlookers.

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A man grabs my arm as the music fades, eager to tell me what he thinks. “That were absolutely fantastic,” he says. “Spot on. Whoever’s done that has done it with a lot of heart, a lot of heart.”

The crowd reluctantly disperses as I approach a woman and her young daughters who I recognise from earlier in the day, riding the Life Boat.

“They got it in a nutshell,” says Hawa. “They included everyone that lives in Batley. My dad used to work in the mills and he still talks about it a lot. And it was good that they included Asian music because this is such a wide community.”

“Did you feel it was a celebration of the town?”

“Definitely, definitely. It was lovely, brilliant.”

I tell Hawa I’m writing a blog for Creative Scene.

“We need to remember that,” she says to her girls, “Creative Scene.”