Seeing Jesus in a frying pan

Phil’s been to the Edinburgh Fringe. Or rather, he was sent.

A local nurse with a theatrical background, Creative Scene thought it’d be a good idea to use Phil as their eyes and ears. Today he’s telling producer Vicky how he got on.

“I’d always wanted to go,” he says, sipping his latté at Dewsbury’s Cocoa Lounge, “and it was superb. I saw shows I’d never have booked myself. Some were amazing, some less so.”

CS_071015_278-EditFor three days Phil worked through an itinerary of health-related hour-long shows and now has a fat, plastic folder of ticket stubs, notes, programmes and posters to show for it.

“Two-fold really,” says Vicky when I ask her the aim of the exercise. “Partly to see what performances we might bring to North Kirklees but also to investigate how we can help theatre and healthcare come together creatively. Phil is well placed to comment on that.”

“Did you find you were looking at the work differently because you were on a mission?” I ask.

“Absolutely. I had a job to do and so I had a different mindset. If you’re going for pleasure, you haven’t got that switch on, have you?”

Leafing through his folder Phil describes each of the 11 shows he sat through. He talks of teenage depression, breast-shaped balloons, shadow puppets, motor neurone disease, and of seeing Jesus in a frying pan.

CS_071015_283-EditHis favourite, he tells us, was Backstage in Biscuit Land, a show by Jess Thom, aka Touretteshero. “I thought you’d like that,” says Vicky.

“It was phenomenal,” he says, “performed by this young woman who has bad Tourettes and shouts biscuit 16,000 times a day… or so the publicity says.

“She keeps doing this” – Phil thumps his chest – “which to begin with is quite uncomfortable. But to spend an hour inside her head was just beautiful.”

“Beautiful?” I say.

“Yes, the playfulness, the honesty. No two shows are the same. Some things she says are scripted but others she has absolutely no control over and can’t stop herself. She talks about her love affair with her wheelchair and describes different makes of wheelchair as if they were sports cars. It was beautifully done. I walked out of there thinking she was really brave and I now see Tourette’s Syndrome completely differently.”

“Who do you think it was aimed at?” asks Vicky.

“Everyone. I don’t think it was aimed at anyone in particular. Everyone could enjoy it.”

As well as ‘Biscuit Land’, our reviewer was more than impressed with a comedy from a breast cancer sufferer and a short piece about the difficult conditions in a care home. “Can’t Care, Won’t Care was immensely powerful,” he says. “The performer said things on stage about our profession that I only think about, but wouldn’t talk about. That really empowers me.”

CS_071015_265-EditAfter he’s reported back on each of the shows, Vicky ponders how this theatre and healthcare connection might develop. If Creative Scene brought ‘Biscuit Land’ to North Kirklees, for instance, where would it be staged and how would it be promoted?

Also there’s the possibility of developing something entirely new. “There’s lots of work from the patient’s point of view, but nothing much from the healthcare workers’ perspective,” says Phil who’s already working on an idea around ‘Trust’, a series of short sketches that might examine people’s relationship to the corporate juggernaut that is the NHS.

Phil has clearly enjoyed and been inspired by his short trip. As a SceneMaker he’s making a valuable contribution to Creative Scene’s strategic thinking. He and Vicky talk about audiences, shift patterns, venues, the practicalities and politics of getting hospital hierarchies involved.

“There’s lots of interesting things to think about here, let’s see where we can take this,” says Vicky as they wrap up.

I’m as excited as they are and look forward to reporting from a West Yorkshire hospital canteen sometime soon.

Where the town is the venue

A modern day pilgrim, a 19th-century Baptist chapel and haute cuisine pies: it must be another Creative Scene event.

CS_070715_0006-EditWe’ve ventured a few miles out of North Kirklees to the imposing Birchcliffe Chapel in Hebden Bridge to intercept artist Anthony Schrag on his contemporary pilgrimage from a small Scottish town to the Venice Biennial. That’s 2,500 kilometres of pilgrimage.

Anthony arrives to set up his slideshow, still wearing his overtrousers. “How was the weather today?” I ask, recalling the thunderstorms.

“Some of the worst I’ve experienced so far,” he admits. It’s only Day 18 of 100.

Anthony is the latest artist to be commissioned by Claudia Zeiske of Deveron Arts in Huntly, 40 miles north of Aberdeen which, for the last 20 years, has hosted ‘The Town is the Venue’, where art happens on the street, in parks, pubs, cafés, at the railway station or in disused shops.

Tonight, with an audience of SceneMakers – six have made the trip over the border – artists, administrators and curious hangers-on, Claudia and Anthony will talk about their work before we’re fed by the legendary Dewsbury Pie Shed.

CS_070715_0046-Edit“This is our art gallery from the outside,” says Claudia, showing rural Huntly from afar. “And this is the inside,” she says, with a picture of the town square.

We hear about one project after another: the adopt-a-dad scheme for families whose fathers work away; about a South African artist who rebranded the town; and another who organised a bike rally which left coloured chalk lines through the town creating an alternative cycle path.

“The projects mostly have identity, environment, heritage or socio-economic issues as their theme,” says Claudia as she talks about a drive-in cinema created for boy racers, a rapid response ‘police van’ that plays music to drunken street fighters and a hi-vis-clad Northern Irish artist who became the town’s health and safety confidante.

Amongst the seemingly outlandish projects there’s a serious message that engaging art does not need a physical venue – an art gallery or theatre – and that the audience is just as likely to be moved by participatory art happening on their doorsteps than by a painting or sculpture.

CS_070715_0069-Edit“Please don’t judge me,” jokes Anthony as he jumps up to give his talk, “I’m not normally the kind of man who would wear socks and sandals, but after wearing hiking boots for such a long time…”

To set the scene, Anthony shows us some of his past projects involving hanging on a wall like some living artwork; becoming a human piñata for Glaswegian children to whack with sticks; or trying to escape his armed bodyguard in South Africa.

CS_070715_0066-EditHe then tells us something about the genesis of his pilgrimage. “Whether it’s climbing up something or blowing stuff up, I’ve always been interested in the idea of challenge. And Claudia and I have been discussing the Venice Biennial, it’s power in the art world and whether there was a place for participatory arts. The two have come together in the pilgrimage.”

After the talks, and as pies are being demolished, I ask some of the SceneMakers their opinions:

“I liked the idea of people from different disciplines coming together to make an interesting arts project,” says Ashleigh.

CS_070715_0086-Edit“It was very inspiring and motivating,” says Rebecca, “it’s definitely given me something to think about.”

“Fantastic,” says Phil. “Really good to get an insight into how artists have brought work into the community. And inspiring to see weird and wonderful ideas getting off the ground.”

“Do you think something like that could happen in North Kirklees?” I ask.

“Yes I do,” he says emphatically. “If they can do it, then we can too.”

“And what did you think of the pie?”

“Superb,” says Phil, dislodging a crumb from his upper lip. “I generally prefer a little more filing but I’ll give it 8 out of 10. You have to remember I’m originally from Wigan where we are renowned for our pies so an 8 is pretty generous.”

Continued in Turn left at The Alps

Believe Me. Believe Me. Believe Me.

Not able to make the big event in two week’s time, I’ve invited myself to a planning meeting to get a flavour of the Variety Night at Bagshaw Museum.

As her alter ego Miss Inform, performance artist Jenny Wilson has been surprising visitors to the Bagshaw since the beginning of March, relating spoof snippets about the museum’s artefacts. She’s been supported by SceneMaker Philip Arrowsmith who has a special interest in alternative theatre.

We’re sitting around Creative Scene’s meeting table in their Dewsbury office, dunking Fox’s biscuits into our mugs.

“I’ve booked Pete for the children’s entertainment,” says Katy, one of Creative Scene’s project managers, “he’ll be doing his circus-out-of-a-suitcase routine.”

“He’s brilliant,” says Jenny. “And is he doing his plate spinning too?”

“Later, for the grown-up section of the evening,” says Katy.

“Perhaps he can pretend to spin an antique plate from the museum’s hidden collection,” suggests Jenny.

“And break it?” I say, only just keeping up.

“Exactly. That would be hilarious.”

Until now Philip has had a bit part, giving out information and explaining Miss Inform to mystified punters. I understand that for the Variety Night he too will get into character.

“He didn’t need much persuading,” says Jenny, “and, as we’re about the same size, there’s any number of costumes from my arsenal that will fit him.”

“So, what’s your character?” I ask Philip.

“I’ll be the Not-So-Celebrated Harehills Lane Prince,” he says with a straight face.

I must have looked very confused because Philip explains, “The Harehills Lane Prince is the name of a terrier dog that appears in one of the museum’s paintings. I’ll be its human incarnation.”

“Also known as ‘Mr Meanor’,” adds Jenny with a smile. “And I have a wonderful Prince Charming outfit that will be perfect.”

On my visit to the museum a few weeks back, Jenny was dressed as a seven-foot diva, a relic from the Batley Variety Club that closed in 1978. For the big night she’s planning to also emerge as her super hero, fairy godmother and flamboyant-romance-novelist personas.

“And you’ll do the What’s-on-Miss-Inform’s-trolley routine in each character?” asks Katy.

“Absolutely,” says Jenny, “and sing a song each time.”

They discuss transforming one of the museum’s rooms into a cabaret with disco lighting and fizzy wine. They talk about a treasure trail, with Phil’s character as the first clue; and Jenny tells Katy that even the Museum’s curator will be getting involved.

“She’ll be ‘Dolly Mischief’, showing off a selection of dolls from their collection,” she says. “We’ve given them all their own personalities. One of them is called Bernard: she’s a bit bossy and after Dolly’s job.”

This is perhaps the most bizarre, yet entertaining meeting I’ve attended for some time.

“What happened to the people’s exhibit?” I ask. Over these preceding weeks Miss Inform and Philip have encouraged museum visitors to bring in items from home that had some special meaning to them. They’d collate the items for a temporary exhibition.

“We haven’t had as many donations as we’d have liked,” says Philip, “but we’re going to create a cabinet full of items donated by our fictitious characters.”

“And,” adds Katy, “The Museum of Hidden Treasures that’s been created by artists and shoppers at Dewsbury Market will be displayed on the night.”

“It sounds fantastic” I say, “shame I’ll miss it.”

“I plan to finish the night with a rendition of Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. You know the one?” says Jenny. “The last line is ‘Believe me, believe me, believe me,’ which I think will be quite an appropriate ending, don’t you?”

“Perfect,” I say. “I think I’ll use it as the title of the blog as well. See if anyone guesses.”

Photographs courtesy of Richard Tymon

“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.”