“It’s familiar but also a little bit surreal.”

“Let your arms and legs relax… take some big deep breaths… begin to feel totally relaxed.”

cs_231116_038-editI’m at Heckmondwike Community Centre, host to the local scout group, karate club, and St John’s Ambulance. The after school club has not long packed up and now the younger section of the West Yorkshire Drama Academy has taken over the two-storey hall. It’s a busy place.

cs_231116_013-edit“Do you remember last week I gave you all leaflets about HeckmondLIGHT?” asks Academy head and Creative Scene supporter, Rebecca Foster. “Well tonight we have a couple of visitors who will explain to us how we might get involved.”

cs_231116_070-editEleanor from The Brick Box and her collaborator Chemaine join the circle and begin to tell us about their Electric Fireside installation that’s coming to Heckmondwike this Saturday.

“Light festivals often have something spectacular like fireworks or large illuminations – and HeckmondLIGHT has all of that – but we decided to create something more intimate,” says Eleanor. “So we’ve made something called the Electric Fireside.”

“When I was a kid – back in the 70s – we’d sit round my grandma’s electric fire, eat crumpets and listen to her stories.

“Back in the old days people would sit around an open fire, tell tales, play music and sing songs. Nowadays we gather round the telly, don’t we?”

Eleanor explains that the Fireside itself is made from five old electric fires with a mantlepiece in the middle and ornaments on top. “It’s familiar but, at the same time, a little bit surreal,” she says.

“We’ve taken it all over the country,” says Chemaine, “and each group has done something special that creates a spark around the Fireside. Already we can see this group has something special.”

“We’d like to invite you to come along on Saturday and perform whatever you’d like,” says Eleanor.

“It doesn’t have to be a drama piece,” reiterates Rebecca to the now fired-up young people. “It could be a poem – I know lots of you have written amazing poems – or a song or some sort of story.”

“Pick the thing that you love to do the most,” suggests Chemaine as the performers split into groups to conjure something up. “We work really quickly,” says Rebecca, “it’s all about improv.”

As the emerging performers bounce ideas around and rehearse cameos, I hear that Eleanor and Chemaine have already lined up other groups to host the Fireside this weekend. “We’ve been speaking with the Spen Valley Civic Society,” says Eleanor, “who will be sharing local history stories. And the Salvation Army will sing songs. Oh, and Father Christmas will make an early appearance.”

cs_231116_079-editcs_231116_077-editIn one corner of the hall, under the scout flag, Pheobe, Leah and Ariana are plotting to sing a Shawn Mendis song; elsewhere Spencer and Louis are meditating, thinking up ideas; and sat opposite each other Iara and Olivia are rehearsing a piece with Lucas’ help.

“What’s your idea?” I ask them.

“There are two characters but they’re the same person,” says Olivia whose ambition I’m told is to be the first female Doctor Who. “One of them is before the incident and the other is after it. It’s about what they are and what they’ve turned into.”

“And you’re just making this up on the spot?”

“Pretty much.”

hecky_dramaAfter about half an hour the circle is recreated, the lights switched off and the performers lit by a ring of mobile phone torches.

“So much love, so much light,” says Iara as she and Olivia take their turn to perform.

“So much pain, so much destruction,” retorts Olivia.

It’s a powerful, emotive piece. “Does everything we do have to be light and cheery?” Rebecca asks as the girls sit down.

“You can’t have the light without the dark,” says Eleanor.

The Electric Fireside will be in the covered market between 4-8pm as part of HeckmondLIGHT this Saturday, 26th November.

The Batley Festival: a Creative Scene’s Who’s Who

Yeshe the Yak is lolling around the Memorial Gardens as I arrive. “Go on, tickle him under his chin, he likes that,” encourages his trainer.

cs_100916_143-editThe fifth Batley Festival is well underway and the town centre has been transformed into a cornucopia of craft stalls, performances, walkabouts, workshops and all-round artiness.

A giant henna-inspired pavement mosaic is being created outside the police station; a Balkan brass band belts out the beats and Madame Zucchini entertains the crowds with Boris the Butternut Squash.

Six-year-old Evie is spraying water at a couple of performers dressed as hedges. Her parents tell me they’re regulars at this annual Batley celebration.

“And have you heard of Creative Scene before?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” they say emphatically, “we helped decorate a chair at the Cobbles café, didn’t we Evie?”

cs_100916_089-editBetween the bouncy castle and circus skills workshop there’s a queue to ride on the Life Boat, billed as ‘the slowest ride on earth’.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I say to Jason from the Institute for Crazy Dancing, as a colleague slowly pushes the merry-go-round of hammocks, reciting the Life Boat A to Z as she does.

J is for joy

K is for kindness, and 

L is for love, and is there ever enough?

cs_100916_136-edit“It’s the only one of its kind,” says Jason, beating a drum and rattling a chain, “you won’t find this on eBay.”

“And what experience are you giving your punters with Life Boat?” I ask.

“It’s about slowness, kindness and gentleness,” he says. “Everyone is endlessly racing around. It’s an opportunity to slow down, relax and think about the world differently.”

“I could do with some of that.”

As the afternoon progresses, I meet more and more people I’ve written about before. It’s a Creative Scene’s Who’s Who: local people who’ve been getting involved in the arts seem to have descended on the festival as stewards, performers, volunteers or supporters. It’s good to see.

There’s teenage Kira who performed in The Jungle Book production as part of Lawrence Batley Theatre’s Young Company, now toting a festival donation bucket; Graeme and his colleagues from Batley Community Choir – a hit as part of Batley Does Opera – have just sung in the Town Hall; Tracey from the Put Yourself in Their Shoes performance at Holocaust Memorial  Day is sporting a volunteer’s yellow hi-vis and Rebecca from West Yorkshire Drama Academy is here with her young mentees.

“I like the way everything is mixed together,” says Rebecca. “It’s helpful for community groups to work alongside established artists as it widens their creative exposure. Without realising it, they’re learning new skills.”

cs_100916_008-editTowards the end of the day, performance trio Kitch and Sync make another appearance, this time as synchronised swimmers. Young and old are encouraged to follow their lead and seven-year-old Ammaarah tells me later that she did her best to tire them out with some outrageous dancing.

cs_100916_271-edit“What have you enjoyed about the festival today?” I ask her dad, Zaheer.

“Everything,” he says. “We’ve been here since one o’clock and haven’t made it home yet. We were thinking of going to Blackpool today but came here instead. We’re glad we did. Everyone has enjoyed themselves, the children, the adults, even my mother.”

“Are you coming to The Batley Picture Show this evening?”

“Yes,” interjects Ammaarah, “I’m going to go on my dad’s shoulders.”

 

“Touch and pass, kick some ass.”

“I was commissioned to hang around Batley Bulldogs to see if there was a play there,” says Kevin once everyone is settled around the table.

“I went to see the girls train, spoke to some of them and thought this is what I want to write about. As it happened, Batley Bulldogs Girls – who are UK champions – were about to go on tour to Queensland, Australia.”

CS_250516_008-EditThere are a dozen or more people around the big table in Creative Scene’s Dewsbury office. They’re all here for the first reading of The Ruck.

Playwright Kevin Fegan explains how he was invited to join the 60-strong tour group that, as well as the under 16s rugby league team, included parents, siblings and grandparents. “It was an amazing experience for us all, in different ways,” he says, cryptically.

“And so this is the outcome. It’s a developed first draft that I’m looking to improve so I’m hoping for some honest feedback from you all.”

CS_250516_016-EditThe readers include SceneMaker Rebecca and her students from the West Yorkshire Drama Academy, all poised to read their respective parts. For Kevin, and for the commissioners, it’s an opportunity to hear the play come alive.

Team captain Evie is here with her mum as is head coach Craig, with his eldest daughter and scrum half, Milly. They all know their experiences down under will feature heavily in what they’re about to hear.

“Okay,” says creative producer Vicky, “Let’s dive straight in. I’ll be reading stage directions. Scene One.”

For over an hour we hear how the team comes to terms with its latest recruit; how the players and their families prepare for departure and how, once arrived, relationships become strained in the antipodean sunshine. Evie’s mum giggles throughout.

ruck_reading-Edit“It sounds brilliant,” I say to Rebecca when they reach the end, “I can already imagine it on stage.”

“I don’t know a thing about rugby but I thought it was great,” she says. “For a first reading it was fantastic.

“There’s lots of drama in it,” she enthuses, “interesting relationships between believable characters, and important issues raised which is lovely to see. And I liked the reference to the famous people who’ve come from this area. It’s good to see Batley in a positive light.”

Fifteen-year-old Milly is swinging gently in one of the office chairs, “So, what was it like listening to that?” I ask.

“Good,” she says.

“You’ve done the double really: the first UK girls’ rugby team to tour abroad and now the first to inspire a play.”

Milly smiles broadly and her mum, Amanda, speaks for her: “It’s unbelievable really. So much of it brings back happy memories,” she turns towards her daughter, “when you all ran into the sea together and the bra incident… that was very funny.”

“I thought Kevin did well getting inside the heads of teenage girls from West Yorkshire,” I suggest to Evie at the other end of the table.

“On the way to games he’d come and sit at the back of the bus with us,” she says.

“Earwigging? For research purposes?”

“Listening to conversations,” she says, diplomatically.

“And what will you feel like in the theatre on that first night with lots of people watching this play and hearing about your escapades?”

“I don’t know,” says Evie. “I think it’ll be exciting.”

“It’ll be brilliant,” says her mum. “An amazing experience for all the girls, for all of us.”

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

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.