“We’ve got a group of people called SceneMakers…”

“The minute the stage starts to rise you can see it’s not a conventional performance. It’s epic,” he says.

“How would you describe it?” I ask.

Simon thinks for a second. “Imagine you are stood on the top of a multi-storey car park looking down at what was going on way below you. Well it was like that but it was all in front of you, in the air.”

CS_281114_0011-EditIt’s a grey November afternoon and Simon Thirkill and I are on the edge of the cricket pitch at Heckmondwike Sports Club. He’s telling me about a demonstration of Wired Aerial Theatre that he’s recently seen in Blackpool.

“They did a little sequence with an actor on each corner of the stage, hung upside down doing a dance routine. It was as if they were in zero gravity with magnetic boots, just dancing upside down. Amazing.”

There’s a site visit today to investigate the possibility of ‘Wired’ doing a show here, on this little cricket ground half way between Huddersfield and Leeds.

“Here they are,” I say as a couple of cars pull up. There’s Nancy and Vicky from Creative Scene and Jamie, the technical director at Wired with Anaïs, from the production company, XTRAX. It’s as if the away team has just arrived.

Introductions are made as we make our way to to the clubhouse to meet Brian and Terry, the club’s chair and steward.

“We’re working for a project called Creative Scene,” begins project director, Nancy Barrett.  “A couple of years ago Kirklees Council, the Lawrence Batley Theatre and the Batley Festival successfully applied for some funding and so we’ve now got quite a large amount of money – £2 million – to spend in North Kirklees in the next three years.

“Part of the programme is to support local people in thinking about the kind of things they want to see in their areas. So we’ve got a group of people called SceneMakers – and Simon here is one – who have been visiting different places to see what inspires them.

“It’ll be the SceneMakers, people like Simon, who’ll help us make decisions about what we put on in Heckmondwike and elsewhere.”

CS_281114_0020-EditNancy explains that Creative Scene invited Simon to see Wired in Blackpool and, with no less enthusiasm, Simon describes yet again what captivated him: “It’s staggering to say the least. We saw it in the daytime, without lights, projection or music so I can only imagine the full production would be just awesome. If we brought it here to Heckmondwike, well, people would remember it for years, it would inspire people.”

I can see that Terry and Brian are intrigued and Jamie is now telling them about a new production they are working on. “It’s very early days for the new show,” he says, “but essentially it’s a play on light and features a young boy going on a journey…”

CS_281114_0035-Edit“What size of audience are you imagining?” asks Terry after everyone has ‘pitched’.

“A couple of thousand people?” suggests Nancy.

“That’s a lot of people,” says Terry. “And would you be thinking of putting it on the cricket or the football pitch?”

Both Terry and Brian look more relaxed when Jamie suggest it might work better on the football pitch, if it were to happen here.

“Shall we go and have a look outside?” says Brian, as everyone makes their way back under the darkening skies.

CS_281114_0045-EditIt’s been a short discussion but a productive one. As Jamie asks Brian if the football posts can be removed, I imagine coming back here in ten months time, rubbing shoulders with several hundred others as the place is transformed into the venue for a spectacle of outdoor theatre. It’s an exciting prospect.

As we head back to our cars, I ask Simon what he thinks. “If there’s an opportunity for it to come to Heckmondwike, or anywhere in North Kirklees,” he says, “then I’ve got to get involved and do what I can to make that happen. That’s why I’m here.”

Moving forward, making history

The psycho burger sounds intriguing but in truth the Blue Moon Café is singularly famous for its ‘Hecky breakfast’. That’s any combination of 12 breakfast items including black pudding, spam and hash browns. “You could have a dozen rashers of bacon if you really wanted,” explains Simon.

CS_060115_0166-Edit“Or 12 portions of baked beans?” I suggest, surveying the 50’s memorabilia that adorn every wall.

Although not as legendary as his all-day breakfast, Simon Thirkill has made an impression on Heckmondwike since he and his wife took on the café some years ago. He heads the Christmas lights committee – they’re older than Blackpool’s illuminations – and is passionate about bringing people together through culture.

“From day one the café has been a lovely little hub with really nice customers,” he says, “and we got involved in the community straight away.”

Sadly we’re not here to eat. The café is now closed for the day and Nancy from Creative Scene has organised a reccé to discuss some of Simon’s ideas. Chris from Impossible Arts is here too, to give his professional opinion.

We negotiate the traffic on Westgate to stand outside the HSBC Bank in front of two forlorn-looking red phone boxes. Simon’s idea – which came out of a conversation with customers – is to adopt the boxes and convert them into some sort of beacon of creativity on the high street. A traditional icon with a cutting-edge twist.

“If we can preserve these by doing something that is modern and up-to-date, that’d be perfect,” he says.

“I think they’re great,” says Nancy, “it’s about keeping the old structure but doing something totally contemporary… maybe with digital imagery.”

“It’d be good to have something back-illuminated, some sort of glowing images,” say Chris.

As I take some photographs in the fading light the three of them discuss the possibilities and the potential for getting young people involved in the project: “You could create some game-based console which you could play, control or affect it in some way. That could be fun,” says Chris.

CS_060115_0230-EditNext we walk a few yards to the site of the new bus station. Sparks fly as a workman with an angle grinder helps install a brand new shelter. We’re looking for potential walls on which large-scale digital projections could be thrown.

“The space in the middle will be open and landscaped,” Simon explains, “and we’ll be moving our Christmas lights switch-on here from next year.”

There are dark stone walls on two sides but a stretch of white wall along McQuinn’s Bodyshop. “It’s harder to get the contrast and detail on the darker walls but that’s wide and flat,” says Chris, “so that might work.”

We’re across the main road again and into Westgate 23, the newly-refurbished pub next to the Blue Moon. Ben is behind the bar and the banter flies between them as Simon asks his neighbour if we can have a look in the function room.

“Smells like it’s been newly painted,” I say as we all troop in as if we’re inspecting wedding reception venues.

“How many could it seat, do you think?” asks Nancy and Simon begins to pace the brand new carpet.

“35 or 40,” he says, “with others propping up the bar.”

One of his customers has passed on a reel of Super 8 film which apparently includes 1960’s footage of the famous Heckmondwike Christmas lights. The plan is to show the film as the first in a series of workshops to get local people involved in some, as yet unspecified, art activity.

“Creative Scene is having the film digitised,” explains Simon. “We’ll see what’s on it and take it from there.”

What with the café, the phone boxes and the Super 8 film I can see Simon has a strong sense of nostalgia and local history intertwined with his love of art. “History’s not something that’s gone,” he tells me. “We’re creating history all the time as we move forward. And that’s something I’m just beginning to appreciate.”

Music to their ears

I can’t believe how quickly this idea is moving forward and I think SceneMakers Andrew and Simon are surprised too.

A few weeks ago they were guests of Opera North’s education director Jacqui Cameron, sitting around a meeting table at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, discussing the possibility of what has now been dubbed ‘The Batley Opera’.

Tonight it’s Dewsbury’s turn to host and the group has now added Nancy Barrett, Creative Scene’s director and Tim Pottier from Opera North who apparently knows a thing or two about staging performances in unconventional venues.

CS_130415_0032-EditThe town hall clock chimes seven as Nancy welcomes the visitors: “We’re tasked with finding new ways of engaging North Kirklees audiences with the arts. Traditionally there has been a low take-up of arts opportunities in this area.

“Andrew and Simon are two of our brilliant SceneMakers, local people who act as art ambassadors to help us develop our programme,” she says, “They’ve got going much quicker than I anticipated and I’m really keen to support them.”

Next Andrew gets Tim up to speed. He tells him how the original off-the-wall idea has developed and, after subsequent meetings, looks closer to becoming a reality. “We’re currently thinking of the Frontier nightclub on Bradford Road.”

When it opened in 1967 Batley Variety Club was often dubbed the Vegas of the North, attracting big name musical talent and popular comedians. Headliners included Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong, The Hollies, The Three Degrees, Tommy Cooper and dozens more. In 1978 the club was taken over and re-named The Frontier to cater for a different style of entertainment. There’s a darts evening with rugby league players advertised on its website just now.

“… it would be an evening that celebrates opera,” says Andrew. “Hopefully working with local schools and groups, a free event for people who wouldn’t normally experience it.”

Tim is enthusiastic and admits to enjoying the challenges of putting on performances in different venues.

CS_130415_0013-EditAt their last meeting Andrew and his colleagues heard about Opera North’s Whistle Stop Opera, a mini version of the real thing with just a handful of musicians and performers.

“Could we build our evening around the Whistle Stop?” he asks.

“Yes, we could,” says Jacqui. “And we have workshop leaders that go into schools. So there’s a good fit there as well.”

“The Whistle Stop Opera is an idea that is built to go into unusual locations,” says Tim. “So in that sense it would work very well. But it’s very self contained and I think you’re looking for entertainment over a whole evening. The Whistle Stop would only be a 20- or 30-minute element.

“It’d be better to be more organic and have everyone involved,” he continues. “Maybe one of the actors from the Whistle Stop could link the evening together, play different parts and get people interacting.”

CS_130415_0024-EditTim helpfully describes other projects he’s been involved in that might offer some inspiration. The Batley Opera proposal seems to be evolving into an evening that combines professional, amateur and school performances.

“And in an unusual location the audience can travel around the performing location, there can be several different stages,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a fixed performing position. I quite like performances that travel around a building.”

“The Frontier lends itself to that,” says Simon, “it’s a huge venue. There’s a stage that extends, and a dance floor with elevated DJ area.”

The group talks about school workshops, venue capacity, timescales, lighting, costumes and the possibility of including local groups.

“There are a lot of amateur dramatic, choral societies and voluntary arts groups that are very active in our area,” says Nancy. “It would be good if some could get involved.”

Andrew asks the visitors for an idea of costs. When it comes to it Creative Scene will be paying the bills but Nancy isn’t daunted.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she says, “so I would urge you to think big.”

“It’s good to have a blank canvas,” says Tim. “We can be really creative and produce something very exciting.”

“Great,” says Nancy as the town hall clock strikes eight.

The iron men of Crosby

It feels like an end of term school trip to the seaside which makes Ashleigh the new girl in class.

Actually it’s another art adventure with Creative Scene and we’re off to Crosby beach to see Anthony Gormley’s iron men and then to meet the artist himself. To mark its 10-year anniversary he’s talking at the magnificent St George’s Hall in the centre of Liverpool.

“What do you know of Antony Gormley?” I ask Ashleigh who’s become the latest SceneMaker.

“Well, I know of The Angel of the North obviously,” she says, “but I’ve never seen any his work in the flesh.”

“Or in the cast iron,” I suggest.

CS_290615_0034-EditAshleigh and her husband have recently moved to Dewsbury where he’s the assistant pastor at an Evangelical church in town. Originally from Zimbabwe, she’s a practicing artist who came across Creative Scene after seeing the Museum of Hidden Delights project on the market.

“And what do you make of West Yorkshire?”

“It’s really pretty and the people all speak their minds,” she says with a laugh, “which is a good thing. But it seems all the arts activity – exhibiting opportunities, workshops – are in Leeds or Huddersfield. There’s almost nothing around here.”

The minibus is buzzing with shared experiences around the arts. SceneMaker Simon is showing Creative Scene’s Rebecca a video of an outdoor dance performance he’s recently enjoyed at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival in London, and SceneMaker Sonja – here with her friend Liz – is telling me about how public art in Filey and Scarborough has become a magnet for each resort.

Our driver, Naz parks up by Crosby Leisure Centre and we pile out and make a beeline for the ice cream van. We’re at the seaside after all. “I’m surprised how widely spaced they are,” says Liz as shoes are discarded and we step onto the beach, “you could mistake them for real people.”

We make our way to the nearest rusting statue, each of us chipping in what we know about Another Place. “100 all together… 17 different casts of the artist’s body… all numbered… this one’s number 64…do you think they’ve been embellished in certain parts?”

CS_290615_0082-EditCS_290615_0094-Edit “They look sad,” Ashleigh says after we’ve seen a couple of ‘men’, “their eyes are closed and there’s no expression on their faces. I like that there are lots of them and not just one, it feel like it’s about all of us.”

While we walk between one version of Gormley to another, I take the opportunity to ask Simon about his SceneMaker experiences. “How has it changed your view?”

“It’s changed me and my opinions,” he says frankly. “When we first spoke I was a bit  blinkered but now I understand much more the relationship between art, economy and place. I can see art as a way of anchoring a community.

“Look at this place,” he says, waving an arm, “this was only meant to be temporary but local people demanded it should stay because it was having such an impact. Heckmondwike too has the potential to be really creative and attract people to do creative things.

“Creative Scene has empowered me and hopefully I can empower the town. I know that sounds a bit arrogant and ambitious but people have to do what they believe in doing.”

CS_290615_0125-EditAfter negotiating the jellyfish and leaving a Creative Scene badge on number 76 – it’s already wearing a waistcoat – we head into town hoping to see a dazzle ship in the Albert Dock. Instead we run out of time and end up racing across St George’s Plateau eating our fish and chips, much to the disdain of Albert and Victoria looking down from their bronze horses.

CS_290615_0226-EditThis Liverpool Biennial event is in the resplendent Small Concert Hall dominated by a huge crystal chandelier. Steered by his interviewer, Gormley talks briefly about his iron men: “It doesn’t feel like my work anymore,” he says, “it’s now become part of the place.”

The highlight is when his comments on heroism, Classicism, Stonehenge, place-making, collecting birds eggs, and natural selection culminate in a fan asking if she can have a selfie with Sir Antony.

CS_290615_0268-EditThere’s mixed views afterwards. Some hoped to be inspired or know more about the process of putting his 100 men on the local beach. “I like what he said about trying to make people think and feel in a different way,” says Sonja.

“I tweeted that I’ve been listening to Antony Gormley with Crosby beach sand between my toes,” declares Rebecca, “which is now getting a little unpleasant.”

Julie Andrews, Santa and the Hecky Heads

I first met SceneMaker Simon Thirkill on a soggy cricket pitch this time last year. He and Creative Scene were over the way at Heckmondwike Cricket Club investigating the possibility of staging a theatrical experience at deep square leg.

Money, space and time thwarted that particular extravaganza, but in these last 12 months Simon has – in many other ways – thoroughly embraced his role as a SceneMaker.

CS_241115_014-EditThis afternoon, I’m sitting in his Blue Moon Café eavesdropping on a planning meeting for this weekend’s HeckmondLIGHT event. It’s the annual Christmas lights switch-on, with a Creative Scene spin.

“At 6.30 we’ll have the countdown and, as soon as we hit zero, Santa and our special guest will push the plunger and the lights will come on,” Simon is telling creative producer Vicky.

CS_241115_022-EditHeckmondwike’s illuminations are legendary. A gas-powered version first appeared in the town in 1893, beating Blackpool as the earlier illuminations: a cheeky first back then for a small town that felt more confident than its larger industrial neighbours.

This year, to boost the stage show and fun fair, Creative Scene has booked a number of alternative performance artists to bring some creative chaos to the town’s green.

“Look, the lights are going up,” says Simon as two hi-vis-clad workmen walk past the café window with a frame of coloured neon. I’m besides myself at this bizarre scene and, grabbing my camera, race down the high street after them.

CS_241115_039-EditVicky and Simon are working their way through the running order on my return. There’s talk of dance troupes and X Factor finalists. “For the blog piece,” I interrupt, “can you describe some of the new acts that’ll come to Hecky this year?”

Vicky tells of an ice cream van that gives away tea lights in wafer cones; illuminated stilt walkers and a street orchestra; a digital fun fair, and a giant coloured heart that only lights up when two people hold hands to connect the circuit.

“And then there’s the Hecky Heads,” Simon says, “which are three enormous plastic heads onto which people’s faces are back-projected. Chris from Impossible Arts makes the lips move, eyes blink, that sort of thing. Hopefully they’ll be talking, singing and humming tunes. This town’s got quite a few famous musical connections, you know.”

I didn’t know but I’m about to find out a whole lot more about this West Yorkshire town that punches above its weight.

In the corner of the bar next door Chris is introducing the Hecky Heads idea to two women I haven’t met before. “Three giant heads… illuminated… people come along and have their faces projected…”

“Sounds wacky,” says one of the women.

“Yes, it is quite wacky,” says Chris, “and then we manipulate the lips to make them say things… hopefully some of the things you’ll tell me.”

“So it will be someone else’s voice?” I ask, only just keeping up.

Erica Amende is Secretary of Spen Valley Civic Society and Kathryn Harrison is Chair of Spen Valley Historical Society. Chris has brought these two knowledgeable women together to sit in front of his microphone. Theirs will be two of the voices coming out of the giant plastic heads on Saturday night.

The bar is too noisy for recordings so I ask if we can use the function room. “It’s a bit cold,” says the manageress, “I’ll put the heating on for you.”

For the next twenty minutes we hear about some of the famous people who have come from these parts. There’s a chairman of the National Coal Board; the ‘inventor’ of rugby league; the composer of the Archers theme tune and a Sunday school teacher who used a novel way of teaching illiterate children and adults to sing.

CS_241115_047-Edit“There’s a plaque in the middle of The Green to John Curwen,” says Kathryn, consulting her notes, “who was born in Heckmondwike in 1816. He developed the radical do-re-mi teaching method that was made world famous in The Sound of Music.” Erica sings the line in accompaniment.

“Singing would have been a big thing in Heckmondwike a century ago,” explains Erica. “The Green was surrounded by well-attended chapels and singing was very popular.”

“As it will be again… on Saturday night,” I suggest.

“This is really good stuff,” says Chris, “so thank you. I’ve got some great material for the heads now.”

Check out our next post on Making a Scene to read what happened to the Hecky Heads.