Elephants and gorillas roaming Heckmondwike

“That looks like a likely wall,” says Chris as we drive into town.

Simon and a couple of his HeckmondLIGHT volunteers are waiting for us in the Westgate 23 pub. There’s Liam – he has his own sound engineering business – and regular supporter Connor.

“So, what’s the plan?” asks Creative Scene director, Nancy as we all stand under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth.

“Tonight’s a test,” explains Chris from Impossible Arts, “I’ve brought a generator and large projector. Because it’s so wet, we’ll have to project from inside the van.”

This is the first of a number of ‘guerrilla projections’ where Chris parks close to a suitable ‘screen’, fires up his projector and advertises next week’s light festival to passers-by.

“So no gorilla outfits then?” jokes Simon, “I’m quite disappointed about that.”

Chris heads back to his van as the rest of us walk towards the bus hub. “Not long to go now. Is the excitement mounting for HeckmondLIGHT?” I ask Simon.

“Excitement and trepidation,” he says.

“Why’s that?”

“The Festival is much bigger this year. It’s a massive leap forward. When it all kicks off with the Momentum Wheel, I think people are going to be in awe.”

Simon and Chris have collaborated closely this year, wining an Arts Council of England grant to construct a bespoke structure that will make the switch-on go off with a bang.

Last week Simon visited the hilltop workshop of mechanical sculptor Andy Plant to check on progress of their giant ‘wheel’. “What did you make of it?” I ask.

“It’s far bigger than I’d imagined,” he says as we cross the A638. “With all the chains and pulleys it has that industrial feel, doesn’t it? It has one foot in the past but then, with all the digital lighting, it has another in the future. It works really well for what we’re trying to do.”

cs_181116_061-editA huge projector points out of the van. Chris taps on his laptop and, after some tweaking, a series of animations begin, promoting the Festival and stirring the interest of passengers coming and going. Nancy hands out leaflets to a mother and daughter as they get off the 268.

cs_181116_085-edit“What’s all this?” asks one of the teenagers killing time in a shelter.

“We’re advertising next week’s HeckmondLIGHT,” I say. “Will you be coming?”

“I go every year,” says Lewis.

“Make sure you’re there for the switch-on at 6.30. There’s something special this year.”

Our next guerrilla stop is Firth Park across the way. Chris is keen to see how the projection works on a darker wall. Within minutes an elephant is balancing on a circus ball on the side of the pavilion.

cs_181116_139-edit“That works,” says Chris to Liam as they sit together in the back of the van, working through the technicalities.

“Liam provides a lot of the lighting for the local amateur dramatic societies,” explains Nancy as we watch the elephant wobble. “We’re helping him develop his projection skills with this project. It’d be good for his business.”

The rain continues to lash. “Let’s leave it at that for tonight,” says Chris. “I’ll be back again next week. We’ll have another go then.”

Preparations for HeckmondLIGHT gain momentum

“Where does the idea come from?” I ask Chris as Andy nips back to his kitchen to brew up.

“We were thinking how we could make the countdown to the lights switch-on more of an event,” he says. “Something special.”

cs_101116_059-editChris Squire from Impossible Arts has collaborated with HeckmondLIGHT for the last couple of years. This year he and festival organiser Simon Thirkill are using an Arts Council grant to create a showpiece light sculpture that will kick off this year’s event on Saturday, 26th November.

“So the Momentum Wheel was born?” I say.

“Exactly. Essentially it’s a giant Catherine wheel that’s triggered to spin as the fizzing blue touchpaper reaches it. It will appear to be powered by pyrotechnics but actually it’s powered by this hand-cranking system.”

We’re at the Hebden Bridge workshop of mechanical sculptor Andy Plant, high above the Upper Calder Valley, just metres from the Pennine Way.

Andy’s workshop has all the wizardry of a fabricating shop – a milling machine, band saw, welders – plus all the bizarre paraphernalia – segments of clock faces, bundles of willow, bits of drum kit – of an artist’s studio.

This afternoon, as the light fades, the giant wheel is being tested. With all its sprockets and chains, magnets and LED lights, it’s a mixture of traditional and contemporary technologies all of which have to work together.

“Do you take sugar?” asks Andy holding out a welcome tray of steaming tea and chocolate biscuits.

Dave Chadwick from the fire and pyrotechnic specialists pa-BOOM is here too, to discuss the firework element of the Momentum Wheel.

“It’s a bit smoke and mirrors really,” he says when I ask him if this project is particularly challenging, “we can’t have lots of wires dangling everywhere because the wheel is spinning, so we’ll be using remote firing boxes instead. The challenge is to find the right combination of pyrotechnics.”

cs_101116_062-edit“If we could tip it on its back it might be easier,” says Andy as they manhandle the structure onto its stand at the front of the workshop. “For the event I’ll weld some runners on so we can drag it along the floor. That will make a huge difference.”

The three men successfully assemble the five-metre metal Catherine wheel and Andy and Chris stand at its base turning the handles that rotate windmill-like arms above.

cs_101116_096-edit“On the outside the pyro effects will look as if its rocketing around,” explains Chris, happy that everything works. “In the middle is a digital image. As the wheel spins the LEDs show different parts of the picture. Once it’s at the right speed your brain is fooled into thinking it can see the whole image.”

“Very clever.” I say.

With Andy still cranking, Chris taps his mobile phone and a faint magenta image appears in the centre of the wheel.  “Can you tell what it is yet?” He taps again. “How about that?”

“It needs to get a bit darker yet,” says Andy.

cs_101116_108-editAs they wait for the advancing dusk, the three of them stand around the base of the wheel discussing the sequence of pyrotechnic events.

“The touchpaper should fizz,” says Chris, “and the wheel should start to move: SCHUMPH! SCHUMPH! SCHUMPH!”

“And then the fire cans go off…” says Andy. “PER-TOOPH! PER-TOOPH!”

“And the firecrackers… PER-CHEW! PER-CHEW!” says Dave, waving his arms.

“And then, for the finale,” says Andy, “maybe some loud firework from the very top of the structure. POW!”

“The bang could be the cue to switch on the lights,” says Chris.

“Absolutely,” says Dave “And I have some flamey things that would work well.”

“Flame would be good,” agrees Chris.

“Flamey things?” I ask, making notes. “Is that a technical term?”

HeckmondLIGHT is on Saturday 26th November, from 4.00 to 8.00pm

Getting fired up for HeckmondLIGHT

“I like the smell of fireworks,” says Simon as the smoke from a lobbed firecracker wafts towards the pavilion in the middle of Firth Park.

Already a dozen or more have gathered for tonight’s launch event for HeckmondLIGHT, a new light festival that is being built around Heckmondwike’s historic illuminations event and Christmas lights switch-on at the end of next month.

Local café owner Simon Thirkill is the driving force behind some new light art commissions and, with his partner Kimberley, is a ferocious supporter of all things creative in North Kirklees. “Tonight is another step in the process,” he says as we move inside, “we’ll be explaining what we’re hoping to do and encouraging more people to get involved. We’re expecting a lot of new faces.”

cs_311016_008-editMore gather. There’s John from the local civic society; Councillor Steve Hall; Yong-Geun from the Salvation Army; Creative Scene supporters, Sonja, Duncan and Julia, and indeed lots of faces I don’t recognise.

Artists Rozi Fuller and Liz Walker are grappling with a sand drawing and shadow projection set-up in the corner – a demonstration of their contribution to the festival – while newcomers help themselves to mulled wine.

cs_311016_011-editFollowing a short intro from Creative Scene’s Vicky, Simon explains the historical significance of the town’s illuminations which pre-date Blackpool’s. “I think it’s our community’s responsibility to prepare HeckmondLIGHT for the next 150 years,” he says.

Next up is Eleanor, one half of the Bradford-based Brick Box duo whose art, she says, often finds its way onto the street. “We love the big spectacles at light festivals but we also like the intimate experiences too, so we’re bringing our electric fireside to Heckmondwike.”

The ‘fireside’, she explains with a short video, is an amalgamation of electric fires around which people gather to share their stories. Love it.

Chris Squire of Impossible Arts is now on his feet. He and Simon have history. Last year, HeckmondLIGHT commissioned Chris to make the ‘Hecky Heads’ that literally put words into the mouths of the audience and projected them onto giant screens. Since then the Heads have been seen at light festivals all over the country.

This year, after a successful bid to Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts, Simon and Chris will bring something new to the festival.

“It’s called the Momentum Wheel,” explains Chris excitedly. “Imagine as part of the countdown to switch-on, some big blue touchpaper is lit… it hisses and fizzes, and then finally flames erupt from this giant sculpture…”

As he waves his arms to suggest flames erupting, the local firework lobbers send a loud one towards the pavilion door that makes us all jump. It is Halloween after all.

heckylight_edited-1-editAfter Vicky has given us a flavour of other artists on the festival line-up – glowing jugglers, a walk-through LED installation and a luminous brass band – she introduces Dr Steve Millington, tonight’s star turn.

“Steve and his team at Manchester Metropolitan University has been researching light festivals and their place and tradition in communities worldwide,” she says.

“There’s nothing new about light festivals,” Steve begins, “they are part of many communities’ cultural inheritance.”

For the next 20 minutes the senior lecturer in Human Geography has us all enthralled about light festivals. We hear about their social and cultural significance; their potential to produce a wide range of emotions: the ‘transformative capacity of light’.

Steve and his colleagues have already researched why local residents deck their homes with Christmas lights – the most basic of light festivals, he says – and why Blackpool maintains its allure for the thousands who visit the Illuminations year after year.

He introduces us to his colleague Gail, herself a producer of a community lights festival in Salford, and between them they’ll be chatting to festival-goers in Heckmondwike to help evaluate the event.

“What did you think about that?” I ask Simon afterwards. “He talked a lot about creating a space for people to come together.”

“That’s really important and that’s exactly our motivation for putting on HeckmondLIGHT. He’s put into perspective all our thinking. That talk has been really good for me.”

HeckmondLIGHT is on Saturday 26th November, from 4.00 to 8.00pm

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.”

“My mindset has shifted dramatically.”

“Did you get very, very wet?” I ask on the phone.

Heckmondwike café owner Simon Thirkill has been a SceneMaker for twelve months now and I’m keen to hear his reflections but first I must get an update from Saturday’s event.

“I got soaked through to the skin,” Simon laughs. “Four changes of clothes in one day.”

Driving wind and torrential rain forced other West Yorkshire towns to cancel their weekend Christmas lights switch-ons, but not Heckmondwike. I’d already heard that the Hecky Heads had to be dismantled and moved into the market hall for safety.

An Evening in Hecky

“Presumably you didn’t get a big crowd because of the weather?” I ask.

“Not at all,” says Simon, who I can almost imagine still dripping, “We had a fantastic turnout. In previous years we’d have 4-5,000 people. I guess there were upwards of 2,000 braving it on Saturday.” Not bad for a town with a 17,000 population.

“What was your highlight?”

“I think having Conner pushing the plunger with Santa.” Conner, Simon explains, is a young man with learning difficulties who volunteers at every Heckmondwike event. “He’s always really enthusiastic, a real asset to the community. It was good to acknowledge a local person rather than wheeling in a celebrity… and he was made up.”

“Did you imagine the last twelve months would turn out the way they have?”

“Back then my motivation was commercial: to get as many people into the centre of town to support the businesses. But my mindset has shifted dramatically. Now the focus is on staging quality events for the community to come together and enjoy. It’s their experience that’s critical, not footfall.”

“And what feedback have you had so far from Saturday night?”

“After past events there’d often be some criticism,” says Simon. “This time the first person I heard from was the cashier at Morrisons. She told me everyone coming in the store after the event was absolutely buzzing. In fact, I’ve not heard one negative comment and that’s fantastic.”

Part of Simon’s SceneMaker ‘training’ has been a series of investigative trips to other art festivals and big events. He’s been to see light bulb clouds in Durham; shadow theatre in Bromsgrove and aerial choreography in Greenwich.

“It’s not like visiting a gallery or seeing a play. I want to know how these events are produced, what’s gone on in the background. For Luminaire in Durham, Creative Scene arranged for me to go early to see the set-up. Now I can transfer all that knowledge to my own community.”

“Do you remember back on the cricket pitch you told me your tastes were quite traditional?” I say.

“I was a purist,” he says, “but now all that has changed too. Bizarrely I’ve developed a passion for urban street art and am in touch with street artists all over Europe.”

“So, has the SceneMaker experience changed you personally?”

“A year ago things were a bit mundane,” Simon admits. “Now we,” – he and his wife, Kimberley – “go to the theatre at least once a month and spend weekends on creative breaks to different cities: we’ve seen three Gormleys now. It sounds corny but art now feeds my soul.”

I was aware Simon had been on his own cultural journey but hadn’t realised just how transformational it had been. The whole idea behind the SceneMakers programme is to build skills and confidence amongst local cultural entrepreneurs like Simon, that will sustain and inspire them. Does he, I wonder, feel he and his fellow volunteers could stage quality local events post-Creative Scene?

“HeckmondLIGHT – and HeckmondFRIGHT before it – have been massive learning curves. It’s opened my eyes to how much detail there is organising events like these. I’ve still got a lot to learn. My priority now is to get more local people to volunteer but we’re on the right road and maybe in two or three years we could – subject to funding – be putting these events on ourselves.”

HeckmondLIGHT photographs courtesy of Charlotte Graham