“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.”

Getting to know you

We’re downstairs at The Cocoa Lounge in Dewsbury between a tinned-up pub and a hair and beauty salon.

It’s the first time all the SceneMakers have been brought together and, for most, the first time they have met the Creative Scene team.

“A huge thank you to you all for coming out on this dark and windy evening,” begins project director Nancy as soon as everyone is settled.

“As you know Creative Scene is part of the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places programme and the idea is to get more people from this area involved in the arts, either as participants or as audiences.

“We’re doing things a bit differently here by talking to you – and people like you – to find out what you like to see; to get you involved in the programming decision-making and to support you to make different things happen.”

People shift forward in their seats as we hear about the investment that’s being made in North Kirklees and how the Scenemakers will be influential in how that money will be spent.

Nancy introduces Katy and Rebecca from the Creative Scene team and invites me to say something about my blog-writing role, which I do.

“And tonight, as a way of getting to know each other,” she continues, “we’re going to ask you what the arts mean to you: in your life, in your community, in society.”

CS_111214__0041-EditAyisha is here to get the conversations going and she starts things off with a couple of warm-up games which involve walking around the room pointing at things. This does the trick and the room is soon full of laughter. She then pairs people together suggesting they make up their own ‘pointing rule’. More laughter.

Afterwards, as finger food is served, I ask Phil what ‘rule’ he and his partner made up. “Our rule was about trying to find a rule,” he says, quizzically.

“Ah, a protest rule. Love it. Very creative,” I say.

As people are eating, small packs of cards are scattered about: coloured on one side with symbols and words on the other. “With the person next to you,” explains Nancy, “have a look at the cards and see if you’d like to set them out in some particular order. You might want to cluster them together, or put them in a line in order of importance. There are no right or wrong answers, just a way of starting a discussion about your feelings.”

CS_111214__0057-EditNext Ayisha splits the SceneMakers between two tables, each covered in a paper tablecloth with a question written in the middle. Rebecca’s group is tackling, ‘What would you like this place to feel like?’ and Katy’s is invited to comment on ‘What do the arts mean to you?’

“You’ll have 15 minutes for each question,” Ayisha explains, “and when it’s time to swap I’ll tap on my gong.” And, sure enough, she produces an ornate oriental gong with mallet, to set things going.

My tape recorder finds itself on Rebecca’s table. “So, any first thoughts? What would you like this place to feel like?” No one has to think for too long, and suggestions come thick and fast.



“And what about feelings?” prompts Rebecca. “What do we want people to feel?”




CS_111214__0088-Edit“Is it okay to pick some of these apart?” asks Rebecca, swapping pen colours. “What do we mean by ‘involved’?”

“It’s about being enlivened by art experiences and feeling changed by them in some way,” says Sonja.

“It’s about inspiring people to make changes for themselves,” says someone else.

“There has to be a movement, a shared movement, not just something that’s been imposed.”

Now they’re all talking at once. “That’s what being engaged and being involved should be about. It’s got to come from the community: a ‘roots-up’ movement.”

There are nods of agreement from around the table.

Continued in… Colour in a black and white world

Colour in a black and white world

Continued from… Getting to know you

Across the room Simon talks about art having the power to bring communities together: “I think community art is as important as individual art,” he says.

CS_111214__0138-Edit“And what does community art give you that other community things can’t?” asks Katy. Good question.

Simon compares art to sport: “Art gives you the ability to have conversations,” he says. “People can have different opinions, but it’s not an argument, it’s not like picking sides. Other things can be divisive but art can bring us all together.”

Katy: “If you were challenged about spending money on the arts, how would you defend that?”

Oh, I like that one. And the group are not short on answers.

“It brightens up your day.”

“It has health benefits.”

CS_111214__0102-Edit“It can regenerate a whole town,” someone else says. “It can generate income and stimulate jobs.” Suddenly the SceneMakers are all throwing in examples of places they know that are thriving because of festivals and fairs, and new ways of presenting art.

After Ayisha has banged her gong the groups swap round and my tape recorder picks up an interesting conversation on Rebecca’s What-would-you-like-this-place-to-feel-like table.

“Awake,” says Andrew.

Invited to elaborate, he says, “Most of us sleepwalk through our lives: we get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed. Perhaps art can wake us all up a bit.

“I was sleepwalking through my life and, a few years ago, I made a decision to say yes to doing new things in the arts. I’ve done so much, things I’d never dreamt I would ever do. So I think we all need to start saying yes to new opportunities.”

There is so much interesting discussion, I can hardly decide which table to concentrate on. Luckily, once it’s all over there’s feedback.

“We had loads of great suggestions about what art meant,” says Katy, starting with a quotation from Duncan, “Art, he said, is colour in a black and white world.” I like that.

Katy continues reading: “Art, people said, should be about escapism… art should be thought-provoking… if we have had a good art experience we should feel changed in some way… art feeds our brains and our emotions.”

“We’ll start to cluster all your ideas from these tablecloths and bring it all back to the next session,” says Nancy. “Then we’ll set out the programming opportunities and start to see how ideas might fit together.”

I know already that Creative Scene have made progress with some of their ‘programming strands’ and they have already – amongst others – placed artists in different workspaces; investigated the idea of pop-ups shops, and tested large scale digital projections.

As the session draws to a close there’s a real sense of excitement amongst these local art ambassadors and Nancy keeps the momentum going as they prepare to leave.

CS_111214__0164-Edit“Pick a card, any card,” she says, fanning out the coloured cards from earlier, “and take it home with you. Have conversations with other people over the festive season about their response to art, and tell us what happened next time we meet.”

The potential to bring communities together

The irony is not lost on me as I walk through the Edinburgh Woollen Mill outlet at The Mill, Batley. For over a hundred years Cheapside Mills – as these buildings were originally known – played their part in West Yorkshire’s woollen trade. Now they’re home to outlets whose merchandise most likely arrived by container ship.

CS_151214__0064-EditI’m here to see Sonja Martin, a SceneMaker from Heckmondwike and Cassandra Kilbride, a maker who is running workshops on the top floor.

Between Yankee Candle – apparently the world’s most recognised name in the candle business – and Massarella’s Restaurant, I find the two of them sitting at a small table covered in large balls of coloured wool.

Another woman is here too and, as Cassandra offers low key encouragement, Lyndsay and Sonja start to weave stands of wool and strips of random material in and out of the seven upright wooden pegs in front of them.

CS_151214__0014-Edit“So how did you hear about Creative Scene,” I ask Sonja as she adds her second weft.

“From a friend,” she says, “and I thought it was fantastic. Nothing much happens in my home town so it’d be great to help make a real difference there or anywhere in North Kirklees really.”

Sonja is passionate about the arts and feels Creative Scene has the potential to bring communities together, to touch people’s everyday lives. I wonder how it started for her.

“As a child, I was always making things, usually something from Blue Peter… but not always following their instructions. I think I’ve always been more arty than crafty.”

From picking up a leaflet at a playgroup when her boys were still toddlers, more than 15 years ago, Sonja enrolled on an arts taster course which lead, as these things do, to an NVQ in Youth and Community Arts and then an AS level in Fine Art.

I know that Cassandra’s workshops here at The Mill were recommended to Sonja by Creative Scene, but how, I ask, did Lyndsay get started?

“I just randomly walked past the sign a few weeks ago,” she says, pointing up at the board that advertises peg board weaving on Mondays, Bavarian crocheting on Wednesdays and ‘pudding pom-pom’ making on Sundays. “And now, pretty much every free second of the day I am crocheting. And when I’m at work I’m thinking about crocheting.”

“Really?” I ask, as if I’m some concerned counsellor. “And how long has this been going on for?”

“Only about a month. But I do get obsessed by certain crafts,” she says, “and crochet is my new obsession.”

I had no idea just how dedicated enthusiasts can get over their slip and chain stitches and it hadn’t crossed my mind that these two-hour sessions would be such a hotbed of informal mentoring and experience sharing.

As the wool strands are woven in and out, Sonja tells us about Enchanted Parks, an after-dark arts adventure in Gateshead she saw over the weekend; Cassandra describes her design for an installation she’s making for the shopping complex; and Lyndsay puts her two-penneth into our debate about arts versus crafts. It’s all really quite sociable.

As we are chatting, Fareeda arrives and quietly takes up the only remaining seat and begins to weave.

CS_151214__0023-Edit“You’re going to need a bigger table,” I suggest to Cassandra.

Fareeda lives locally and sat down at the peg boards for the first time only last week. “I like it,” she tells me, “it’s really interesting.”

“Have you done anything like this before?” I ask.

“No, nothing,” she replies. “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this.”

As I pack my bags I hear Fareeda ask if Cassandra could show her how to crochet and, walking up the hill back to Batley Station, I contemplate on what’s happening on that small table outside the restaurant.

In much the same way that playgroup leaflet changed Sonja’s life – and she’s about to help change others – it’s clear Fareeda’s interest in the arts has been ignited by these informal workshops and there’s no amount of evaluation that will uncover where that might lead.

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.”