Horse + Bamboo. Whitworth Fire 1982. Bob Frith

Horse-drawn tours were what the company year revolved around, but they only took place during the summer months. Preparation, making, reconnaissance visits and rehearsals would normally start sometime in April, and the tours themselves would begin in July, usually finishing in early September.

Irwell Vale

This left over half the year, September through to March, for the company to do other work. From 1979 we helped organise a November 5thbonfire in Irwell Vale, which was our base until the beginning of 1985. People would bring fireworks, parkin, treacle toffee, or hot dogs. We would design and build the fire and a performance that always included live music. These were informal and enjoyable events. Audiences eventually grew from the 80 or so villagers living in Irwell Vale to several hundred by the 1980s.

Living in a small community there was no alternative but to enter whole-heartedly into its inner and outer life. In return we were naturally included into the village and appreciated for what we had to offer. People seemed to enjoy our daily training sorties out with horses and drays, and music rehearsals with the ban. They also made friends with a number of the Dutch artists living with us in the old foundry building, which was our main base.

The Irwell Vale site initially lacked both power and drainage. We dug a trench and installed our own power line. Drainage was more difficult and so we built a privy behind the redbrick workshop. We took advantage of the fact that the municipal sewage works was only half a mile away and carried the chemical toilet there whenever it was full, emptying it by hand into the tanks.

Whitworth

Another notable local event was an annual horse-fair in Whitworth, at the other end of the Rossendale Valley. We had got to know Walter Lloyd, the de facto squire of Whitworth, through Barbara Laishley (later Vijayakumar). Barbara was born in Whitworth and she had formed Centre Ocean Stream, a dance company influenced by Kathakali. Barbara was trained at the Kerala Kalamandalam, from which she graduated in 1976 as the first female and non-Indian Kathakali make-up artist in the world. Barbara also had a great love of horses.

Among many things, Walter kept a herd of fell ponies. He encouraged the travelling community to camp on his land in Whitworth centre for a week or so every year. The period of the fair was spent racing horses up and down the roads, buying and selling, music round the campfires after dark, and usually a few fist-fights. Understandably some of this alarmed the locals but, on the whole, each year the event passed in a relatively good humoured manner. Horse + Bamboo were encouraged by Walter to take part and we so we took to camping there. We would bring our current street shows and, later, the marquee and our summer show.

In 1982 we built a fifty foot high Wooden Horse on the high ground overlooking Whitworth (top). Because it could only be approached from the steep hill below, it stood against the skyline. It was truly impressive, and people would gasp at its impact on first sight. On the last night of the Whitworth Fair the Horse + Bamboo band led a torchlit parade up the hill. We went up the track past St. Bartholomew’s Church, and there set light to the giant Horse. Whitworth Horse Fair was a stop on the road to Appleby Horse Fair, the largest gathering of travellers in the country. That year they took with them the story of the Giant Burning Horse. It entered traveller legend, and for years after we were often flagged down by people who wanted to talk to us about the burning of the giant wooden horse in Whitworth.

Community Events

Community events quickly became part of what we did as a company. We were being asked to design and build fire events and large-scale community festivals throughout the country. For several years these were fun to be involved with and provided us with a constant source of interesting and creative challenges. As the crowds grew, health and safety concerns did too, and eventually the magic and excitement diminished. Of course this was entirely understandable, but the intimacy and community participation elements began to disappear. Crowd barriers, for example, began to become an increasing feature of the events. It culminated with a Lowry Centenary Fire in Salford in 1988 for a crowd of 9,000. The on-site live broadcast from Piccadilly Radio didn’t shut up even when The Fallout Marching Band played their set. Afterwards, I decided to finish with large civic set-piece bonfires. In any case, our motorised tours were developing well.

We were also organising large community festivals, the first of which was Midsummer Cabaret at Wolviston, in Cleveland in 1985, and soon after an even bigger scale event The 12 Curlicues of Pilton in the Devon village of Pilton near Barnstaple in 1987. The Pilton event had a large Horse + Bamboo team based in the village for three months. This involved hundreds of participants, tree-planting schemes, community workshops and classes, and three days of parades. There was a park full of handmade fairground booths, specially commissioned music and a permanent mosaic sign (made by Rakuworks) installed on a wall at the entrance to the village.

It wasn’t simply that these events were becoming bigger – there was a financial choice to be made. Either we concentrated our limited resources on the tours, or we specialised in these large-scale community events. By 1990 large public arts events were becoming more and more popular – and more sophisticated. Financially Horse + Bamboo wasn’t able to continue to do both. In my mind there was no argument about it. Touring theatre was what we did best and what I wanted to develop. Our work in this field was what I loved, and quite unlike what anyone else was doing.

In 1989 I directed the first Rossendale Festival, Rossfest, with a large amount of expertise and other support from Robin Morley. From that time on, with very few exceptions, our community programme has been focused in Rossendale. During the 1990s we held a series of ‘Irwell Day’ festivals at Groundwork in Rawtenstall, close to our New Hall Hey workshop. Then, with a move in 1996 to new premises in Waterfoot and the opening of the Boo, we discovered that we had our own home theatre space. The Boo soon began to act as a venue for other visiting companies too. Both as a place to perform at and to use our facilities and mentoring to help and develop their own work. Our big annual event became the Rossendale Puppet Festival, which brought international companies to the Boo. With these developments the balance and type of work within Horse + Bamboo began to change once more.

Posted by admin

Bob Frith founded Horse + Bamboo Theatre in 1978. He now manages the Dave Pearson Studio and is active in support of Apna Rossendale.

Leave a comment