How the arts are thriving in Rawtenstall
- Credit: Archant
The arts are playing an increasingly important role for Rawtenstall and the surrounding area, reports Martin Pilkington. Photography by Kirsty Thompson
ASK Lancastrians what they most associate with Rawtenstall, and the answers are likely to include the East Lancashire Railway, which has its terminus in the town, the excellent ski slope and the footwear industry – Rossendale once supplied slippers to the world.
There are, though, some very creative spirits who are working to add something else to the list – drama. The Horse and Bamboo Theatre on the Bacup Road, known affectionately as The Boo, is that most celebrated local dramatic institution, a puppet theatre of international repute.
‘We’ve been based here since the late 90s,’ says administrator Emily Randles. ‘It’s a great building that was originally a Liberal Club and, like many places here, has been a slipper works. At first it was a base for making the masks and puppets for which we’re known all over the world, but now it’s a performance venue too.’
When the enterprise was started in the 1970s by Manchester Art School teacher Bob Frith it toured the UK and Europe in horse-drawn bamboo carts, hence the company’s name, performing in the open air or in marquees. Nowadays, its facilities include a 110-seat theatre, a cafe, and spacious workshops and store-rooms with pigeon-holes whose labels intriguingly include ‘body-parts’ and ‘nautical theme’.
‘We’ve got stuff from recent shows all the way back to ones we did years ago,’ says Alison Duddle, joint artistic director. ‘In the sewing room we have masks grouped by the show they were in so you can see the distinct style used for each.’ It takes a week to make a mask, each a work of art in itself.
The Boo has a full schedule of theatre, music, film and workshop events, with their busiest time in July. ‘The puppet festival happens in the middle of July, the biggest event in the work we present in the area, a long weekend of shows for adults and children from the 14th to the 17th, lots of different types of puppetry with other companies performing too,’ says Alison.
At the other side of the town there’s another established institution, The Whitaker, a buzzing mix of museum, art gallery, cinema, eaterie... and a theatrical venue with its own quirky style. ‘The EAT Theatre comes from an idea from communist Eastern Europe, where in a lunch or dinner break there’d be some mini-theatre, a very creative condensed show while the workers had their lunch,’ says Carl Bell, who runs it. ‘We’re looking to have theatre the fourth Wednesday of every month, keeping a bit of mystery about it. It’s not easy saying to people give me £25 and I’ll give you a lovely main course and sweet and something interesting will happen! But people have an appetite for drama here.’ And for good food alongside it!
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Some of the actors who grace the Whitaker in years to come, and places further afield too, may have learned their craft at the Valley Academy School of Theatre, based at Rakefoot Hall in Crawshawbooth. ‘We started out in 2008 with just six children for a summer school and now we have 96, from four year olds to 18,’ says vice-principal Sally-Ann Bromley, a former schoolteacher. ‘Some have already gone on to bigger things – one of our girls now studies at the London Film School, for example. But for most of them it’s fun, they gain confidence and skills useful in work and education, and it keeps them out of trouble.’
Her son Grant, a graduate of the Manchester School of Theatre, is the principal, a man with boundless energy (and patience), now additionally running an award-winning community choir, and after requests from stage-struck parents, a weekly theatre workshop for adults.
What’s missing for the budding Rawtenstall thespians, however, is a big local venue. ‘We do our panto in this hall, but have to put on our big musicals – we did Les Mis last year – at the Burnley Mechanics,’ says Sally-Ann.
‘There are several buildings in the town that were once for theatrical use, like The Pavilion on Bacup Road, and another near the fire station that’s now a carpet shop.’
As the school packed out 16 performances of its last panto, and fills the Burnley auditorium year after year for bigger productions, the demand is clearly there.
‘It’s sad that there is so little money for the arts,’ she adds. ‘This town needs a full-scale theatre.’