BARBARA SLACK and HELEN SWABY chat to Highlights about their time as key players on the team – Barbara as a co-founder and director and Helen Swaby as administrative officer. Both left Highlights in 2018.
One of my first experiences of rural touring was when Northumberland Theatre Company came to the old village hall in Melmerby, which at the time was a Nissan hut.
They’d not sold many tickets but when I got there, people were queuing round the hut and going home to fetch deck chairs and garden seats. The show was staged in traverse and the hall was packed, everyone chatting away and waving and the performers greeting the audience.
People had come to see a performance but they had also come to meet friends and neighbours for a good night out in their village hall. Even if you weren’t from the village you felt part of it by just being there.
Before Highlights started, I’d been project officer for Eden Arts. Six districts – Eden, Teesdale, Weardale, Hexham, South Lakes and rural Carlisle – would get together on projects serving isolated Pennine communities. There was a storytelling festival and a travelling arts gallery and occasional events in village halls.
The group developed a pilot rural touring project spearheaded by the arts officers of Teesdale and Wear Valley Council with funding from the Arts Council and local authorities. I was employed to set up and develop the project.
The project was called North Pennines Highlights until 1997 when it became a registered charity known as Highlights Rural Touring Scheme.
HELEN: I live in Appleby-in-Westmorland now and I’m the club manager at the golf club. But before I joined Highlights in 2004, we had moved to Colby, a nearby village, where Barbara lives.
We lived across a field from each other and Barbara had an office in her back shed. I’d always done admin and I said: “If you ever need anyone to do any admin, I’m available”…
BARBARA: …at which point I bit her hand off!
HELEN: After five or six years we’d outgrown Barbara’s back shed and Highlights moved to an office in Appleby, which was part of the old ballroom at the King’s Head.
BARBARA: When we moved office, Rosie Cross became co-director in a job share with me. Rosie had been the arts development officer for Teesdale and had been instrumental in setting up the original project.
Our focus had been on the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but once people from further afield saw what was happening they wanted to be part of it and Highlights expanded further into Cumbria and County Durham.
Northumberland County Council approached us to set up a parallel scheme and later the schemes were amalgamated. Highlights also became part of the Northern Consortium of Rural Touring Schemes.
My background was in drama and I worked for a community arts organisation in London before moving back to Cumbria, my home county. At Highlights, my focus was on programming and arts admin and I always enjoyed creating the link between the artists and the community, the final coming together when they transform a village hall into a theatre.
Rural touring works because of the three-way relationship between the artists, the scheme and the promoters, each playing to their strengths. Helen is a people person and was the main contact between Highlights and the promoters.
HELEN: I did the accounts, designed the brochures and sorted out the printing. I really enjoyed the promoter training, making sure it ran smoothly. I went down to Shropshire with Rosie for a training day for promoters to compare and contrast what we and other schemes did.
I also took a sound and lighting course and was thrown in at the deep end when someone didn’t turn up at a hall to do the sound for a show. We’d bought some portable equipment and I took it over. Talk about nerve-wracking.
BARBARA: From the early days of shows in village halls, I could see we were on to a good thing. There was something about what was happening that was quite different from what happened in theatres – the relationship between the audience and the artist is much more informal. In the village halls, the artists are welcomed as guests, looked after and fed…
HELEN: …Yes, a lot of promoters think that aspect is part of rural touring, bringing artists into their homes.
When social media became big, performers would upload videos as they approached the venue: “Look at this fantastic view.” It’s so different from arriving at a city theatre.
BARBARA: Over the years, the programming choice Highlights could offer became much bigger as companies understood that rural touring was a viable option.
Dance has been an important part of the scheme since the late 1990s. Initially we worked with Black dance company RJC, which is based in Leeds, on performances and schools residencies.
RJC’s approach when working with young people was: “If you are on the stage you have to produce something people will pay to see.” The standard of performance they got from students, particularly young men who had never danced before, was remarkable.
When the Rural Touring Dance Initiative was launched we were very keen to be a part of it. It enabled rural audiences to see some of the top contemporary dance companies in the country. It also enabled dance companies to reach new audiences and produce work for them, which was very exciting.
The quality of artists’ work often surprises people as they don’t expect to see it in a village hall. I remember a performance by guitarist Eduardo Niebla in a tiny hall in County Durham. A lady came up to me afterwards and burst into tears. She said she was overwhelmed that something of such quality was happening in her village hall.
HELEN: I used to find it difficult to get my kids to performances but when they were 10 and 11, I took them to see musicians Chuck & Albert from Prince Edward Island in Canada, who do Arcadian step dance and a lot of comedy.
The show was at Ullswater Community College in Penrith and my children were enthralled. They got Chuck and Albert’s autographs and kept them for years.
BARBARA: Links with East Coast Canada have continued to flourish, bringing many artists to rural communities including Arcadian step dancers and Inuit singers, who as well as their music share stories of their lives and ancestry.
Barbara and Helen were talking with Highlights Trustee, Mary Ingham. They were reflecting back as Highlights celebrates is 25th Birthday during 2022.