Rosie Cross: An ambassador for rural touring

As part of its series of personality profiles marking its 25th anniversary, Highlights hears from musician and arts administrator, Rosie Cross, its co-director from 2007 to 2020.

After 23 years at Highlights’ helm or on its board, former co-director Rosie Cross is as passionate about the scheme as ever.

“I’m very involved with going to Highlights’ productions,” she says. “I can’t stop myself. I go to children’s performances as well.”

Highlights catches up with Rosie at Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham – handing over, at her request, a big box of Highlights brochures for her to distribute. Rosie lives in Barnard Castle and is a volunteer at the Museum, currently entering data about the financial records of its founder John Bowes on to the Museum’s online archive.

Brought up in Leeds, Rosie studied music at the University of London and was a founder member of the folk-rock band Pyewackett, playing bassoon and hammer dulcimer and singing.

“We took our first professional bookings in the summer I left university,” says Rosie. She performed with Pyewackett from its launch in 1977 to when the band members went their separate ways in1988, also teaching French, Latin and Spanish to support her musical career. Pyewackett’s interests spanned early music, traditional music and jazz – all with a contemporary twist. The band released four albums and two singles, playing at folk clubs and festivals and touring internationally.

“As the band was coming to an end, I decided on a change of direction and started my master’s degree in arts administration,” says Rosie.

It was at the time when the Arts Council and some of the local authorities were investing in arts officers and Rosie left the London area, where she had lived during her time with the band, to work as a folk music development officer in Lincolnshire and Humberside, spending 18 months in each.

“I used some of my performing skills and gathered in what was happening locally,” says Rosie. “I became interested in storytelling, in local food and other traditions and dance came to figure more strongly. “In Lincolnshire I was in a very rural area outside Sleaford and that got me interested in the arts in rural areas, in keying into village networks.”

Rosie’s next move, in 1991, was to Barnard Castle, where she worked for 16 years as the then Teesdale District Council’s arts officer. The multi-faceted role included commissioning public art, setting up mental health and education partnerships, and bringing professional performances to village halls.

Rosie also collaborated with fellow officers from Weardale, Tynedale, and Eden Arts, under the umbrella of the North Pennines Arts Working Group. The arts officers joined forces on projects such as the annual North Pennines Storytelling Festival while continuing to run their own rural touring ventures. “We thought, ‘this is crazy, why are we doing it separately?’ ” says Rosie. “That was the start of North Pennines Highlights.”

In 1997 the initiative expanded to become Highlights Rural Touring Scheme, operated as a registered charity and now working across Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland. Rosie served on Highlights’ board of trustees until 2007, when she became the scheme’s co-director in a 50/50 job share with Barbara Slack.

Highlights had its HQ in Appleby (moving to Penrith in 2021) and Rosie would commute over Stainmore. She spent her non-Highlights days working on complementary arts projects, including the National Rural Touring Forum’s 2009 International Village of Culture, which featured collaborative commissions, an international showcase, and a four-day conference drawing delegates from across the world to St Aidan’s College at Durham University.

Asked for a standout moment in her time with Highlights, Rosie says: “There was no single gig or concert. Some of the big things were very special: a seven-piece group of musicians from Zimbabwe; the larger drama productions with big touring sets; and being able, with extra funding, to get international dance companies.

“However, some of the magical small-scale productions were also so, so special, for example, intimate storytelling with one person transforming a village hall space and transporting the audience through imagination and props.”

As a performer, Rosie appreciated the way artists, and musicians in particular, responded to these intimate spaces. “They might be at Cambridge Folk Festival one weekend and in Boldron village hall the next, where they’d be able to make eye contact with the audience.”

Some dance companies, says Rosie, are reluctant to perform in a village hall without a rehearsal room or a set temperature. But for those who are willing, it’s probably very useful to them. “You don’t need 30 feet of floor to leap from one side to the other – you can still interact with each other.”

Having limited space can extend rather than limit artistic possibilities, says Rosie. “Performing arts companies might otherwise think along the same lines: big stage, big black box.”

As co-director of Highlights, Rosie visited Canada’s eastern seaboard states three times, building on work already started to bring artists from there to tour in northern England. “I went to Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick,” she says. “Seeing that work was very humbling, the fact that the Canadian Arts Council would support their artists to come over here and that they were so well suited to rural touring.”

Rosie also enjoyed bringing visual arts into village halls through Highlights’ contemporary craft tours. She says some people would travel some distance to the exhibitions, others would be friends or neighbours who had gathered for a chat: “They might not wander into a gallery but they’d come to their village hall then see a stupendous collection of craftwork and say they never thought they’d see something like that.”

Rosie retired from Highlights in October 2020 but her love of the scheme and the arts in general is undiminished. As well as volunteering at Bowes Museum and at Raby Castle, she plays bassoon in Barnard Castle Community Orchestra and sings with Barnard Castle Choral Society. Her husband Mike Bettison, a street performer who moved into rural touring and formed his own company, is a Highlights’ promoter for Bowes and Gilmonby Parish Hall.

“There’s still a lot of advocacy to do,” says Rosie. “A lot of performers are not aware of rural touring and I still see myself as a bit of an ambassador.”

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