Harrogate Theatre’s exciting plans for Yorkshire Festival

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The whole world is going Tour de France crazy in the build-up to its arrival in our district this summer. As one of the main hubs of culture locally, Harrogate Theatre is seizing the chance to get involved. Michaela Noonan, the theatre’s head of press & communications, outlines its exciting plans.

Video goggles, headphones and stationary bikes; John Cooper Clarke, Phill Jupitus and Johnny Green; cycling obsessives; blood, sweat and tears: Harrogate Theatre has lined up a diverse array of events to welcome the Tour de France to Yorkshire.

Running from Tuesday, June 24 to Sunday, July 6, La Grande Fete is the theatre’s salute to the Grand Départ.

Thanks to those wily folk at Welcome to Yorkshire, 2014 marks the first time a cultural festival will run alongside the biggest annual sporting event in the world, showcasing 6,000 square miles of world class Yorkshire talent and cannily called Yorkshire Festival 2014.

At the tail end of last year, the county’s arts organisations and individuals were invited to apply to have a project ‘be part of it’ (the festival’s motto and hashtag).

From myriad applications, 47 ambitious new projects were chosen, including Le Grand Voyage (Friday and Saturday, June 6 and 7 and Saturday and Sunday, July 6 and 7), Harrogate Theatre’s multi-media co-production with innovative international theatre company Il Pixel Rosso.

Il Pixel Rosso specialises in a melding of ‘autoteatro’ (in which audience members perform the piece themselves) and film. The result is a thorough hijacking of the audience’s senses via headphones and video goggles; it’s disorientating and exhilarating.

Following recorded instructions and watching the narrative unfold on a film that’s literally right before their eyes, participants in an Il Pixel Rosso show aren’t passive spectators, but rather a crucial part of the action – perfectly in fitting with the Yorkshire Festival’s #bepartofit.

The company’s last two shows – both of which were part of Harrogate Theatre’s annual festival of small delights, 2’s Company – have taken place in circus situations: 2012’s And the Birds Fell From the Sky… involved a white-knuckle car journey with a bunch of tanked-up clowns, and last year’s The Great Spavaldos cast participants as one of two daredevil trapeze artists, undone by love.

Le Grand Voyage looks likely to incorporate some of Il Pixel Rosso’s trademark Big Top characters, but is firmly set within the Tour de France.

Turns out it’s not too late to ride in the big race after all as, via those video goggles and headphones and atop stationary bikes, participants are immersed in their very own Tour de France, starting the competition alongside the other racers before a wrong turn sends them on a fantastical voyage.

Filming has yet to start, but discussions with Il Pixel Rosso’s Silvia Mercuriali and Simon Wilkinson have thrown up some exciting ideas of what that fantastical voyage might comprise.

It is, of course, all a big fat secret for now, but what we can reveal is that there will be opportunities for the people of Harrogate and the wider region to get involved, as well as some familiar faces and places.

Commissions for the Yorkshire Festival 2014 are encouraged to tour, and Le Grand Voyage will indeed be making a trip of its own throughout the region and beyond. In turn, a commission that begins its life at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre stops off at Harrogate Theatre as part of the cultural celebration.

Written by Julie Amanda Bokowiec, Lost Boy Racer (Wednesday-Friday, July 2-4) is a quirky comedy-drama as northern as they come. Once an energetic wildcat with two-wheel fever, Sean Racer is horrified to discover he’s become an overweight 40-something tax inspector facing a personal crisis.

He hatches a plan to get his life back on track, a plan that involves him fulfilling his youthful dream to ride the Tour de France.

With the help of a couple of colourful characters and a whole lot of Yorkshire grit, Sean sets up a bike on rollers in his shed and starts pedalling.

Lost Boy Racer features a Harrogate-specific community cast alongside the professionals, and also a set by metal sculptor Tim Tolkien, great-nephew of JRR Tolkien and a renowned British sculptor responsible for several monumental sculptures, including the award-winning Sentinel in Birmingham.

Another Yorkshire Festival commission, True Grit bills itself as ‘a poetry cycle for the digital age’, bringing landscape to life through spoken word performances.

The main event is a film exploring what the phrase ‘true grit’ means to young poets today, put together via a series of travelling workshops around Yorkshire, including one in the Harrogate Studio Theatre led by former Glastonbury Festival and Radio 4 Saturday Live Poet in Residence Kate Fox (Saturday, May 24).

As you’d no doubt expect, Harrogate Theatre isn’t resting on its commissioned laurels, and a couple more events make La Grande Fete even more of a don’t miss mini-festival in its own right.

Another co-production, this time with Sticks Theatre, uses the thoughts and voices of cyclists of all types – hobbyists, amateurs and professionals – to explore, and try to explain, one man’s two-wheel obsession.

Life Cycle (Tuesday and Wednesday, June 24 and 25) is the brainchild of Adam Sunderland, a self-proclaimed cycling nut.

The narrative looks back at his pedal-powered life, from his first ride without stabilisers to riding tandem with his first love, from owning his first racer to owning his first race.

On Saturday, July 5, Harrogate Theatre puts the lyrical gymnasts amid the athletes.

In association with Roleur Magazine and with a big tip of the hat to the Grand Départ, Le Grand Visit is an evening of comedy, poetry and chat from some of the UK’s finest exponents of those arts, including marvellous Manc Mike Garry, big man of comedy Phill Jupitus in his Porky the Poet guise and the one and only John Cooper Clarke, the Bard of Salford and writer of some of the sharpest and funniest verse put down on paper.

Embracing the night’s punk ethos even further, the whole shebang is hosted by Johnny Green, legendary road manager of The Clash.

Political funnyman Mark Thomas and poetry slinging young buck Luke Wright have also confirmed.

The Tour de France link comes courtesy of Johnny Green, whose 2005 book, Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More, is a sometimes biting, fittingly rock’n’roll account of life behind the ropes of the bike world’s big race.

Organisers have hinted that some of the sports’ great and good will be dropping by as the night progresses.

Yorkshire Festival 2014 is all about getting involved with the celebrations. La Grande Fete is the Theatre’s contribution – and an invitation: join us; be part of it; celebrate Yorkshire creativity.