This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

Handmade Parade is a company of parade artists, puppeteers, stilt walkers, performers and community organisers based around Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. The company creates high-impact participatory events.

The first Hebden Bridge Handmade Parade happened in 2008. I had moved to England from the USA in 2006 and my wife and I had started a puppet theatre company called Thingumajig Theatre. We had found ourselves performing here and there but with no opportunity to perform locally. At the same time, we met lots of artists who were also looking for a way to share their work in their locality. So I proposed a community parade where local artists created parade art with people from their own community. We found some friends who supported us and helped us raise some money. A local commercial landlord let us use a disused office space and we put the word out.

For our first parade, we offered two weeks of free parade costume workshops and had about 300 costumed participants. Last years, for our 9th annual parade, we had about 1000 participants in our parade. Hebden Bridge has a population of about 5,500.

Handmade Parade 2017From the beginning, I wanted to do something a little different from other small town carnivals. So I borrowed some rules from the Fremont Solstice Parade, which I had worked on in Seattle. The approach of Fremont Solstice Parade resonates with how I understand a cultural commons could work in the world of carnival.

Our rules are that no written words or logos are allowed, and no motorised vehicles. Taking cars and decorated flatbed trucks out of the process makes the event human-sized and allows us to slow it down to a child-friendly walking speed. Making things human-sized also makes it easier for people to make exciting and impressive costumes. By forbidding written words and logos, we take commerce and advertisement away and it becomes more about the celebration of people and their creativity. We also take away the means to divide people according to their everyday groupings. In our parade, you are not representing your school or your church or your social club. Instead you represent the parade section you have chosen. You might be in the section with all the other wolves or the flying pigs or the space aliens. This way, different ages and types of people mix in surprising ways and celebrate together.

We begin each year with a Spark Day. This is an open community meeting where anyone can come and offer ideas of what they would like to see in the parade. This might be about a pressing local issue or a big something they’d like to see walking down the streets.

Handmade ParadeThe lead artists will then take the ideas away and settle on a theme. We will then break down the theme into sections and a different artist will design his/her parade section. Each section will have two or three signature pieces, which the lead artist and assistant artists design, and an easily constructed costumed ensemble, which the community participants will make. Our parades usually have three or four sections with a different lead artist heading up each section.

When parade participants come to their first open workshop, they see all the parade section designs in parade order, like a storyboard. They decide which sections they want to be a part of and which costumes they’d like to make and then go to the table where the artists and volunteers will help them to make their costumes. This way of structuring and presenting ideas to participants was inspired by my work with the MayDay Parade in Minneapolis. It encourages respect for the imagination of the people who are coming to contribute and enables them to find a part in the common cause of the production. Some people will come and make their costumes in just one 2-hour session but most come to three to six different sessions. Sessions are free but we suggest a donation.

The mix of artist-led design, dedicated volunteer help and involvement of citizens is the bedrock of how our parades are put together. The motivations for each person may be different. But both the idea of making a parade with others and the prospect of adding colour and celebration to a particular place is of interest to everyone. Their sense of common cause is the glue that holds people together. Having this solid foundation also helps us create additional opportunities for people to get involved.

We have workshops in schools, senior centres and community centres to reach out to people who may not necessarily feel comfortable coming to our workshop space. We also set up workshops for teens and adults in Samba drumming, stilt walking and put together a women’s dance ensemble and a street theatre group so that we can create as many opportunities as possible for people to participate.

Over the years, we’ve also welcomed many international guest artists from USA, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and last year a company from Russia called Cardboardia who created a whole section of the parade. These partnerships are excellent opportunities to share skills and approaches for working with communities and audiences. They also add fresh energy and open new ways of seeing the event.

The result is a parade which is mix of community participation and individual creativity with strong, artist-led design. In nine years, the Hebden Bridge Handmade Parade has become a core part of our town’s identity. It’s our big day, when we let our creativity flow, dance down streets with our friends and neighbours, and show the world just how funky our town can be.

Andrew Kim,
Handmade Parade

Handmade Parade founder and artistic director Andrew has created puppet and mask plays, parades and pageants for over 25 years. He is the co-director of Thingumajig Theatre which creates and tours puppet plays and interactive giant puppets. Andrew has worked with In the Heart of the Beast Theatre (Minneapolis), Bread & Puppet Theater (Vermont), Fremont Summer Solstice (Seattle), Dream Parade (Taiwan), the Liverpool Halloween Lantern Carnival and several site-specific spectacles for LUXe (Ireland). His puppets have also performed in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Luxembourg, Hungary, UAE, USA, Canada, Korea and China.

Next week, on Wednesday 24 January, Liam Murphy looks in more detail at CultureBanking and intellectual property rights.

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Creative Commons license - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: Courtesy of Handmade Parade