HAVING A LAUGH: Storyteller Gav Cross enlists the help of Florence Backes, Sophie Clarke and George Backes at The Scarth Hall  				      Pic: Royden Astrop
HAVING A LAUGH: Storyteller Gav Cross enlists the help of Florence Backes, Sophie Clarke and George Backes at The Scarth Hall Pic: Royden Astrop

In our final look at the Highlights Rural Touring Scheme, director Kate Lynch looks back over three months of unique arts events

I SAT in Cotherstone Village Hall on a cold October night with a wide grin on my face. All around me, members of the community, young and old alike, were laughing. And I don’t mean a polite titter or a mild-mannered chuckle but rip-roaring, collective belly laughing. Professional storyteller and comedy performer Gav Cross held the audience in the palm of his hands as he revealed the dark, nasty and dubious intent of the fairy-tales we’ve been told since we were tiny.
One young lad actually fell off his chair because he was laughing so uncontrollably. Something that, according to Gav, was easily his best review yet.
After 18 months of a pandemic, of lockdowns, of social distancing, of watching art only via our screens, it was a moment of connection, of community and of utter joy.
This autumn, there have been many similar moments in village halls across Teesdale. Since mid-October, Highlights Rural Touring and our amazing volunteer promoters have hosted 14 performances in community venues here in Teesdale.
In total, we’ve taken 80 performances to some of the most rural communities across the North East and Cumbria.
For many of the artists and companies, it has been the first time they have performed since before Covid-19. For many of the audience members, it has been the first time they have attended social events since before the first lockdown. The emotion has been palpable.
At Barningham Village Hall, the audience was utterly transfixed by the intensity of Pentabus’ new drama, Jacaranda. A sell-out audience experienced literature in a whole new way at Cotherstone Village Hall with folk-duo The Bookshop Band. Comedian George Egg cooked up an absolute storm with his culinary antics in front of a full house at Mickleton Village Hall.
We’ve experienced neurodiversity through the lens of Doctor Who, dramas about contemporary rural life and music from some of the world’s finest.
In times of crisis, we need the arts more than ever. We lose ourselves in music, we escape into other worlds through performances and we relieve our stress by making and creating.
Whilst some audiences remain cautious of attending larger venues, our familiar community buildings allow us to enjoy live events alongside our friends and neighbours.
Many of our halls are still suffering from the after effects of Storm Arwen.
One village hall was forced to abandon a show halfway through when they lost power, only for the performers and audience to remain in the candlelit venue enjoying the most social of evenings. In rural areas, these shared experiences build stronger communities.
As the autumn season ends, plans are already in place for our 2022 spring season with a vibrant mix of performances and creative workshops on offer including BBC Radio 2 Young Folk award-winner Maddie Morris, murder-mystery troupe Highly Suspect and workshops with textile artist Kate Slaughter.
Next year also marks our 25th birthday and a chance for us to reflect on the successes of the organisation so far and to look ahead to our future.
We look forward to a year in which the lights of our village halls and community venues can shine brighter than ever.