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Why do 8,000 people flock to see Kynren every night?

A scene from last year's production of Kynren. Photo: Peter Haygarth A scene from last year's production of Kynren. Photo: Peter Haygarth
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Hoping to build on the success of its first season, the spectacular, stadium-sized live-action show in County Durham returns with an epic tale of England’s history that stretches from Arthurian legend to a Second World War motorcycle chase – and it’s all staged by 1,500 local volunteers, as Holly Williams reports…

The patch of land in a curve of the River Wear, below the small market town of Bishop Auckland, used to be quite bare. Today, thanks to some £35 million investment, these seven acres are the home of an epic outdoor show: staged by 1,500 local volunteers, Kynren tells a tale of English history, replete with hydraulic Norman longboats emerging from a specially made lake, Queen Boudicca’s all-female cavalry, and lashings of pyrotechnics.

The sword-fighting rehearsals for Kynren 2017. Photo: Richard Rayner/North News and Pictures
The sword-fighting rehearsals for Kynren 2017. Photo: Richard Rayner/North News and Pictures

When Kynren launched last year, it was billed as the biggest live event in the UK since the Olympics, attracting audiences of up to 8,000 a night on raked outdoor stadium seating. That this should be staged in a deprived area of County Durham may have raised eyebrows initially, but the large-scale, annual show was always explicitly intended as a community regeneration project, encouraging tourism in the region.

Kynren was designed to emulate the 40-year success story of Puy du Fou, where a volunteer-performed historical spectacle has become a summer institution and helped revitalise the Vendee area of western France. Last year, Eleven Arches – the charity established to stage Kynren – worked with Puy du Fou’s team, “borrowing” one of their producers, Damien Boissinot.

“The chances of it coming off were definitely less than 100%,” says Eleven Arches chairman Jonathan Ruffer, a millionaire City fund manager turned philanthropist, and prime funder of the project (he brought in former City employee Anne-Isabelle Daulon as chief executive). “But if it succeeded, it could really change the way the community saw itself. And that did happen.”


5 things you need to know about Kynren

1. Both Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard Chartres, recently retired Bishop of London, lent their voices to the production last year, as St Cuthbert and Pope Gregory the Great respectively.

2. Thirty-four performance horses star in the show: Percherons, Lusitanos, Wielkopolskis and Kladrubers. All the horses, however, must be grey – so they stand out at night.

3. A total of 436 pearls, 21 metres of fabric and 12 metres of whalebone were used in making Queen Elizabeth I’s dress.

4. Chief executive Anne-Isabelle Daulon appears as a volunteer performer in the show, playing a Roman slave and a miner’s wife, among other roles.

5. Alongside Kynren, plans for regeneration in Bishop Auckland include building a new welcome centre, a Spanish Art Gallery, a Mining Art Gallery, and a Faith Museum, as well as restoring Auckland Castle and its
walled garden.

Around 1,000 locals volunteered last summer – 80% have returned this year, and with new recruits the total number has swelled to 1,500. Those include people helping backstage and preparing props and costumes, as well as performers.

Ruffer, a committed Christian, explains that he was always interested in a community project rather than pouring money into, say, a new professional theatre. “There’s nothing more dreary than the people who parade in to do you a good turn – it’s very tedious. It’s much more fun when encounters are within the community. A partnership with 1,500 volunteers is a tremendously uplifting thing.”

Using the profits from selling 100,000 tickets last year, this year’s show has a production budget of £4 million (after that initial £35 million infrastructure investment, the show should be self-sustaining). As well as attracting new volunteers, they’re introducing surround sound, and several new scenes.

Staging moments from British history and myth, Kynren stretches from Arthurian legend to battles between the Roundheads and Cavaliers, from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee to a Second World War motorcycle chase, and features jousting, archery, a steam train and fireworks. Both a replica of nearby Auckland Castle and that Norman longboat rise out of the lake; performers dive down in advance, to stand dripping on deck as it emerges.

A scene from last year's production of Kynren. Photo: Peter Haygarth
A scene from last year’s production of Kynren. Photo: Peter Haygarth

Volunteers must be able to commit to 12 out of 17 performances, with around 800 performers to every show, meaning that no two nights will feature the same cast. Costumes must be adjustable, although with each performer having several changes per show, the total number still comes to a whopping 2,700. Kynren also features performing horses, sheep, goats and geese, not to mention 70 new teenage volunteers. Shepherding the full Kynren flock – a task for an “army” of team leaders – is no mean feat.

Looking at the vast scheduling whiteboards in their backstage ‘village’, it’s a logistical challenge that could make your head ache. But even visiting in February, there’s a palpable sense of excitement about the place too. In a series of vast sheds, performers begin to prep – in one, a few dozen middle-aged men learn how to swordfight, diligently matching their steps to their weapon-swinging, while a hundred kids master mass-choregraphed Lindy Hop next door.

In charge of all this is creative director Steve Boyd, an Olympics supremo who’s staged opening and closing ceremonies at Rio, London, Sochi and Beijing. “I’m very much about talented, untrained volunteers,” he explains. “With the Olympics, we’re always working with a volunteer cast too; people raise their hands to say, ‘I’m not a dancer’. But my speciality is mass choreography for people who don’t know how to dance.”

The new character of Boudicca, rehearsing for Kynren 2017. Photo: Richard Rayner/North News and Pictures
The new character of Boudicca, rehearsing for Kynren 2017. Photo: Richard Rayner/North News and Pictures

Boyd’s workshops run on the basis that in just nine hours, an individual can master the necessary routines. And the aim is that Kynren should give volunteers a sense of achievement through learning new skills, as well as strengthening community bonds.

“The family angle is unbelievable – sometimes you have three generations, and that’s special for me,” says Boyd. “Often kids say, ‘I want to do it’, and then the parents get roped in. [But] for the vast majority of people, it’s more fun being here than anywhere else, because they’re with their mates. Being creative and learning things is fun, but it’s also about making meaningful friendships.”

Community shows often struggle with the push-pull of process versus product: is it more important that your participants get something out of it, or your audience?

“I’m personally interested in the process, but the process only makes sense if the product is excellent,” says Ruffer. “There’s no doubt that people were simply astonished that [Kynren] could have been world-class in one year – and yet why shouldn’t it have been? We had a community that was absolutely behind it. We had a producer that’s one of the world greats, a choreographer that’s one of the world greats.”

They did better than they’d hoped for in ticket sales in 2016, even adding an extra date. And although the show itself saw some critics sniffing at an overly simplistic, flag-waving account of British history, its scale and sense of spectacle was widely praised, with reports of nightly standing ovations.

Still, there was some scepticism in the community at first. Ruffer was an outsider – and his journey to community-theatre maven is an unlikely one. A series of paintings at Auckland Castle by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbaran were about to be sold to foreign buyers in 2010; when Ruffer stepped in, he found the castle thrown in with the sale too.

A scene from last year's production of Kynren. Photo: Peter Haygarth
A scene from last year’s production of Kynren. Photo: Peter Haygarth

“What does one do with 13 great paintings and a castle in need of a makeover?” he asks with a chuckle. His answer was to attempt to make Bishop Auckland a cultural centre and tourist hub – but just renovating the castle and putting in a tea shop didn’t seem enough. “If you want to see a community revive, how you create the encounter is key. And the great thing about this is that it absolutely is created by the locals – there is no show except for what the community does.”

To help get them on side, Eleven Arches initially approached around 15 locals to act as ‘ambassadors’, taking them to Puy du Fou. One ambassador was Mark Rossi, an art teacher in a local school, St John’s, now team leader in the props department and ‘captain of painting’. While showing me hundreds of swords and shields he’s helped volunteers create, he recalls the wary reactions some initially had.

“It’s been quite fraught at times. It was just a muddy field, and when I showed people the video [of the planned project], I had to stop them from laughing and walking out. People said: ‘In Bishop Auckland? No way. Not going to happen. But it has.”

Kynren: An Epic Tale of England (Eleven Arches)

Chief executive: Anne-Isabelle Daulon

Number of performances: 17

Audience figures: approximately 100,000 in 2016; holds up to 8,000 per performance

Number of employees: 25, plus 1,500 volunteers

Ticket sales in 2016: approximately £3.5 million

Initial investment in the project: £35 million from private donations

Kynren runs July 1 to September 16 in Bishop Auckland, County Durham. More details at: elevenarches.org

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