A creative couple who met on the set of Starlight Express in London’s West End 25 years ago are using their theatrical background to combine costume and choreography at major outdoor events in the North East. Garner and Sandy Harris are the region’s carnival king and queen who are encouraging the people of the North East to party in colourful, carnival style!
It’s quite fitting that a couple whose first date was at the Notting Hill Carnival are today managing outdoor festivals with carnival processions.
They met in 1992 when Garner was working as a dancer and Sandy was a costume supervisor on the hit Andrew Lloyd Webber rock musical, Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria Theatre.
The relationship quickly blossomed and Sandy persuaded Londoner Garner to move back ‘home’ with her to her native South Tyneside. At first Garner taught dance classes in venues across the region, from the Scottish Borders to Teesside, while Sandy led costume workshops in schools and community venues.
With a clear demand for flamboyant dance and extravagant costumes, they set up creative production company The Creative Seed in 2009 which brought the two elements together.
The company offers professional services including event production and management, costume hire, roadshows, touring shows, street performances and event production, with creative workshops, theatre performances, film and community carnivals.
But it retains its community roots and is also involved in a wide range of philanthropic activity.
This summer, local activity includes working with adults and children with learning disabilities who will perform at a carnival celebration at South Tyneside College to mark Learning Disability Week in June. Weekly carnival workshops are also being held with youngsters at Bilton Hall in Jarrow in preparation for a celebration event in June.
Most carnival management companies operate on a part-time voluntary basis, but The Creative Seed has a core team of 14 permanent staff – including Sandy and Garner’s daughter Katanya, 22, and son Darnel, 18 – which increases seasonally to more than 30.
This makes the ambitious firm, which has gained a nationwide reputation for carnival production and management and will soon be working internationally, a unique business in its field.
The Creative Seed is artistic director for the Once Upon A Time Summer Parade in South Shields on Saturday July 1st and is also leading groups performing at the Community Carnival at the 30th Stockton International Riverside Festival on Saturday August 5th.
Working from four studio bases in South Tyneside, the company recently secured funding from the Arts Council for its Branching Out project, which is bringing internationally recognised artists to the North East to collaborate and share ideas.
Last month it commissioned carnival artist Steven Hoyte for a two week residency, where he worked with staff from The Creative Seed making huge costumes which can be seen for the first time at the South Tyneside Council funded summer parade.
The parade has five themes – The Arabian Nights, The Jungle Book, Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella and Peter Pan. Performers will climb into three metre high aluminium framed structures, which will be mounted on wheels, and include elaborate Cinderella and Jungle Book themed costumes. South Shields will have seen nothing quite like it.
Carnival designer Alan Vaughan from TouchDSky, who works on carnivals internationally in places including the Caribbean, has also been commissioned by The Creative Seed as part of the Branching Out project.
He has been joined by colleague Adrian Young, who flew in from Trinidad in May to work with The Creative Seed’s staff making large Indian elephants for the Jungle Book theme at the South Tyneside Summer Parade. Alan, who is based in North Tyneside, will also be bringing Moko Jumbie stilt walkers to the event.
The costumes being made for the Community Carnival at the Stockton International Riverside Festival in August are based on the event’s 30th birthday theme, and performers will be enjoying a fancy dress party with giant cupcakes and sweets.
Sandy said: “We have grown so quickly in the past few years and have an extremely busy summer ahead with more than 30 staff working on the events. The Creative Seed is now the go to carnival company in the North of England and we are rapidly gaining a national and international reputation.”
Whilst the February to August period is undoubtedly the busiest, this is very much an all year round operation. Winter events include the annual Camel Parade in South Shields in December, with illuminated characters and stilt walkers accompanied by fireworks.
Future plans include funding bids for a project looking at the history of carnival and parades in the region, and hosting a national conference which would bring carnival artists from across the UK to Newcastle. The firm also plans to take on apprentices and more interns within the next year.
The Creative Seed team is determined to ensure the North East embraces carnival culture.