Designer Chris de Wilde on how a community came to the rescue in the making of The Causeway.

An enormous cardboard box squats in the middle of the church, 3 metres tall and 6 metres across. Closed, mysterious, alien. How did it get there? What secrets does it hold? To answer, we must go back almost a year…

It’s September 2021, and plans are starting to form for a follow-up piece after the success of Passion for the Planet at Christ Church in Felling, Gateshead. I join writer Tony Earnshaw and director Darren Cheek as Designer on the project. A tie-in with the forthcoming return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the north east is mooted, and this idea develops over the coming months into The Causeway, a multi-stranded, all-singing, some-dancing, family show that celebrates the power of legacy.

Then we hit the buffers. Anticipated funding fails to appear from funding bodies who are overwhelmed both administratively and financially by a deluge of post-COVID applications on top of ever-increasing cuts to the arts. We regroup, reduce the cast from 3 to 2, dispense with the pivotal role of technical manager, and seek design and other solutions for little or no money.

But Passion for the Planet was a show rooted in the community, and The Causeway is built on the same model. So perhaps the community can come to the rescue?

We put out a call for help, and wait to see who responds. First up is an offer from Garry Steele of Scaffold North Ltd to cut us a deal on a scaffolding structure that will form the largest element of our installation in the church. It’s a generous offer, and we accept it gratefully, though it leaves us with scant resources for the rest of the set, props, costumes and community art materials.

Meanwhile, work continues on the artistic front. We have a breakthrough when we spot the parallels between the monks fleeing their home in Lindisfarne from the invading Vikings, and the plight of modern-day refugees and asylum seekers. We redraft the start of the show to welcome the audience as refugees reaching a place of safety and welcome, before taking them on a journey that echoes that of the monks over a millennium ago.

Our central edifice can now be clad in cardboard, suggesting the temporary structures of the camp at Calais and other centres for the displaced across the world. From there it’s a short mental hop to creating a cohesive style in which all the props and set pieces are constructed out of cardboard.

Another call goes out. We need cardboard by the carload – used packaging please, to fulfil our commitment to recycling. Many people step up, particularly 2 friends of the company, Greg Daniel and Clive Carr. We breathe a little more easily and start to piece the rest of the show together.

This is a community venture, so volunteer help is welcomed wherever it is offered in return for support, experience and skills training. Shane Righton, whose help was greatly appreciated on Passion for the Planet, steps up as our Trainee Technical Stage Manager. Two more previous volunteers, Sharna Turner and Sharney McLaughlin, return to expanded roles. Clive Carr delivers much more than just cardboard, single handedly steering the publicity campaign as well as providing technical support during the shows. Anne Richardson creates and manages the rota of volunteers who help build and run the show. And many others contribute in whatever way they can.

Mike Anderson from Newcastle College creates a beautiful, heartfelt animation which we embed in the opening section. Kate Adams and Andy Hudson provide compositions and long-distance musical support via Zoom. Co-producer Karenza Passmore and her colleagues at the RRC (Religious Resource Centre) lend us a beautiful replica of the Lindisfarne Gospels, along with banners of some of the Gospel images that we can hang around the set. Local communities, from primary schools to Age UK drop-in centres, create postcard images which we piece together to form a cardboard representation of Durham Cathedral at the climax of the show.

And we’re set to go. Our audience arrive to be seated and entertained in a holding station, before being led across a cardboard causeway into the central box that acts as an auditorium for parts of the show. A flight from marauding Vikings, a voyage by boat, a stay at Chester le Street, another flight from the Vikings and a journey to Durham ensue, with a surprise contribution from a flashmob choir, a final chorus of Lindisfarne’s Meet Me on the Corner and a cup of fruit salad to wrap up the proceedings. By treating adversity as a creative challenge, the very circumstances that seemed so daunting at the start have been transformed into the core strengths of the show, and we have a huge success on our hands.

But now it’s over. The aliens have flown off in their cardboard spaceship and the church is left empty and clean – and a little diminished, it seems, though that feeling will quickly pass. But resonances remain. We feel we are part of an extended family in Gateshead, a legacy of community, friendship and support that can only grow. Exhausted but elated, we wonder what strange apparition will descend on Christ Church next.