Ulverston is a country town a mile or two from Morecambe Bay, in North West England. On a Saturday evening in March 2006, crowds are gathering for Longline, the last community show by a group of artists that has been resident here for 25 years, Welfare State International (WSI). There’s a circus tent with bright banners snapping in the breeze, and drummers pounding away. Inside, people settle on benches around the ring, as communities have gathered to share stories since time immemorial.
The show that unfolds over the next three hours draws on all that Welfare State is known for: puppetry, song, myth, fire, drama, film, acrobatics, poetry and fantastical engineering. A vision is spun of a shoreline place and its history, the people and creatures who made it their home, and the delicate balance they struck—and might lose—between their desires and deep nature. Imaginary beasts pass ocean liners, an ancient rock splits to become a boat for a puppet crew, sea creatures mingle with rabbits and birds, coloured silks unfurl into waves, a choir sings, aerialists spin overhead… Ragged around the edges, chaotic, unfinished and untamed, all the wobbly bits are in plain view. But it is so full of invention and puppetry, it makes The Lion King look cheap and dowdy.1
We move outside for the finale, with fireworks, lanterns and the glowing white sculpture of a boat bearing a heron, a prehistoric elk and two halves of the moon. This is an unique aesthetic honed by Welfare State over decades, an art of community ritual that can produce wonder and delight. It can also fall on its face, but that’s stilt-walking for you. Not everything works because it mustn’t. Without uncertainty, without risk, there is neither art nor life.