Behind the scenes – Making history

The open-air spectacular Kynren, located in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, sweeps through two millennia of history on a weekly basis. ELLA BUCHAN speaks to the cast and crew who make the magic happen

On paper, Kynren – An Epic Tale of England sounds impossible. The show, on the outskirts of the north-east market town of Bishop Auckland, is an ambitious 90-minute gallop through 2,000 years of English history. Scenes from the Roman occupation to World War Two are brought to life by a cast and crew of 1,000 volunteers, 33 horses, 56 sheep, two shorthorn cows, a gaggle of geese and a pampered donkey called Hettie.

The action is played out in the open air, regardless of the weather. That little tends to go wrong, aside from the odd wandering goose, is nothing short of incredible.

It’s like organising an Olympic opening ceremony once a week, explains Anne-Isabelle Daulon, Kynren’s co-founder and the CEO of the production company Eleven Arches. “Some people thought the idea would never take off. Now, people come from all over the world to see it.”

Kynren, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word cynren, meaning kin or generation, takes place near the grounds of Auckland Castle, once the seat of the prince-bishops of Durham, who had powers equivalent to the king between the 11th and 19th centuries.

“The people who watch it feel proud and emotional about
our history,” says Anne-Isabelle. “It’s like nothing you can see anywhere else.”

The long view

Kynren takes place on a disused golf course and it took Eleven Arches three years to transform it into the space it is today. The stage area covers 7.5 acres – equivalent to five football pitches – and includes a lake looped by bridges and containing a hidden path, so characters can appear to walk on water. Up to 8,000 people can watch each show from the wooden Tribune amphitheatre.

Smooth operator

Anne-Isabelle worked closely with chairman Jonathan Ruffer, the millionaire philanthropist behind the production, to launch Kynren, and she says, “Getting it off the ground was the hardest part.” Now, the volunteers, known as Archers, know exactly what to do. “There’s always an element of risk with live productions but the training is meticulous,” she says. “Weekly rehearsals for various segments begin in January and we start bringing it all together between April and June.”

Snow problem

It’s a windy day so tech team volunteers Paul Maughan and Martin Leverick are performing extra checks on equipment, including the snow machine, which scatters flakes over scenes set during World War One. “Our role is stage management,” says Paul. Once the show starts, Paul and Martin are part of a chain making sure each element of the action is ready. “The show is automated, but there are a few manual switches along the line for safety,” adds Martin.

Tech team

The director of technical projects, Graham Emerson, has the best view in the house from the control room, whose window gazes over the stage. The sets are motorised but his team of 45 volunteers ensure every flame, firework and snowstorm happens at the right time. “We test everything in the afternoon and there are team members around the set to say each section is good to go. We have the best equipment and robust protocols in place to ensure nothing goes wrong.”

Full steam ahead

Neil Johnson is a team leader on the tech side, which means he’s on the ground keeping all the special effects running in sequence. He and his team look after “anything that moves” in the motorised set, including a full-scale model of the first passenger steam train, which ran on the first public rail line in history in the north-east in 1825. The replica chugs along a track during the show. “We don’t fire the engine with coal,” jokes Neil. “But it looks the part.”

Horses for courses

Most of Kynren’s 33 equine stars, which live in stables on-site, are dappled grey Lusitanos that stand out in the dark. The head of cavalry, Anna Warnecke, trains the horses and oversees 28 riders. “None of the horses had been in a show before. We had to work out their strengths. Now, when the fireworks go off, they just look at them. They know what’s coming and when.” Each horse has up to five costume changes as it gallops from jousting scenes to royal carriages. Coats and masks are laid out on tables backstage, ready for a quick switch.


Volunteers must work in at least eight of the 11 annual shows. Cavalry member Lydia Malkin, who also works as a freelance groom, has been in every Kynren since it began. This year, she’s had to learn a new stunt, in which she plays a fisherwoman kidnapped and thrown on to the back of a horse. “I have to help to get myself up there by leaping on to the saddle,” she says. “We rehearse the acting and choreography separately before bringing the horses in. And they get a nice treat and a fuss afterwards.”

Marvellous menagerie

Shelley Gilson trains and cares for the sheep, cows and geese that live on site and appear in pastoral and battle scenes. “We have rescue goats and donkeys, too,” says Shelley. “We always find the right place for them.” Driving the 30-odd geese isn’t as tricky as it looks, she adds. “You have to form a horseshoe shape around them.” It helps that all the animals get fed right after the show, too. While the waddling waterbirds often get the biggest applause of the night, donkey Hettie is the favourite among cast and crew. “She’s the real pet,” says Shelley. “She’s so soft and sweet. Everyone loves her.”

Neat as pin

The costume department contains 10,000 garments from hats and embroidered capes to the unisex rubber clogs, and each piece has to be counted back in. Items are laundered on a weekly basis, says team leader Cathryn Thirling, and everything is ‘one size fits all’ because roles are interchangeable. “We have mending sessions on Thursdays,” says Cathryn, who wears a chain of safety pins around her neck for emergency rips and tucks. “Some shows are worse than others for repairs, but we always get them done.”

Team spirit

Two backstage villages flank the stage and volunteers begin to gather a couple of hours before the show, donning costumes and taking last-minute dance classes. Kynren is powered by about 1,000 volunteers, known as Archers, aged from five to 84. The strong camaraderie between everyone from actors to those who make costume repairs sees up to 85 per cent returning each year.

Propping up

The shelves lining the large props shed are heaving with hundreds of painted shields, wooden weapons and banners, waiting to be retouched and repaired by Mark Rossi and his team of 26. The Roman and Viking helmets tend to suffer the most damage. “They’re made of resin, which isn’t very medieval, but they look pretty authentic,” says Mark, formerly the head of art at a local secondary school. His team makes many of the 3,000-odd props using scraps of wood, metal – and whatever they “have to hand”. They also dress the stage before the show and stay behind to store all the pieces safely back in the shed.

Let’s dance

The rousing soundtrack, created by award-winning composer Nathan Stornetta, is prerecorded. But the battle and dance scenes – including the entire cast doing the jitterbug – are live. Movement directors Katie Pearson, Gina Chan Martinez and Rocky Norton get volunteers dancing. “There are 500 cast members and 29 scenes,” says Katie. “With everyone having numerous parts, no two shows have the same cast, so we rehearse everybody in all roles and positions.”

Fighting talk

Cast member Kieran Baul is gearing himself up for battle. Tonight, he’s playing a Viking kidnapper. “I have to get my aggressive face on,” he jokes. Kieran joined the first show because he “wanted to be involved in something different”, and loved it so much that he became one of the regular volunteers who return each year.

Hidden depths

The specially built lake holds 90,000 gallons of water and a Viking longship, which breaks through the surface during the show. The costumed cast members on board are trained divers whose tanks and equipment are hidden from the view of the audience. There’s also a team of safety divers, who enter the water from hatches at either end of the lake, on hand to help in case of emergencies.

Out with a bang

Each show incorporates more than 600 pyrotechnic effects, ranging from burning boats to riders on fire. Every display is designed and created by the display director, Adam Hillary, a pyrotechnician with an international reputation.Kynren’s stunning firework finale, which illuminates the night sky with a display of around 3,500 fireworks, requires a pyrotechnics team of 18 to secure each rocket into wirelessly controlled holders that are then set off at the appropriate moment. They stay long after the audience have gone home, though, to gather up every spent shell.

Ready, set… go!

Because the dialogue is prerecorded, it’s crucial that each of the 29 scenes starts the second it’s supposed to. Enter the Go Team, which comprises 30 volunteers who make everything go like clockwork. They’re scattered around the set to prompt and halt when needed. “When people are in a scene, they don’t always notice a huge horse or carriage behind them,” explains Jill Parkinson, the Go Team leader for the cavalry section. “We’re the eyes and ears for everybody. Every entrance and exit – for actors and animals – is managed by a member of the team.” Jill, who is never without her ‘Go Book’, which is filled with floor plans and maps, has missed only one show since Kynren started. “It’s totally addictive,” she adds.

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