The West Yorkshire Playhouse is planning a major redevelopment – but changes to the building are only part of the story, discovers Patrick Kelly
Big changes are happening in Leeds. The city has shrugged off the disappointment engendered by becoming a Brexit casualty when its bid for European City of Culture, along with five other UK cities, was ruled out of order by Brussels. Now it is planning to deliver the kind of cultural programme usually associated with successful bidders. The council has put culture at the heart of its economic strategy and the city is about to get its own ‘University of the Arts.’ at Leeds City College.
And that’s where one of Leeds’ existing cultural icons, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, has decided to revamp its own offer. The new college is rising up next door to the theatre, built in 1990 on the site of a former housing estate. Its now at the centre of the Quarry Hill cultural quarter, which it shares with Northern Ballet, Phoenix Dance and the BBC. But in the 27 years since it first opened, many parts of that 90s building have grown tired and inefficient. A new redevelopment plan will modernise the building, create a new studio theatre and reorient the entrance and foyer, which critics had said faced away from the city rather than towards it.
With the new developments at Leeds City College and a new shopping centre, “the heart of the city is now coming to us,” says WYP head of communications Rachel Marriner “So having a ‘re-articulation’ of the building makes sense.”
The theatre, under artistic director James Brining, is enjoying another renaissance with major hits like Chitty Chitty Bang which toured to half a million people in the UK, Beryl, a critically acclaimed version of Kes and the recent Barbershop Chronicle.
But WYP is not just a building that puts on shows, emphasises Rachel. “What WYP does in the city is just as important as what goes on on stage.”
Its been part of the vision since the early days of first artistic director Jude Kelly to have a theatre “with a fully integrated community programme acting as a resource for the city and region.”
But Brining together with joint chief executive Robin Hawkes, have reinvigorated that tradition, setting up Furnace, an artistic development programme reaching hundreds of local people with a passion for producing theatre, a team of community ambassadors working in eight of Leeds most deprived areas who encourage friends family and neighbours to try the theatre and a creative engagement team with a brief to reach out to all sorts of groups in the city. Working with approximately 10,000 people each year, Creative Engagement comprises four strands of activity: Playhouse Youth, Older People, Creative Education and Communities. The theatre has also been responsible for some pioneering work with refugees and asylum seekers as the UK’s first Theatre of Sanctuary.
The fruits of this engagement are now appearing on the WYP stages. This spring saw the theatre presenting a festival of theatre and dementia, the first of its kind. Created by people living with dementia, it featured an outstanding programme of theatre, performance and live music culminating in a performance of Still Alice with Sharon Small. On any day of the week, visitors to the theatre will often see the foyer and restaurant thronged with people talking, eating and brainstorming.
Rather than risk losing that sense of excitement during the redevelopment period when the main theatre will be closed, West Yorkshire Playhouse has devised a season of activities that will take place in a large ‘pop-up’ theatre behind the main building. Full details will be released in June, but the theatre’s outreach plans already include productions of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads in every single one of Leeds’s 39 postcodes. Venues will vary from community halls to domestic living rooms, but individuals and organisations are already lining up to host the show. A collaboration with the BBC in Leeds will also see a series of short 15 minute plays about migration, produced by WYP and broadcast over the next few months.
All of this work, says Gilly Roche, head of new work at the theatre, will underline WYP’s commitment to having a diverse audience. “We are the only producing theatre in the city and one of the biggest in North. There is no way we can just appeal to one demographic - the one that’s used to attending theatre. The people coming here with their children to see Peppa Pig are just as vital to the future of theatre as the hipsters keen to see cutting edge productions. What we would really like to see is both those audiences getting together, that’s our aim.”
Furnace lights the future
At the core of WYP’s philosophy is Furnace. A development programme with a difference, it is in effect growing the next generation of writers and directors for the theatre. Part social club, part training programme with workshops on everything from submitting scripts to filing tax returns. In addition, the theatre is collaborating with the Esmee Fairbarn Foundation to creat Young Company, a cohort of 12 early career artists from across Leeds, including actors, writers and theatre producers, DJs and live artists.
“The aim is to build a partnership which supports the ecology of theatre in Leeds and the wider region,” says Roche. Its also about encouraging and retaining creative people in the city rather than losing them to London. Nor does Furnace cater only for the young middle class and arts educated, she says. “We have retired and about to be retired people among our members and we are making it as inclusive as we can.”
Roche adds, “Our stage will have room for everyone, from Ian McKellen to a group of refugees telling jokes and the new studio theatre, the Bramall Rock Void, will be on equal terms with the main auditorium. We want it to be part of the ethos of this building that community theatre is not shunted into a siding and considered ‘something less important’. She hopes to get established writers to put on shows for the studio and is working with smaller Leeds theatres such as the Lab Art Bistro to create a programme for the space.