The Big Interview: James Brining

West Yorkshire Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining.
West Yorkshire Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining.
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Rarely have I been asked the question “what’s he like?” about someone I have interviewed as often as I have since meeting the subject of this week’s Big Interview.

So, to put all those people out of their misery, James Brining: he’s a nice enough fellow. Likes to play five-a-side. Family man. Enjoys running. Seems keen.

It’s difficult to say much more, though. The man is exceedingly normal. An hour-and-a-half interview felt like a gentle chat over a pint.

If you don’t have a particular interest in the theatre world, you could be excused for scratching your head – James Brining? He’s not, it’s fair to say, famous. He is suddenly, however, really quite important.

The reason so many are clamouring to hear judgement of the man’s mettle is because, having taken over the top job at West Yorkshire Playhouse, he’s now in a very powerful position. As the new artistic director of the leading producing theatre in West Yorkshire, he has significant control of our cultural lives.

Even if you are not a particularly regular theatre attender, the Playhouse is in the position where it sets the cultural agenda for anyone engaging with the arts in the county. It’s like the old adage about the England cricket team – when Yorkshire’s strong, England’s strong. So it goes for the Playhouse. By setting the agenda at the 
top of the pile, it leads the way for others 
to follow.

Brining seems unfazed by the task he faces.

I’d go so far as to say he seems comfortable, relaxed even, chatting away about his plans. It’s because, despite having lived away for two decades, for Brining the Playhouse is a home fixture.

“My grandparents were born in Richmond Hill, my nana worked in Burton’s and my granddad was a painter and decorator. I grew up here,” he says.

“There’s something for me about seeing the (Leeds) Town Hall. When I see it, on a really deep level I just connect with the feeling of being at home.”

Brining, 44, was announced as the new artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse several months ago, but he has been properly in post for the past month. Having served as the artistic director of Dundee Rep for almost the past decade, he is taking his time to settle into the role of man in charge at the Playhouse.

“I’ve been getting round and meeting the (over 100) staff, most of whom I’ve met individually now,” says Brining – he likes the personal touch.

When he was announced as the man to take over from Ian Brown there was a collective scratching of heads. Up in Dundee, he has done really quite impressive things, but all achieved in another country. While it was culturally significant, his reign in Dundee didn’t make all that grand an impact on theatre in the rest of Britain. Despite that, as playwright Daniel Bye said on hearing the announcement, Brining was totally unexpected – and totally obvious as the choice to take over the Playhouse.

It’s not just that Brining was born and bred in Leeds, that he has been a director for 20 years and run a building for ten, that makes him perfect – although all those things certainly contribute – but to see him in the Playhouse building over the past few months has been to see a man who looks entirely at home.

“This is a great opportunity, because of the city the theatre is in, where it can go and what it can do in the future,” he says of his appointment.

“I’ve decided not to direct any shows myself in the spring season, I want to address lots of things about the theatre itself first. I want to look at where it is placed, where it is heading, which areas I want to contribute to most. If I was directing in spring, then I would have to have my head in that already, but I want to take my time to get to know the place and set out the direction of travel.

“When you take over an organisation, you can arrive with a bang and say ‘here we go, this is me’, but that isn’t necessarily my style. I’m more interested in an evolutionary approach. That doesn’t mean things will be staying the same it’s just – I remember the old Leeds Playhouse and I remember the move to this building – I was just leaving Leeds as this building opened and I am really aware of the history of the Playhouse. I want to maintain the huge respect I have for what has gone before, while moving the building into the future.”

So, how has he ended up here? As he says of his parents “they were just ordinary folk – my dad worked for the GPO fitting alarms and my mum was a teacher at Harehills Primary.”

“I don’t know how I ended up working in theatre,” is Brining’s honest answer.

Oddly enough, despite several attempts to mine for a reason, there really doesn’t appear to be anything in particular explaining the fact that he did indeed end up working in theatre.

There is however one very obvious signpost in Brining’s story that reveals how, if not why, he has ended up a director. Like a majority of British theatre directors, he attended Cambridge University.

The preponderance of Oxbridge graduates working in British theatre is one that has vexed some commentators for sometime, but I am here to find out about Brining the man. A boy who had what appears to be an entirely unremarkable, lower-middle class upbringing, going to Cambridge is a little exceptional.

“I don’t know really, I just worked hard and took the opportunities that came my way,” says the former Leeds Grammar School pupil.

“When I went to Cambridge, my nana said they’d watched the Boat Race but couldn’t see me in the boat. That’s as much understanding as my family really had about the fact that I was at Cambridge. I think I went in a boat once when I had a disaster on a punt and got shouted at by some posh people.

“In my head I’m a working-class boy done good, but I think that would be a misrepresentation – I’m not Jimmy Porter.”

The thing about Oxbridge and perhaps the reason there is a seemingly disproportionate representation of their graduates in theatre is that there is a great opportunity to create work – an opportunity that Brining took.

“There were drama clubs in every college and it was while I was at Cambridge that I got involved in the theatre for the first time,” says Brining.

“After I graduated, it still wasn’t like I was looking to be a career director or anything – I moved with a girlfriend to Newcastle to set up a theatre company. It was so we could claim a little extra on top of the dole under the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Lots of theatre makers started out like that – we were taking work around working men’s clubs in Newcastle – it was about as far from getting a job at the RSC as an assistant director as you could imagine.”

From Newcastle he did move to London, but worked in community theatre and children’s theatre, before moving to Scotland to run Dundee Rep.

Up in Scotland, in a much smaller city than Leeds, he created a theatre that sat at the beating heart of the community and had some major successes. He sees in Leeds the opportunity to do something similar. I want to know what his first production will be. He’s clearly not going to tell me and we have a laugh about the question, but it does lead him to reveal the way he’s thinking about his new post.

“It’s not as simple as me saying, ‘I’m going to do this big show in the Quarry Theatre’. It’s about the first season, then the first couple of years, it’s not just about a single show, for me this is about a project and how we reorient the theatre in relation to the city,” he says.

“We sit here and people go up and down that busy road (pointing at The Headrow) and we need to do much more to tell those people that here we are. These windows need to not be castle crenellations, but much more porous.”

In taking his post, Brining becomes only the third artistic director of the building. Jude Kelly was the first, succeeded by Ian Brown and now Brining.

The new man is careful to pay tribute to what has gone before him, but underneath his jovial, almost laddish banter is a man with a clear eye on his ambitions for the building.

“For the past ten years the Playhouse has... gone in a particular direction of travel,” he says.

“Any time that happens then there is work to do to change that direction. I absolutely pay respect to the work that has gone before, but... it might be helpful if I list the things I intend to do. I want to make the place a magnet, a hub for a creative community in the city. I want directors, actors, writers to be in this place, and I want to bring artists from across Europe to work here.

“I want to readdress how the Playhouse serves the communities in its own cities. On my second day back in Leeds, I went for a run up through Harehills and Chapeltown and Chapel Allerton and was reminded of the great diversity that exists in the city. I want to look again at the approaches we take to engaging, meaningfully in all of those communities.”

Up in Dundee his three favourite shows – which he only reveals when pushed, were Sweeney Todd, Sunshine on Leith and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Which is about as disparate a collection of shows as you might imagine. And is why it’s difficult to say much more than this, before we have seen his work.

“As a director, I love to tell stories, that’s why we all do it,” he says.

“While I want to do lots of things to change things here, ultimately, we are here to put on great drama on our stages.”

Whatever happens next, and it really does seem to be a mystery, there are lots of eyes on Brining. If he continues to approach his task with the relaxed attitude he appears to have – and brings the success with him he has enjoyed in his previous posts, we could be in for a pretty good few years in Yorkshire theatre.