Raised in Leeds, James Brining is back to take over the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Arts Correspondent Nick Ahad spoke to the theatre’s new artistic director.
The subject of huge speculation, James Brining appears undeterred by the fact that the theatre world has been discussing him – or rather, what he is about to become – for some time now. Betraying no sense of nerves that he is now the subject of intense scrutiny, he is cheerful, friendly and above all, excited.
Announced as the man who will take over the West Yorkshire Playhouse when current artistic director Ian Brown leaves at the end of summer, Brining will be at the helm of one of the most important theatres in the region, which has arguably the strongest theatre scene outside London.
Leeds born and raised, Brining is the first locally-born director to take charge of the theatre which has seen an array of stars and class productions on its stages.
From the moment Brown announced his intention to leave the coveted post he has occupied for a decade this summer, there followed 12 months of speculation with names from across the theatrical world suggested as successors. Had anyone placed money on the man who has run the Dundee Rep for nine years, chances are they are quids-in today.
“If people don’t know who I am, I’m not sure what I can do about that,” says Brining.
“I’ve been working in Dundee for nine years, in a theatre that is explicitly not about bringing stars to the stage, but about engaging with audiences and work locally.
“I’ve not been interested in chasing my own career, looking for opportunities to put myself on the map for London theatre critics. All that’s great to put a venue under the spotlight and get great profile, but (the job) is not about that. For me, wherever I am, I commit myself totally to that place.”
It takes maybe a minute, perhaps two, before you realise that Brining, while not a well- known name to many, is the perfect man for the job.
Playwright Daniel Bye summed it up nicely yesterday when he said: “James Brining’s appointment is totally unexpected and totally obvious.”
Brining, 43 and a father-of-four, says taking over the Playhouse is a homecoming, but the word doesn’t quite sum up his feelings.
“Where you are from is such an important thing, it defines your identity. I was born and brought up in Leeds, my grandparents are from Leeds, my dad’s from there, it’s where I grew up. I went to watch Leeds United play every other week. That really means something to me and although I moved away to go to university and have not lived in the city since, this feels a perfect match.”
His mother was a teacher at Harehills Primary for 30 years and his father an electrical engineer.
After attending Carr Manor Primary and St Matthew’s Middle School he went on to Leeds Grammar School “...because my brothers went there and I sort of got shoved in.”
At Cambridge, where he read English, despite not being from a particularly theatrical family he threw himself into theatre, quickly realising on which side of the stage he belonged.
“I started out acting, but was clearly not very good. I auditioned for Sam Mendes, who was there at the same time as me. I take it as a great mark of respect that he took me no further,” he says.
“In studying literature, I discovered theatre and that you could realise the worlds you were creating in your imagination. When I realised that, it was an exciting moment. I also realised standing outside the process looking in was what worked for me.”
On graduating he knew that he wanted to keep making work.
“It’s a brilliant job. You are playing and you get to tell the stories of a different group of people to a third group, the audience. I just wanted to keep doing that.”
He and his actor girlfriend moved to Newcastle to set up a theatre company, going North on the basis that someone studying for an MA at the university wanted to work with them.
“It was in the late 80s, when there was something called the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, designed by Margaret Thatcher to help people run small businesses. It meant we could set up a theatre company and get an extra £10 on top of our benefit. We found ourselves making little plays, ringing up Jarrow community centre and saying ‘can we bring a production of Measure to Measure to your upstairs room?’. That year and a half was a total antidote to Cambridge and was a brilliant year of absolute intensity, where you are totally under the radar, just making the work.”
Stints at Proteus and TAG theatre companies followed, before he landed the job at Dundee Rep, one of the few theatres in the country that still has a full-time rep system where the same group of actors perform in multiple productions throughout the season.
When everything is put together, it seems obvious that Brining – Leeds-born, Cambridge-educated, earning his stripes in regional theatre, taking over a bigger venue and making a bold statement with much admired work both nationally and internationally – is the right man for the West Yorkshire Playhous. So, what will the culturally significant venue look like, once he takes charge?
“I want to spend quite a lot of time here before the summer and immerse myself back in the city, get a sense of what the theatre is and needs,” he says.
“It feels like the theatre is on a trajectory of change internally. It feels like the legacy of Jude Kelly (the Playhouse’s first artistic director) and Ian Brown really put Leeds on the map, but with me arriving it is the start of a distinct new chapter.
“Ian worked with Jude, but I am someone entirely new for the theatre.
“It doesn’t mean I’m going to arrive and change things for the sake of it; more that I’m going to bring a fresh mentality.”
Brining’s success at Dundee Rep was to take a theatre which sits “off the main branch” and give it a national standing. His productions of Sweeney Todd and new musical Sunshine on Leith both won TMA awards.
“The Playhouse can be a theatre that serves its audience in meaningful ways and engage nationally. Why can’t it be both? To attempt to do anything other than that with a theatre is a diminishment of its potential.
“We managed to pull that off in Dundee, where we served a small, local population, but had a national and international resonance.
“I think the way you do that – and the way I hope to do that at the Playhouse – is by ensuring representation of the city in which the theatre sits. I want to put on the stage stories that are particular to the vibrant, diverse city that the theatre serves.”
Brining, who says he has visited the Playhouse more than any other theatre outside Scotland and thinks the recent production of Annie was “fantastic”, knows the stages well.
He calls the Quarry stage (the theatre’s biggest space) “epic and worthy of epic work”, and plans to turn the smaller Courtyard into “a theatre where the audience will walk in and have no idea what to expect”.
“I feel excited, I feel prepared. It will take time before my mark is clear, but I don’t feel daunted. I feel challenged, and working in theatre is all about testing yourself against your ambition.”
James Brining’s long road back to Leeds
On graduating, James Brining wanted to keep creating theatre and headed to Newcastle.
When his girlfriend at the time landed a role at drama school, he moved south with her and began directing with Basingstoke-based Proteus Theatre Company. Touring work into rural community venues, he soon realised his own aesthetic did not match that of the company, so when a job came up at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey, he applied.
Taking over as the community director in 1995, it was where he truly learned his craft, he says. “I learned about and understood the simplicity of theatre and that it is people in a room, telling a story honestly and powerfully.”
He directed shows in schools, Shakespeare, new plays, shows in the main stage, in the round, and in the studio.
It prepared him for his next move, in 1997, which was to TAG theatre in Scotland, part of Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. It began as the Theatre in Education arm, but became known for strong productions aimed at audiences under 25.
Joining Dundee Rep in 2003 as artistic director, it didn’t take long for him to make his mark and during his tenure the theatre won many accolades and was nominated for more Theatrical Management Association and Critics Awards for theatre in Scotland than any other venue. His productions of Sunshine on Leith and Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street won TMA Best Musical in 2007 and 2010 respectively.