West Yorkshire Playhouse owes its existence in no small part to the desire of the people of Leeds.
It was they who, more than a quarter of a century ago, vociferously lobbied for a theatre in the heart of the city, so it’s fitting that the final production at the Quarry Theatre should be a paean to the city it serves.
Searching for the Heart of Leeds is a suitably epic way to bring the curtain down before the Playhouse undergoes a major redevelopment, featuring as it does a 48-strong community cast, six local choirs and a band of eight musicians.
The play, which opens next week, is billed as a celebration of the people of Leeds, the city and its recent history. It was written by Bafta award-winning writer Mark Catley, who has pieced together a story drawn from the memories of more than 200 Leeds residents.
It loosely centres around Loiner Ben as she explores the landmarks, communities and histories of the city to find out what makes it tick. The play examines how Leeds has changed, not just physically with its plethora of towering glass office blocks and riverside apartments, but culturally and socially, too.
For Catley, it’s been a big project. “It is pretty massive,” he says. “I think the Playhouse thought it was a good way to show there was a place for the people in Leeds to come to and having a community cast fits in with that and is a promise, hopefully, of what’s to come.”
The stories and memories were collected by him and a team of researchers. “There’s quite a few nostalgic stories,” says Leeds-born Catley. “There’s an old guy who remembers the market burning down and there’s a story about the time Roy Orbison was supposed to be on at the Odeon. There’s a lot of stories about what sort of community Leeds was but we’re also looking at more modern events and the impact of immigrants and refugees that show what Leeds has become.”
It’s a patchwork quilt of stories woven together, something Catley is familiar with. “I grew up in Beeston and there’s a rich history of storytelling in the city. I remember in the working men’s club where my mum and dad worked people were always telling stories and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
As someone who grew up in Leeds he’s seen the city change. “It’s like watching your child grow up in that you don’t always notice it, and sometimes it’s only when you go away and come back that you realise how much it has changed,” he says.
“I went away to university in the 90s and when I came back I barely recognised the place and it’s interesting to hear people’s reminiscences because they’ve reminded me of things I’d forgotten, so this has been a nostalgic journey for me.”
Catley has made a name for himself as a writer for popular TV shows such as Holby City and Casualty and is currently a story consultant and writer for EastEnders. But pulling the disparate strands together for this stage production must have been a tall order? “They’re like two extremes, though they are basically telling stories, and my job has been to get the stories and make them work together. We’ve made use of singing and dancing so that it’s not just people standing on stage talking, it’s going to be really visual and hopefully fun.”
The stories reflect the changing face of the city and the people who call it home. “There are stories about Leeds in the 1950s through to stories from 2018, but this isn’t just a love letter to Leeds it’s a critique as well,” he says.
“It’s far more multicultural now but it has different problems. I think there’s a feeling that there was a stronger community spirit in the past but what we’ve found doing the play and the research is there’s a different community spirit and it’s just as strong.”
Catley believes that venues like the Playhouse are crucial to creating links to local communities. “I didn’t set foot into a theatre until I was about 23 years old, which is ridiculous. But I think places like the Playhouse and big companies like Opera North and Northern Ballet and their creative engagement with future audiences are really important.
“A lot of the people who will engage with this play will have never set foot in a theatre before.
“The theatre exists in Leeds for the people of Leeds and they’re the ones keeping it going.
“There’s a misconception about theatres sometimes that it’s just for posh people and that it’s very highbrow and that’s not the case at all, but we still need to break through that way of thinking and we need to engage with different people and big community casts are a great way of doing that.”
And even though it’s a local, amateur cast, Catley has been hugely impressed by their ability.
“I’ve seen professional actors that don’t give as good auditions as I’ve seen from some of the members of this cast. There’s some real talent there that hopefully can be tapped into.”
While Catley has written the script, it’s director Alex Ferris who has been tasked with bringing the whole ensemble together. “I’ve done similar things to this before but it’s certainly a big undertaking,” he says. “When you’ve got 40 actors all playing different parts there’s a lot going on.”
But stitching the whole thing together has been a labour of love. “I moved to Leeds about a year and a half ago and I’ve got to know the city a little bit, and through this process I’ve learned so much more about the people and the different communities here,” he says.
“There’s a real range of ages in the company. Hearing some of the older members talking about how Leeds was has been really eye-opening for a lot of the younger members and vice versa.
“There’s a real melting pot of different perceptions and ideas of what the city is.”
Ferris feels community plays like this bring out the best in people and foster a sense of pride in the area. “One of the things I love about the Playhouse is the fact it was brought about by the people of Leeds. They wanted a venue like this in their city and they got one and they fought hard to get it, and as a result there’s part of their DNA within the Playhouse so it feels fitting.
“Also, theatre is for the people. It’s been around for so many years and it’s a wonderful way to bring people together from different walks of life which is what we’ve tried to do.
“People coming to watch this will see other people who look like them and talk like them and they’ll hear stories that resonate with them. They’ll hear accents they recognise and names and places, and hopefully some of them will want to get involved in our next community project.”
Searching for the Heart of Leeds, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre. June 19 – June 23. For tickets call 0113 213 7700. Book online wyp.org.uk
New chapter for the Playhouse
From next month West Yorkshire Playhouse will embark on a major redevelopment marking the start of a new chapter in the venue’s history.
A £14m redevelopment will transform the building to create a new city-facing entrance, with improved access and a new studio theatre space.
The project is funded by £4.4m from Leeds City Council, alongside a £6.6m Arts Council England contribution and £3m from the Playhouse’s own resources.
While this building work is underway up until spring next year, the Playhouse, in association with SOYO, will temporarily transform a workshop space on the existing site into a 350-seat theatre, where it will continue to present a varied programme.