Reporting on the comings, goings, openings and closings of the Yorkshire theatre scene is a responsibility I take seriously.
With so many venues clamouring for their share of attention, like a theatrical Yoda I strive to bring balance to The Yorkshire Post coverage. I spread the coverage as far as possible between venues small, large and medium and between shows everyone is talking about and the shows that you might not yet have discovered.
I had to check the files before writing this week’s article because it does feel sometimes like we at The Yorkshire Post cover this particular organisation a lot. In my defence, they do keep doing quite spectacular and slightly mad things. So regularly does this organisation pull off something out of the ordinary, in fact, that it came as a bit of a surprise to discover we haven’t written about them since January this year.
So I write with impunity this week about Slung Low.
The Leeds theatre company – although, as you will see it feels increasingly odd to call them that, given the vast array of things they actually do – has been pushing at boundaries since the very early days when I came across them in an empty Bradford shop.
That was over a decade-and-a-half ago and the shop has now long gone, replaced by the glitzy Broadway shopping centre. In 2005 I found the company again, this time in a multi-storey car park in Bradford, where they staged a vampire story which the audience walked through and experienced: Slung Low were creating theatre that happened to you, not something which you watched on remotely. As a company Slung Low wasn’t playing the game. It was changing the way the game was played, often literally.
Early on it was clear that artistic director Alan Lane and his small team were going to do something significant and significantly different with the work they were creating. There were lots of other companies emerging in Yorkshire around the same time – Rash Dash, Paper Birds, Third Angel – it’s been a real joy to watch them all grow and evolve. I put faith in Slung Low growing into something big early on: they haven’t disappointed. From their base in Holbeck, in a set of disused railway arches, they created spectacular theatrical events.
Earlier this year perhaps the most significant change in the company’s history thus far took place, when the Slung Low team moved into The Holbeck Working Men’s Club. A theatre company and an old-fashioned working men’s club, which many of us will remember from Northern childhoods, sharing a roof? Typical Slung Low.
It’s been nine months since the move and this week the company has announced that on September 12, the building will be receiving the rare honour of a blue plaque.
For the team, it’s another impressive achievement.
“We’ve found a new way of being useful,” says Lane of the move into The Holbeck.
“Alongside the stuff that you will know us for – plays, college classes, rehearsal rooms – we’ve been able to take our principles of sharing public resources and expand who we can help; this week we’ve a hungry holiday scheme (kids that would otherwise go back to school after the break malnourished), workshops with vulnerable adults, ex-offenders learning the skills needed to apply for work, dinner for care-leavers, a fundraiser for British Heart Foundation, a wake for a Ghanian woman some of whose family now lives in Leeds.
“It’s still a pub where the members get reduced price pints, we still open three hours before every Leeds home match, we still put on top-notch theatre at 5pm on a Sunday but now we can do all this other stuff. This useful stuff. This stuff that is more and more needed as other spaces close and as society keeps coming under more and more pressure.”
Earlier this week Lane tweeted about a conversation with a club member. An edited version reports that a club member said to Lane: “Weren’t sure about you at first because obviously you sound like a wally, but the club has been brilliant since you’ve taken over.” It’s the kind of attitude the Slung Low crew have faced and overturned a number of times.
“The passion with which this place is held needs care. The volunteers who ran it for years are rightly passionate about it still being what it was even as it becomes new things and is useful more broadly to its community. We’re passionate about respecting that – about honouring that – and that takes care and time; there are a lot of stake holders. They need to be heard even when they can’t always get what they want, how they want it.”
One of the many brilliant things Slung Low has created over the years is 15 Minutes Live, six short radio plays created live on stage. The idea has become zeitgeisty of late – my own radio play was on the stage of the Leeds Playhouse last year – but Slung Low were there first.
The idea returns on September 7.
“We’ve made a commitment to making more work for kids – families in Holbeck are a real opportunity for us to set the standard about what culture looks like to these young people.
“And we love the format of 15 minutes live – radio plays recorded in front of a live audience. We’re going to be giving the recordings to primary schools in the area so the audience who are there live are actually part of the experience for that future audience listening to the recordings – the audience are in it too!”
The audience are in it. Just like they were in the early days. It’s quite the formula.
Joy at blue plaque
Receiving the blue plaque is significant, says Lane: “It’s a massive moment for the community. It’s rare for working class culture to be honoured in this way and this plaque is a clear tribute to the collective effort that the whole community has shown over the last century. The oldest working men’s club in Britain. The idea that people can come together and share their resource to provide something, that’s worth celebrating. Ian McMillan has written us the best poem, the brilliant Commoners’ Choir are coming down to sing and we’re putting on some food. Everyone is welcome.”