Transform festival returns to Leeds and it is ripping up the rule book more than ever before

“How do we want to go forward?”

When It Breaks It Burns, part of the 2019 Transform festival.  (Picture: JMA Photography).
When It Breaks It Burns, part of the 2019 Transform festival. (Picture: JMA Photography).

It’s the sort of language that has been heard in corporate boardrooms for decades, but during The Great Pause it has also crept into the theatre world.

Every arts organisation has asked itself some variation of this question over the past 18 months, as the pandemic saw the shutters come down on an entire industry.

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Many observers expected a wholesale, permanent change to our cultural sector, a £10 billion industry. It certainly seems like the digital age of theatre has been brought to the venue doors sooner and more completely than was expected by the pandemic, but the truth is that some sections of the sector will return to doing the things they have always done in the way they’ve always done them. Other parts of the arts world have fundamentally changed forever as a result of the pandemic.

Quarantine theatre company’s 12 Last Songs is part of this year’s Transform festival.

Transform is an example of a part of Yorkshire’s cultural world that will be ‘very different going forward’, to borrow a phrase from the boardroom.

Amy Letman, creative director of Transform, says: “Following the upheaval of the last 18 months and the continued impact on artists and the cultural sector, going back to ‘normal’ isn’t an option.

“We are excited to be imagining an extended festival, one that is more sustainable, embedded and care-led.”

Okay, some of the language might seem a bit ‘Apprentice contestant’, but Letman, who has worked tirelessly in the Yorkshire arts scene since she arrived a decade ago this year, is never less than sincere.

She says: “We’re busy concocting a range of new productions, projects and experiences that speak to the current moment both locally and globally and that invite audiences across Leeds to rediscover the city and engage with powerful, international performance from this autumn.”

Anyone who witnessed the success of Leeds’s recent Light Night will know there is an appetite in the city for large scale work that spreads across and weaves its way through the city. Transform is the kind of festival that has always served to satiate that appetite.

Letman was working at the Leeds Playhouse when, in 2014, she set up Transform. It was initially confined inside the walls of the theatre where Letman was working, but soon enough a festival with international ambitions found itself all across the city.

Within a couple of years you could experience immersive protest theatre, dance and physical theatre in an old job centre or an abandoned school. Transform existed to push at boundaries.

Letman has told me in the past that the festival’s raison d’etre is to ‘redefine any preconceived ideas we might have about what theatre can be or where it can happen’ – which is why it is less than surprising that this time around for Transform, post-pandemic, there are going to be differences.

Previously the festival took place over a couple of weeks, despite performances sometimes being years in the planning. That is perhaps the biggest, well, transformation for Transform – it will now stretch across several months, running from autumn 2021 to Spring next year.

“As we move into a new phase of the pandemic that presents its own challenges, this model will allow utmost flexibility for artists, creative people and audiences in how they create and experience performance,” says Letman.

“We can’t wait to rip up the rule book and experiment with a new kind of festival model for our times. I can’t think of a better company to kickstart this adventure than the incredible Quarantine – who are known for their intimate and epic examinations of daily life.

“12 Last Songs will present a portrait of the city in an extraordinary way, and at an extraordinary moment.”

The production that will launch this new Transform is the perfect piece of work to encapsulate the spirit of Transform. 12 Last Songs starts at midday tomorrow and runs until midnight on the Quarry stage at Leeds Playhouse.

Part epic durational performance and part live exhibition, it will feature people from different walks of life working a shift, doing what they would normally do in their work – cutting hair, cooking a meal, repairing a watch – in front of an audience.

The piece is created by Manchester company Quarantine (a name it has had since 1998).

Richard Gregory, co-artistic director of Quarantine says: “I have this fascination with watching people work – watching people do something with skill and application, witnessing

one thing become another, observing the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing something through.

“Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about work – my own relationship with it but also the profound changes brought about by the pandemic. 12 Last Songs will invite people in based on the work that they do – to demonstrate their skill and to talk about themselves and their daily lives.

“It is an attempt to create a complex, fragmented portrait of people and society. Work becomes a lens to talk about wider things – about the way that society is structured, about beliefs and values, economics and politics and identity.

“Leeds feels like the perfect place to have these conversations.”

While the rest of the festival programme is to be announced, this opening piece appears to set the tone for what is to come.

Collaboration and partnership

Many organisations have been involved in the creation of 12 Last Songs. It is co-commissioned by Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Cambridge Junction with the support of the Stobbs New Ideas Fund, and HOME. Transform 21-22 is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, and supported by Leeds 2023 and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Produced in partnership with Leeds Playhouse.

Details of 12 Last Songs are on transformfestival.org.uk