Why Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low is a modern day inspiration

In March when the country went into that first, at the time unthinkable, lockdown, I was faced with an existential question: what does a theatre correspondent write when there is no theatre about which to correspond?

An outdoor performance of Slung Low’s variety show You Can Bet.  (Picture: Lian Furness)
An outdoor performance of Slung Low’s variety show You Can Bet. (Picture: Lian Furness)

It gave me an opportunity to pause and reflect. For not far off two decades my diary has looked like a Jackson Pollock with opening nights written down, then crossed out in red and written over in green for another show premiere – which was then crossed out in black and written over in blue for yet another opening night.

It’s a wonderful sign, really, of the strength, depth and breadth of theatre culture in Yorkshire that I often expected to meet myself coming back most nights.

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Then in March it just stopped. Theatre shut down, but The Yorkshire Post did not. Our work became perhaps more important than ever. I took the opportunity to reflect and dig into the stories of the buildings and companies that make Yorkshire the theatrically most well served of the country’s regions.

Artistic director Alan Lane, left, and The Slung Low team at the Holbeck.

I had a lot of theatre to write about, but where to start? The newly refurbished and cruelly closed down Leeds Playhouse? The biggest theatre complex in the country outside of London, Sheffield Theatres?

The little powerhouse by the seaside the Stephen Joseph Theatre? Choosing my opening gambit for these profiles was what the American electorate (let’s hope) might call a ‘no-brainer’. I would start with Slung Low and it’s where my theatre lockdown profiles return to.

The little company that could, Slung Low was born in Bradford at Theatre in the Mill (covered here in June). The early shows, back in 2004, 05, 06, took place in empty shops, in car parks, in the gardens of Lister Park hinted that the company had ambition, but few could have imagined just how ambitious.

What the company, set up by artistic director Alan Lane, has done on massive theatrical canvasses, is breathtaking.

They’ve blown up tankers in Salford, created a floating apocalyptic world in a harbour for Hull’s year as City of Culture, they’ve staged Moby Dick on the Leeds Docks and led a riot through the streets of Sheffield. Make no mistake, Slung Low have established themselves as a theatrical powerhouse of the North and have influenced much site specific theatre that has followed, so I mean no disrespect when I write that everything that has come before has paled in comparison to what it has done in 2020.

Since we went into lockdown, from The Holbeck, the working men’s club which is the company’s base in South Leeds, it has fed people. “We are a non-means tested, self-referring food bank. If you ask for food, you get it. We’ve done this for eight months, we service 7,500 houses and we’ve delivered over 6,000 food parcels to date. We cannot fix the system, but we can stop some people being hungry this week, and next, and on,” says Lane.

The artistic director, whose team I don’t really have the words to praise enough, have faced the constant question of why a theatre company is running a food bank, and we’ll come to that. Lane, like all theatre makers, is in the storytelling business.

“All of this is a creative act. We are telling the story that no-one need go hungry in Holbeck and Beeston during this crisis. To tell this story the best way we can we have to make it true, and we are,” he says.

The reason Slung Low bookends my Lockdown Theatre Profiles of 2020 is because the company is the perfect bridge. What it has done during the crisis is an important story to share, but it is now also looking to a future – where we can start once again to gather together and hear stories.

The first announcement is that An Evening With Barrie Rutter, announced in The Yorkshire Post weekend magazine, proved so popular that an extra date has been added. The raconteur and indomitable actor-manager will be sharing stories about his life on the stage on November 7 (sold out) and November 8.

A return to the stage for the man who faced throat cancer this year, it’s little wonder the first performance proved so popular. On November 14 magician Michael Wolf will present his first ever feature magic show about time. A wonderful stage presence, this will be a delight of a show. The company is also providing a venue for a performance of Opera North’s Whistle Stop Opera version of Cinderella and is gearing up for its ever popular Christmas fayre.

So it’s getting back to business as, in these times, very unusual. Yet it still will continue the life-saving foodbank work.

“People keep asking ‘why is a theatre company running a food bank?’. Well, because it is obscene to put on brilliant theatre in a car park and have people who can see that car park from their windows suffering hunger. We are trying to create the best arts centre, community hub, pub, community college in the world,” says Lane.

“If people who live within sight of the place are too weak from hunger or too battered by the panic of food poverty to think about maybe coming, then that is just not right.”

Talking to the likes of Alan Lane is a reminder of what a privilege it has been to have filled eight months worth of these weekly pages with the stories of our theatrical heritage and is a reminder, too, of what we must protect.

Given the state of things these profiles may well continue, but I will also hopefully see you soon, socially distanced, at the theatre.

Programme of planned events at The Holbeck

An Evening with Barrie Rutter: already one show is sold out, both are being staged to raise money to buy and install a

lift at The Holbeck. November 8, 6pm.

Story Jam: James Blakey leads a series of workshops on how to tell stories. November 11-14.

Whistle Stop Opera, Cinderella: Opera North brings an accessible version of the fairytale to the stage. November 21.

For more details on events happening at the Holbeck and to book your seat visit www.slunglow.org

All tickets are pay as you feel.

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