Bernard Atha is stepping down after 33 years as chairman of West Yorkshire Playhouse. He spoke to arts Reporter Nick Ahad.
WHEN we first make contact to arrange a meeting, I suggest Thursday afternoon.
"I can't do it then, I'm meeting the Queen," laughs Bernard Atha, at the time OBE, now CBE.
I jokingly ask if he could rearrange that appointment.
"Wish I could. I tried to because there are a couple of meetings on Thursday that I don't want to miss, but my sister said she'd kill me if I didn't go," he says.
Although his tongue is firmly in cheek, you know that if it
was really down to this unfailingly dedicated public spirited Leeds councillor he wouldn't miss a meeting for anything.
For 33 years, Coun Atha has been chairman of the Playhouse. He is also chairman of Northern Ballet Theatre, Red Ladder Theatre Company, Yorkshire Dance Centre, the Craft Centre and Design Gallery – the list goes on.
"I have been at one time or another the chairman or member of 20 different charitable arts organisations," says Coun Atha.
"I have been referred to as the arts Tsar. I don't really like the description. I'm just someone who has a great interest in the arts and in theatre and have been in the privileged position to work with some extraordinary people in the city."
A bona fide public servant, a colleague at the Playhouse refers to him as Leeds's Mr Arts. It seems as good a title as any.
Coun Atha joined Leeds City Council in 1957. In 1974, he joined the board of what was then the Leeds Playhouse.
Fondly remembered, it was a producing theatre housed in "one half of a gym at the university".
From this tiny acorn grew a vision shared by Coun Atha and the man who would become the Playhouse executive director William Weston. Slowly others came on board. Brian Boutell, a former senior partner of
KPMG who went on to serve on the board of Yorkshire Cricket Club, joined up as did architects, husband and wife team Ian and Marjorie
Appleton. For years they would take baby steps towards the finishing line of a completed Playhouse.
"We wanted to consult with everyone, to make sure that the Playhouse was exactly what was needed and wanted," says Coun Atha. "It meant browbeating the architects into agreement and there were long running discussions with the council. At one point the council gave permission for the building but not the flytower (an essential space above the stage that houses scenery – without it plays would be performed on a blank stage) so it was painstaking having to deal with people that didn't really understand the theatre and its needs."
At the fortnightly meetings every last detail was thrashed out. The technicians working in the old Leeds Playhouse were consulted, as were the bar staff, with every opinion taken on board.
"One of the big things we discussed was whether or not we should have a stage door," says Coun Atha. "We decided we wouldn't. Everyone – stars, technicians, audience, would all come in through the same door."
This attention to detail meant the dream of turning the Playhouse into a reality took a decade, but in 1990 the doors finally opened.
"It was criticised for looking like a supermarket at the time," says Coun Atha. "But I think we created a building that is welcoming and friendly and that today, 17 years on, still looks like an impressive piece of architecture."
As he looks around the cafe of the Playhouse (the one part of the building he feels hasn't lived up to his hopes – "we should have given them a bigger kitchen") Coun Atha's enthusiasm for the venue is still present. He will continue to serve as chairman of Northern Ballet Theatre, Yorkshire Dance Centre and Red Ladder Theatre, which he pulled back from the brink of extinction a decade ago. So why will he take his final bow as chairman of the Playhouse tomorrow, at the theatre's annual general meeting?
Coun Atha says: "I think after three decades it's time to let someone else come in with some new thoughts and ideas. I remember Alan Aykbourn saying years ago that Leeds was a cultural desert.
"The city's cultural scene has since changed to be one of the richest in the country. The Playhouse is now the pre-eminent theatre outside London. It deserves to be seen as the central jewel in the cultural crown of the city and I want to leave while I know it is in such a strong position artistically and financially."