When I arrived home in 2012 as Artistic Director my ambition was for Leeds Playhouse to be an artistic beacon for the North.
The lights spelling out Playhouse in capital letters on the front of the new facade makes that feel more of a reality.
But the Playhouse is a beacon in more ways than its new signage; it’s truly pioneering. Leeds’s only producing theatre is as renowned for its award-winning creative engagement activities and for training artists as for the quality of its shows.
We were the first theatre in the world to develop performances specifically aimed at people living with dementia, the world’s first theatre of sanctuary (earned for our work with refugees and asylum seekers) and we run the country’s longest established older people’s programme, Heydays.
Access, equality and democratisation of opportunities for self-expression through culture are in the Playhouse’s DNA.
Seven years ago I felt that the theatre, which was founded in 1970 as a result of a major public campaign demanding a producing theatre, needed to invigorate its relationship with the city.
And that’s what the Playhouse redevelopment is inspired by. With the help of our funders, supporters, our brilliant architects and contractors, we have turned the theatre around to face the city, including the content of work as well as our relationships with communities and people of Leeds.
The physical changes have been supported by shifts in our relationships, programme and policies including our re-launch as Leeds Playhouse and the work we’ve made, including plays about Beryl Burton, Barnbow Canaries and The Damned United, exploring the city’s narratives and refining and reflecting its sense of itself. This is one of regional theatre’s great strengths: geographically specific stories experienced in a shared moment in that locality.
We have also made significant contributions to the civic agenda, exploring and combating loneliness through creative activities. We have a huge programme engaging artists at different stages of their careers. And it’s not just about the city centre; we work all over the city region, including taking shows to our community venues, typically engaging with all 33 wards in the city.
Nevertheless the reopening of the Playhouse invites us to focus on the new building.
One of the great joys of the new theatre are the views up the Headrow to our iconic Town Hall, reminiscent of theatre’s roots in ancient Greece where the Theatre of Dionysus sat in the shadow of the seat of Athenian democracy. Now, as then, we are a meeting place, a cross-roads, where people can come together to contest and celebrate ideas and stories, from here and from around the world.
Our mission is to reflect and engage our communities in all their diversity and complexity. Our Playhouse is the campfire around which we have gathered for centuries. With its three auditoria, huge variety of users, the diversity of the stories we tell, we make a critical contribution to the heart and the soul of this city.
And unlike many spaces, not just in Leeds but throughout our increasingly commercialised nation, this is a space which doesn’t require you to buy anything, in which people from different backgrounds are valued and respected, where you can literally rub shoulders with strangers in an equal way around a creative impulse. Buildings like ours are easy to criticise for costing too much to run, and making great theatre can be expensive – but why shouldn’t someone from Leeds have the right to experience great work, like someone from London does? It’s about cultural democracy.
A building like this – working with its many communities, connecting, challenging, enabling and celebrating – can generate far more value to the people who are inspired by what happens in it than the cost to the public purse. Over 800 independent artists have signed up to Furnace, our artist development programme and it’s no accident that the first play we’ve produced is by a local writer, Charley Miles. To be a beacon for aspiring artists, visibility is important and now we have a new building to help celebrate, invite and welcome.
We’re proud of what’s been achieved. It feels as if we’re at the beginning of the next great chapter for this brilliant theatre in this extraordinary city.
James Brining is artistic director of Leeds Playhouse.