“No, the balloon needs to land about a foot further to stage right.”
“That bubble needs to be about six feet left.”
“Great, land the balloon there please.”
James Brining is at the business end of Leeds Playhouse’s Christmas production, in the final couple of weeks of rehearsal before the doors are thrown open to the public. This is where the technical elements of the production begin to marry with the artistic and the story and spectacle come together on stage.
There’s a lot riding on this production. Brining, artistic director of Leeds Playhouse, is relaxed about the show, a little less so about the positioning of hot air balloons and bubbles.
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It’s the director’s impressive attention to detail that has brought the Playhouse some of the biggest hits in its history, which have come in recent years, under his tenure. Sweeney Todd, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sunshine on Leith, Alan Bennett’s Enjoy, he has been at the helm of all of these and more since he took over at the Playhouse seven years ago.
This year he is returning The Wizard of Oz to the stage. I say ‘returning’ because it’s the third production of the story the theatre has seen since 2002. Brining isn’t worried about audiences coming back. In fact, he seems untroubled by much as I sit and watch him in a ‘dry tech’ rehearsal, a rehearsal where most of the actors are absent and it is purely the technical elements of the show that are run through and practised.
“My nephew and nieces came to see the show in 2007, that was the last time it was here and they have great memories of it, but there will be plenty of people who didn’t see that production, so it’s great to give people the chance to see the story on stage, perhaps for the first time. Everyone deserves the opportunity to see it,” says Brining.
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He’s called to the stage for the first of about a dozen times during the hour I spend in rehearsals with him and off he goes to instruct the stage management on the exact landing position of that hot air balloon.
Associate director Jamie Fletcher has been working with Brining on the show.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to work on such a scale,” says Fletcher. “It’s also great to see just what James is doing with the production to make it different. Bland musicals are ten-a-penny, but James’s artistic vision is bringing a new take to the story.”
On stage the balloon is ready and (spoiler alert) the Wizard climbs in. As he floats away, Brining watches the balloon disappear out of sight. When it returns to stage right, Brining speaks to Graham Hoadly, the actor bringing the Wizard to life. Hoadly has questions about the dialogue and Brining is concerned that with all of the technical wizardry around him that the story still clear.
“Are we telling the story?,” he wants to know, revealing an insight into why he has enjoyed such success in his career as a director. You can have all the technical bells and whistles you like around the events on the stage, but Brining is obsessed that, at every moment, the story is paramount. Back in the theatre’s seats, he starts telling me about Salman Rushdie, obviously. What, didn’t you know one of the world’s greatest novelists owes it all to Dorothy’s red shoes?
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“Rushdie wrote this essay about how The Wizard of Oz movie was his first literary influence and how he thinks it’s this incredibly powerful story about transformation, about how Dorothy is an agent for change and how it is a story about oppressed communities,” says Brining.
He warms to his subject.
“He’s right, it is absolutely Shakespearean in its resonance. When you see a vulnerable Dorothy on stage there is enormous potency in that and when you look at the story you realise that it’s Steinbeck’s America that we’re looking at, the Dust Bowl America and the idea of something magical ‘out west’. It’s a radical story which has what appears to be a conservative message at its heart – that there’s no place like home.”
Look. Brining is aware, as am I, that to talk about a big, glitzy Christmas show in these kinds of terms might make you wonder if you’ll be booking tickets to some avant garde theatre piece. The truth is, if you want to go and see a performance of a big, perfect-for-Christmas musical then this show will deliver on all fronts. It is, however, interesting to see the weight of intellect at work in rehearsals behind the production.
“The difference on stage between ‘embodying’ something and ‘playing’ something is like the difference between a footballer playing for a team that he’s been paid to play for, but has no real connection to, and a footballer playing for the team of the city where he grew up, the team that he’s always supported,” says Brining, providing perhaps the best analogy of the difference between actors who are putting on a performance and actors who are truly acting that I have heard in 20 years of talking to directors.
Here’s the real beauty of all this: it’s fascinating to see the director at work and to hear how he works with his actors and team to take audiences over the rainbow, but if you want to just skip down the yellow brick road and enjoy the story, well, he’s making sure that the hot air balloon is situated perfectly for you to do that too.
It’s the first big Leeds Playhouse production in the redeveloped Quarry theatre and when you see the production, you’re going to feel like you’re being welcomed into a very special home. And we all know there’s no place like it.
The Wizard of Oz, Leeds Playhouse, runs to January 25, 2020.
Tickets from the box office on 0113 2137700 or via leedsplayhouse.co.uk