How Yorkshire’s theatres are beating austerity cuts for the arts

Artistic director Rod Dixon at the launch of exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Leeds's Red Ladder Theatre Company lasy June.   Picture Tony Johnson.
Artistic director Rod Dixon at the launch of exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Leeds's Red Ladder Theatre Company lasy June. Picture Tony Johnson.
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The past few years have been challenging for many arts organisations around the country, but here in Yorkshire the theatre scene appears to be flourishing. Nick Ahad finds out more.

During the Second World War, asked to cut funding for the arts in order to financially prop up the military, Winston Churchill responded: “Cut arts funding? Then what are we fighting for?”

Hull Truck Theatre's production of Richard III in 2017. Actor Matt Fraser, from the smash hit US television series American Horror, played Richard III.

Hull Truck Theatre's production of Richard III in 2017. Actor Matt Fraser, from the smash hit US television series American Horror, played Richard III.

Stirring, isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not true. It is a misquote wheeled out regularly for use as ammunition on the battlefield of ideological cuts to public spending on culture. In a way, the veracity of the quote doesn’t matter: the sentiment rings true.

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The problem we have in the arts is that we live in a world that likes to have what the management consultants call ‘measurables’. You can’t measure the effect of watching Hamlet. There’s no number that describes the feeling of being in an audience compelled to its feet as a single mass to give a standing ovation at the end of a play. We can’t measure those things and nor would we want to.

There are some ways of measuring the arts, loathe as I am to do so. The amount of money poured into Hull, for example, when it spent its year as the UK’s City of Culture, or the number of people who regularly attend theatre annually which is, measurably, greater than the number who go to Premier League football.

Northern Ballet's production of Victoria.

Northern Ballet's production of Victoria.

Theatre is big business, it’s a global British brand and here’s the really good news: Yorkshire theatre is a seriously strong trademark within that brand right now.

In recent years I’ve lost count of the number of West End transfers we’ve seen, shows that were made here and then triumphed in London.

Our major theatres are enjoying an almost unprecedented run of success and there is also an extraordinary layer of theatre subculture bubbling away in many of our towns and cities.

So what’s happening? Are we living in a particularly extraordinary moment for Yorkshire theatre? Director Joyce Branagh, who has revived pantomime at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre in recent years, believes we are.

Joyce Branagh at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.

Joyce Branagh at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.

“One of the strengths we have is the sheer variety of publicly funded regional theatres in the country, all producing quality productions, made with care and attention for their local audiences.”

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Branagh (sister of Sir Kenneth, in case you were wondering) celebrates the fact that her pantomime is of the town. “We strive to make it as specific to Huddersfield and Yorkshire as possible.”

One of the great things about Yorkshire theatre is that you have the grandeur of Leeds Grand and Opera North shoulder to shoulder with the more homely charms of Sheffield’s Theatre Deli and Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill.

Red Ladder is a 50-year-old company built on anarchist principles and based in Leeds. It plays a vital part in the ecology of the landscape and artistic director Rod Dixon believes there is a real spirit of community in Yorkshire.

“The infrastructure is generously shared from company to company so the same technicians or stage managers may be seen operating lighting desks or putting up stages for totally different theatre companies. A quick phone call, or email, and a solution is found to any number of bizarre problems.”

He offers an example. “Slung Low’s community college were offering a fire breathing workshop, but had nowhere safe to do it. One phone call and Red Ladder producer Chris Lloyd found them a space. A few weeks later the weather turned chilly and Slung Low provided audiences with blankets for our play staged in a cold warehouse.”

Red Ladder have also worked this year with Bradford’s Freedom Studios, helping it to take Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, a new play about Andrea Dunbar, to working men’s clubs and social centres via its local touring circuit.

“The attitude is about mutual benefit. Competition is seen as a spur to most businesses, in Yorkshire the ethos is quite simply if one company thrives, we all thrive,” says Dixon.

Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, is excited by what’s happening in his city. “There’s so much going on in Sheffield, it’s difficult to take in. We sit alongside great venues like Theatre Deli and the terrific new Local Theatre and exciting companies like Third Angel and Utopia Theatre. Sheffield’s contribution to Yorkshire Theatre is massive and a big part of what makes us the best region for theatre in the country.”

We’re also seeing talent move up here from London - like Tom Bird, the new executive director at York Theatre Royal. “Moving to Yorkshire has made me socially engaged and made me believe in the ability of culture to make people’s lives better. I think this is because you see around you all the organisations really trying to improve the future, being brave, being excellent and in a context where the vast majority of the money is in the south. It’s difficult to rest on your laurels here, and that’s fantastic.”

Mark Babych, artistic director at Hull Truck, which played a key role in the city’s year as UK City of Culture, thinks it’s a question of renewed confidence that has brought us into this golden age. “Hull has always been a great creative City but perhaps the wonderful energy of this place has not always been recognised enough for the contribution it makes to the creative economy of the region and the rest of the UK. For too long it was considered at the end of the line but there is no doubt in my mind that this is no longer a narrative that holds true.”

Earlier this week, Leeds Playhouse reopened following a £15.8m redevelopment which is part of a wider cultural picture in the city that includes the opening of the Leeds City College on Quarry Hill.

The arrival of Channel 4 to the region and a year of cultural celebration for Leeds 2023 might make the south look up at what we’re doing, but we don’t need them to: we’re doing it anyway.

It’s not all good news, though. Last month’s announcement that Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre had gone into liquidation is a blow to York.

And as Paul Robinson, artistic director of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, points out, there is still work to be done.

“We have to keep convincing people that we can provide an evening of entertainment that can rival an evening in front of the telly bingeing on a box set. That’s doubly difficult in the regions where funding cuts run deep and we generally can’t afford the star names and razzmatazz of the West End.”

In a call to arms, Robinson adds: “Time and again, we do it, right across the county. We produce our own brilliant work to rival that of any other theatre in the world and audiences repeatedly place their trust in us.

Every time we make them happy, or send them away debating, it’s a little victory that we hope will bring them back.”

Sounds almost Churchillian.