Leeds Playhouse reopens following a major £15.8m redevelopment - we take a tour behind the scenes

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For James Brining one moment in particular stands out during the £15.8m redevelopment of Leeds Playhouse. “I remember the day the letters were put up. There was a bright blue sky and one by one these letters appeared and it felt like a big moment in the history of this building and this theatre,” he says.

The past 16 months have indeed been significant for the theatre - in June last year it changed its name from the West Yorkshire Playhouse back to Leeds Playhouse, before undergoing the biggest transformation since moving to its existing Quarry Hill site in 1990.

Robin Hawkes outside the new front entance of Leeds Playhouse.

Robin Hawkes outside the new front entance of Leeds Playhouse.

And tomorrow marks another new chapter when it opens its doors to the public following completion of the multi-million pound revamp - with events and performances taking place throughout next month (including a celebratory Open Weekend from October 11 to 13).

“We didn’t want to just open the doors and have everything going on at once, we wanted to phase it over a period of time to give people a chance to pop in at different times,” says Brining.

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The new look Playhouse includes a striking facade, a third studio space - the Bramall Rock Void - as well as a new restaurant, café and bar, and improved public spaces.
When the £13m West Yorkshire Playhouse was opened to great fanfare 29 years ago it was hailed by some as the “North’s new national theatre.”

But not everyone was enamoured with the appearance of this jewel in the region’s cultural crown, with some people complaining it looked more like a supermarket or a leisure centre than a theatre.
“When I first came here people used to talk about the main road being a bit of a barrier and this gave us an opportunity to do something, because one of the objectives of the whole scheme was to become more visible,” says Brining.

James Brining, artistic director of Leeds Playhouse.

James Brining, artistic director of Leeds Playhouse.

The impressive new entrance certainly does that. Rather than being tucked away down the side, the front of the building now looks out towards the city centre.
It makes the theatre a visible landmark in the city and, at the same time, helps improve accessibility.
“We wanted people to be able to see inside which they couldn’t really do before,” says Brining.

“The original idea was to turn the theatre around to face the city. We’ve been doing that with our programme in recent years, but we found it difficult to do that properly without changing the building. So this is part of our plan to be more open, accessible and engaged.”

The new facade is characterised by coloured panels which are a nod to the pottery businesses that once thrived in nearby Burmantofts. They also correspond to the different theatres inside – The Quarry, Courtyard and Rock Void – and are designed to help people navigate their way through the newly created spaces.

“Even for people who know the Playhouse it’s going to be a little bit of a disorientating experience the first time they come here, so the architects wanted to use little bursts of colours to help people locate which theatre they’re going to,” explains Robin Hawkes, the Playhouse’s executive director.

Leeds Playhouse has undergone a 15.8m redevelopment.

Leeds Playhouse has undergone a 15.8m redevelopment.

25 years of the West Yorkshire Playhouse
The front entrance features a new ground floor cafe and an atrium that creates a sense of light to encourage people to pop in. “We hope that people will come in who’ve never been in before, even if it’s just for a cup of coffee. But they might then pick up a flyer and end up coming to see something,” says Hawkes.

A new wide corridor runs through the core of the building linking old and new, and whereas the previous building could feel a bit disjointed and claustrophobic at times, this looks and feels more spacious, more modern.
It’s fair to say, too, that this used to be a less attractive part of the city, but not any longer. The architectural monolith that was Millgarth police station has gone, replaced by the aspirational Victoria Gate. And alongside the new look Playhouse is Leeds City College’s new, eye-catching £60m Quarry Hill campus, complete with its ‘living walls’ and solar panels to harness energy.

It’s a tangible symbol of a city looking to the future with confidence and, dare I say, a swagger.
Hawkes believes the redeveloped theatre is part of a bigger picture. “Quarry Hill has been a hub of creativity for a long time with Northern Ballet and the BBC, but previously you could have driven past and not known that any of that was really going on, and now it’s going to be so evident that this is a cultural quarter.

“It feels like the theatre is part of the city centre rather than being cut off from it. Since the college opened a few weeks ago we’ve seen floods of students going next door and you get a sense of how this area is going to be so much more connected.”
The old side entrance (what used to be the front) remains. “We didn’t want to open one door and close another, so it was really important that people could come in from two directions,” says Hawkes.

The Playhouse has been based at Quarry Hill since 1990.

The Playhouse has been based at Quarry Hill since 1990.

The theatre spaces themselves have also been redesigned. Seating at the the 750-capacity Quarry has been improved as has access for wheelchair users who now have some of the best views in the house. “Access is so important to us, we’ve pioneered things like dementia-friendly performances and we wanted a theatre that was fit for purpose in that sense.”

The Courtyard, too, has been upgraded with clever architectural tweaks enabling the capacity to increase to around 420, while the new basement Rock Void has been transformed from an unused area into a smaller, more intimate studio.
The first production in the new building is the award-winning Trojan Horse, which starts in the Courtyard Theatre on Thursday, while Northern Ballet’s Dracula opens in the Quarry at the end of the month.

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Throughout the redevelopment the Playhouse continued to produce work though a Pop-Up theatre based on site. “The Pop-Up theatre was great but it was about coming to a show and then going,” says Brining, “and it made me realise that this theatre is about social personal interaction. So I’m really looking forward to having that connection again, because this building and this theatre is all about connecting with people.”
Both he and Hawkes believe this is a new era for Leeds Playhouse. “Doing something like this isn’t without risk. When we renamed the theatre we were reconnecting with our past as part of the process. It made us think of ourselves as a 50 year-old organisation, rather than a theatre that started on Quarry Hill in 1990.

“We’ve been able to create something in bricks and mortar that reflects our ethos, which isn’t always possible to do, and so this now feels like the beginning of the next big chapter for this theatre.”


For more details about forthcoming events and productions go to
www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk