“There have been two big moments in the history of this theatre – when it opened in the 1970s, and when it moved to Quarry Hill in the 1990s. This is the third big moment,” says James Brining.
He is the man in charge of a theatre that was known as Leeds Playhouse (1970-1990) then the West Yorkshire Playhouse (1990- 2018) and in its newest iteration, in an utterly transformed building opening in October this year, Leeds Playhouse.
The £16m redevelopment is the biggest, most significant theatre development in Yorkshire in well over a decade. The last two decades have seen an entirely new building emerge for Hull Truck, major refurbishments take place at York Theatre Royal and Sheffield Crucible and a major development at Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North.
This latest theatrical transformation might be the most significant of all. I say that because of the context of the Leeds Playhouse’s redevelopment. It comes at a time when this vital Yorkshire city is reimagining what it is and what it wants to be. The redevelopment also allows the Playhouse to reimagine what it is in the city in which it stands.
“When I arrived seven years ago it felt like it was a building that was neglected, forgotten, unloved and peripheral to the city which it served. It just didn’t feel like a place that people would want to come,” says Brining.
Imagine that: a theatre building to which people didn’t want to go. A bit of a problem.
The solution is the £16m redevelopment, the results of which will be seen by audiences in October when the building work is complete and the doors are thrown open. Don’t, however, expect some ribbon cutting fanfare moment in the autumn. “There is going to come a day in October and we’ll open the doors and I imagine someone will wander in for a coffee and that will be it. We’ll be open again. We can’t capture everything this theatre is and everything it is going to be in a single moment, so we’re not going to have a big opening moment. Instead we will have a whole series of events throughout October when we will reintroduce the theatre to all the different people who we hope will come here.”
Making the theatre open, available, accessible and belonging to everyone in Leeds and the region has been a core principle for Brining since he arrived back in his home city to run the theatre. That principle has been a guiding light of the redevelopment, which will see the theatre literally face the city and light flood into the building with those on the outside being able to look in and those on the inside, out. The big question is, though, what will we see?
The building is going to be, I have no doubt, seriously impressive, beautiful even, but a theatre is so much more than a building and is massively defined by what we see on the stages. Last night an invited audience discovered what we will see when the theatre doors reopen.
The first play audiences will see is probably not what you might expect. “People have been asking if our first production in the building will be some big show directed by me in the Quarry and, no, it won’t,” says Brining.
“I’m not that bothered about it being about me as artistic director saying ‘this is who we are and here’s a production by me’, because that’s not what this theatre is and it’s not what it’s about.” So, the first production by the Leeds Playhouse will be a new play from Yorkshire writer Charley Miles which will be staged in an entirely new theatre space in the building, the Bramall Rock Void. There are No Beginnings, directed by the Playhouse’s associate director Amy Leach, will tell the story four women living in Leeds across the five years when Peter Sutcliffe dominated news headlines during his reign of terror as the Yorkshire Ripper.
“Charley has been coming to the theatre since she was a kid, she’s a local talent and developing local artists who tell stories about who we are is one of the key things we do and will keep doing as an organisation.”
Other highlights of the coming season include Northern Ballet’s Dracula, which will see the Playhouse screen a performance to cinemas around the world for the first time, Brining’s production of The Wizard of Oz as the theatre’s big Christmas production, the Playhouse’s long-standing club-night for adults with learning disabilities, Beautiful Octopus Club, being hosted within the new building for the first time and Influence, a new play by Andy McGregor, being performed by Leeds Playhouse Youth Theatre. When the building is revealed, the refurbished Quarry Theatre and Courtyard will be occupy the same spaces, but feel very different and the addition of the Bramall Rock Void gives the Leeds Playhouse a proper studio theatre for the first time. Over the past 12 months as audiences have seen the new building stretch out of the ground, they have also seen work continue to be made in the pop-up theatre. From a female Hamlet to a four-man Around the World in 80 Days, a rep company has brought work to the stage, the first rep company at the Playhouse in two decades.
“It’s been something really special for the audiences and the actors to have a group of them together for a whole year, creating work and getting to know the audiences and vice versa.”
Before October, then, the final production of the rep company is the all-female Be My Baby. Written by Amanda Whittington, the play marks a swansong for the rep and the beginning of the new beginning for Leeds Playhouse.
Be My Baby, to June 1. leedsplayhouse.org.uk
Highlights of the new season
Lung: a touring show originally developed through the Playhouse’s artistic development programme. (October 3-5).
Influence: opening Leeds City College’s School of Creative Arts Theatre, this production marks the new partnership between the college and the Playhouse (October 31-November 2).
My Beautiful Laundrette: Hanif Kureishi’s defining film is adapted for the stage in a Playhouse co-production (October 23-27).
Furnace Festival: the artist development festival returns with work by Jim Cartwright and Tess Seddon (November 13-16).