International festival of new theatre Transform returns to Leeds

Machina eX (Germany), Rewire Leeds: World premiere of interactive mobile phone adventure game which will see players become special agents to protect the city. May 1-4.
Machina eX (Germany), Rewire Leeds: World premiere of interactive mobile phone adventure game which will see players become special agents to protect the city. May 1-4.
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Amy Letman is in a taxi.“It’s the month before the festival, so we’re into ‘catching taxis time’,” says the energetic producer.

Letman’s usual mode of transport is bicycle, but with the international theatre festival she curates and creates just around the corner, time really is of the essence.

Letman is the mastermind behind Transform, a theatre festival of international work in Leeds.

First set up in 2011 when Letman was a producer at what was then called West Yorkshire Playhouse, Transform has gone on a significant journey over the past eight years.

Transform 2019 is a truly international beast with artists descending on the city from places including Brazil, Germany, Zimbabwe and China. It feels like there’s a bigger buzz around Transform this year than there has been in previous years.

“I’m really glad to hear that, it does feel like we’ve been building incrementally every year,” says Letman. “I’m sure when I said in 2016 that I was going to make the festival international, people weren’t convinced, but I think the thing with festivals is that they either have to be led by politicians, like the Manchester International Festival, or they have to grow from the ground up and I think Transform has done that,” she says. “Taking it from where it began to an independent festival to where it is now, which is an international festival, has taken four years. That time was needed for it to become what it needed to be, the festival benefitted from that time which allowed time for travel and for us to discover the kind of artists we wanted to work with and to develop.”

Hopefully by now your interest is piqued. If you haven’t quite got it yet: Transform is one of the key arts events in the theatrical calendar and its reach is growing far outside of Yorkshire, despite being an entirely Leeds-grown affair.

An example. Javaad Alipoor, a Bradford artist had an idea for a one man show in 2016. Transform commissioned him and put him together with a producer and other artists and he presented The Believers are But Brothers in 2017. It went on to a run at the Edinburgh Festival to great acclaim and was recently turned into a BBC4 docudrama.

Those are the credentials, but there might be a lingering question: what exactly is Transform? “It’s a festival of new theatre performances and events created by artists from across the city and the world,” says Letman. “Audiences will travel to different parts of the city, from an old school hall to a secret location they’ll be taken to by bus. It’s a festival for people who like theatre and those who don’t. It’s a collection of work that will take you to places across the world.”

If all this sounds a little high falutin’, don’t be put off. Letman’s key phrase for the festival is ‘accessibility’. While the work being presented will expand its audiences minds and experiences, that doesn’t mean it’s ‘difficult’ work.

“There’s a German artist who is going to run a workshop for children and help them present a fashion show,” she says.

Letman arrived in Yorkshire to work as an associate producer at West Yorkshire Playhouse, now Leeds Playhouse. Early on it became clear that she had big ambitions. One way to realise that ambition was for her to create Transform, a festival that concentrated on how to develop theatre artists in the region.

The first iteration of Transform came in 2011 and it took over various spaces in the Playhouse. Returning for four years, Letman slowly grew the festival and in 2015 she decided she wanted to expand the scope of the festival so she left the Playhouse to concentrate full time on turning Transform into an international platform for theatre artists.

It was a big, bold decision and in 2016 a trial of an international festival gave a flavour of what was to come. In 2017 the festival returned bringing international artists to Leeds and, after spending the whole of last year working on turning the festival into the beast she envisioned it could be, Letman and her team are bringing it back at the end of this month.

“I see the potential of Leeds. It’s a really exciting, buzzy place with a thriving theatre subculture,” she says. “I have seen theatre festivals around the world have a huge impact on cities and that is what I wanted to see happen here in Leeds. I think it’s really important to travel to different places and have different experiences and by bringing international work to Leeds, that’s what we allow people to do with Transform.”

Taxi, bicycle, whatever mode of transport, just get yourself along to this year’s festival.

Transform Festival, April 26-May 4.