Words: James Brining [insta] @leedsplayhouse
Illustration: Chris Hood [insta] @thingsonfire
When I arrived home in 2012 as Artistic Director, my ambition was for Leeds Playhouse to be an artistic beacon for the North. The lights spelling out PLAYHOUSE on the front of the new facade makes that feel more of a reality. But I wanted the Playhouse to be a beacon in more ways than its new signage; to be truly pioneering.
The theatre had already become renowned for its creative engagement activities: it was the first to embrace relaxed performances, now commonplace across the UK; the first to develop shows specifically aimed at people living with dementia; the first theatre of sanctuary, earned for work with refugees and asylum seekers; and it runs the country’s longest established older people’s programme, Heydays. Access, equality and democratisation of opportunities for self-expression through culture are in the Playhouse’s DNA.
Seven years ago I felt that the theatre needed to reinvigorate its focus on Leeds and its people. That’s what the Playhouse redevelopment was inspired by, to turn the theatre around to face the city, both in the content of work and its relationship with communities. That included renaming as Leeds Playhouse, and producing work that explores Leeds narratives, such as Beryl Burton and The Damned United, reflecting and refining the city’s sense of itself.
This is one of regional theatre’s great strengths: geographically specific stories experienced in a shared moment in that locality. And it’s not just about the city centre; it is vital to work all over the region, to make theatre accessible for all people, including taking shows to community venues, engaging with all 33 wards across the city in all their diversity and complexity.
Buildings like this are easy to criticize for costing too much to run, and making great theatre can be expensive – but working with its many communities, connecting, challenging, enabling and celebrating can generate far more value to the people who are inspired by what happens in it than the cost to the public purse.
And unlike many places, not just in Leeds but throughout our increasingly commercialised country, this is a space which doesn’t require you to buy anything, in which people from different backgrounds are valued and respected, where you can literally rub shoulders with strangers in an equal way around a creative impulse. With cultural and social democracy and celebration of common humanity at the core, it feels like the beginning of the next great chapter for this extraordinary city.