The University of Leeds writing course helping to create a conveyor belt of talent for the theatre

This really is a bit of a left turn in my lockdown profile series, but the idea was always to build a picture of why Yorkshire has such strength and depth in its theatre culture, so it fits the theme.
Garry Lyons’ adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden at Leeds Playhouse in 2009.Garry Lyons’ adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden at Leeds Playhouse in 2009.
Garry Lyons’ adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden at Leeds Playhouse in 2009.

It’s a claim I often make; that outside of London there is no region that can match Yorkshire in terms of the quality of depth of its theatre, but what does it actually mean? Well, we are vastly over-represented on London stages.

Not that that is the only arbiter of success, but the fact that shows born here regularly go on to dazzle international audiences on West End stages is impressive. Fans around the world, for example, are about to fall in love with the movie musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a story that began on the stage at Sheffield Crucible.

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A key component of that success is down to a wider culture of support and nurturing of theatre artists, something Garry Lyons can take joy in being a part of. Earlier this summer he stepped down from a significant role at the University of Leeds. For 15 years he ran the MA in Writing for Performance at the university’s School of Performance and Cultural Industries.

Alyce Liburd and Tom Swift in The Parting Glass by Chris O’Connor. (Picture: Anthony Robling).Alyce Liburd and Tom Swift in The Parting Glass by Chris O’Connor. (Picture: Anthony Robling).
Alyce Liburd and Tom Swift in The Parting Glass by Chris O’Connor. (Picture: Anthony Robling).

“The scriptwriting programme at the university has had a major impact on theatre in Yorkshire and beyond,” says Lyons.

“I set it up in 2005 and it’s one of the few degrees in the country where you can study playwriting alongside screenwriting and writing for audio. My vision was to establish a programme that prepared students for a professional future as writers while allowing them to develop their individual voices.”

Lyons, as you will shortly read, has helped to provide a key step between a great many would-be writers and the stages of Yorkshire. For the past five years the symbiosis between the course and the stage has been formalised, with the university’s course running in partnership with Leeds Playhouse.

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“The idea was to give students exposure to industry-level activity through workshops and talks from Playhouse associates and work placements in the script department, as well as providing them with the opportunity to see their work professionally acted and directed through an annual new writing festival.”

When leading his charges on the Masters, Lyons was in the position of knowing whereof he spoke, his work as a teacher running alongside his own career as a writer for theatre and TV, having penned episodes of The Bill, Soldier Soldier and The Worst Witch. His plays include The Secret Garden for Leeds Playhouse and Birmingham Rep. “The programme is well established and with creative writing as a whole growing fast at the university, I felt it was time to hand over the reins.”

The rich culture we enjoy in Yorkshire is a wide and complex ecosystem. Lyons has, in the past 15 years, taught the likes of playwright Zodwa Nyoni, TV writer Ben Tagoe, co-artistic director of Bradford theatre company Freedom Studios Aisha Khan and emerging playwright Chris O’Connor. All of those have made work which has been enjoyed on the stages of Yorkshire. Lyons is happy to brag about his pupils’ successes.

“An impressive number of playwrights, television writers, producers and directors have emerged from the programme, many of them active in theatres in Yorkshire and the North,” he says.

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“One of the first intake of students was comedy writer Jonathan Bridle who went on to write for Mitchell and Webb and Rhod Gilbert, among others. Over the last 15 years, the MA has grown into a hotbed of new talent for Yorkshire and beyond. Former students are now working at Leeds Playhouse, Hull Truck, Freedom Studios, Red Ladder, Slung Low and in smaller companies around the region, picking up early career development opportunities and commissions.

“Among those who’ve graduated in the last two years are Mitchell Vernals who was appointed trainee producer at Leeds Playhouse and a member of the Playhouse’s Young Company, Nicole Joseph was assistant director on the Playhouse’s Oliver Twist, Kieran Launder won a place on the BFI/Film Hub North short film scheme, and Kerry Wright has a writing commission with Live Theatre in Newcastle.

“Other alumni are working even further afield, in fact all over the world – for example, Zara Chowdhary is a Bollywood scriptwriter, Praveena Shivram is an award-winning short story writer and Hansol Kim is a South Korean playwright currently based in New York.”

On it goes. With the impressive new building of Leeds Conservatoire, right on the doorstep of Leeds Playhouse, the symbolism is so clear as to be a bit on the nose: the strength of Yorkshire’s theatre industry depends on the investment in those who will continue to create its future. Thanks to courses like the one Lyons has run over the past decade-and-a-half, the future is looking good.

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Lyons has now handed over the running of the course to Campbell Edinborough and hopes the university and course continue to feed into the success of the region.

“Theatre and live entertainment are sadly dark at the moment, but one thing that can be done right now is writing,” he says.

“That’s important because however theatre emerges from the pandemic, it will need new voices and new productions to reflect the post-coronavirus environment. The programme is well set up to produce future generations of talent ready to reflect the changing world in the years ahead.”

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