West Yorkshire Playhouse is set for a major redevelopment. Nick Ahad went to find out more.
James Brining is walking over rubble and climbing up on top of a huge rock, excitedly sharing a vision he’s had.
We’re underneath the West Yorkshire Playhouse box office, in an area of the building few have seen, known as the ‘rock void’. When he first arrived to take over the running of the Playhouse, James Brining heard the story of the rock void. “It was this legendary place, but no-one wanted me to see it. I think they were worried I might try and do something with it,” he says.
Well, he has seen it and he is going to try and do something with it. It’s a key part of a £14m redevelopment which could see a whole new Playhouse brought to the city of Leeds by autumn 2018.
Last week the city council approved £4.9m of funding to help transform the Playhouse into a building that reflects its national standing. “This is one of the most significant theatres in the North, but it we don’t address these issues now, the theatre won’t be sustainable. We want a building that Leeds can be proud of,” says Brining.
The news of funding was reported last week, but this is the first time Brining has shared his vision of what he hopes the Playhouse will look like three years from now.
With the financial support from the city’s council, the Playhouse can now go to the Arts Council for more cash to fund the rest of the budget. It did apply for the money last year, but was knocked back because it didn’t have sufficient funding from other partners at the time - like the city council.
The Arts Council decision on the building project is expected by the end of the year. If the funding is approved it’s then going to be a question of setting the plans in motion and working out exactly how the development will happen and if it will mean the closing of the Playhouse while the work is to be carried out.
Having taken a look around the building and seen Brining’s enthusiasm, it’s difficult not to get excited by the prospect of a newly redeveloped theatre. The location will remain the same, but the building will look very different.
Money will be spent turning the Playhouse into a more energy efficient building, it will be spent on extending the restaurant to include a terrace area and turning the rock void into a rough and ready theatre space.
It will also be used to spin the theatre round. Visitors currently enter the theatre from the car park beneath the Quarry House. If the funding is approved the current entrance will be replaced by a new one facing the bus station and the John Lewis development.
Walking through a shutter where Brining hopes the new entrance will stand, we look out at the bus station, where the new entrance will be in 2018. Behind us, there are bins being cleaned with a water jet.
“This is one of the busiest sections of Leeds, it’s right bang on the main road, so much passing traffic, it’s a real shop front for the theatre and it’s currently a staff car park and, well, bins being washed,” says Brining.
“If we get the funding we will be able to flatten the entrance, make it accessible to you if you are disabled, have kids in pushchairs, you’ll be able to walk straight across from the bus station into the theatre. We’ll have an escalator and just be much more open and accessible.”
But the new entrance is about more than just a new way to get in to the theatre. It’s about making the theatre more accessible. The theatre belongs to the city - a city that is hoping to be named European Capital of Culture in 2023 - a title that turned Liverpool into a cultural powerhouse in 2008.
“This redevelopment is intricately linked to that bid. We need this funding and we need this development for the theatre to remain relevant,” says Brining.
The 25-year-old theatre looks significantly older than it is. When it was moved from Leeds University to its current site, it was built during an uninspired age of architecture.
Brining accepts the charge. “I would say the way the theatre looks is not its best feature. It has the character of a lot of buildings that were built at the time in Leeds, civic buildings that all look the same.”
He accepts the criticisms levelled at the Playhouse at the time - that it looks like a leisure centre, a supermarket. “We want it to look outside more like what it does inside.”
He also wants me to go to the very top of the building. For a moment I wonder if he’s about to enact some revenge for a critical review - there’s nothing up here to develop.
“No nothing up here will change, but I want to show you where we are in relation to the city. Sometimes it feels like we’re cut off from the rest of Leeds.
“But when you stand up here you can see that the rest of the city is right there.
“You can see the new John Lewis development right over the road, you can see the town hall, the edge of Elland Road, you can see South Leeds. When you stand here you realise this theatre is right at the heart of the city.”
He’s right. Standing on top of the tower you understand that the Playhouse really is a part of the fabric of Leeds.
It deserves this development and Brining is the man to lead it.
“You don’t do this too many times in the life of a theatre, you don’t do it many times in your career,” he says.
“It’s a place that has great work in it, it’s a theatre rooted in the community and this is our chance to make sure the theatre is right for the future.”