Leeds Playhouse: Would a theatre by any other name be as sweet?

James Brining. PIC: Tony Johnson
James Brining. PIC: Tony Johnson
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As they announce the biggest change in its history, Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad talks to the men leading the building known from today as the Leeds Playhouse.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse is dead. Long live the Leeds Playhouse.

I hope James Brining and Robin Hawkes have screwed their courage to the sticking place. They’re going to need it steadfast as a wave of reaction hits them today at the West Yorkshire - that is to say - the Leeds Playhouse.

Leeds’s own West Yorkshire Playhouse to change its name: Click here for more

Even writing it feels odd, but we better get used to it. That’s now the name of the only producing theatre in Leeds.

Brining and Hawkes are a management team to admire. Since Hawkes joined from the National Theatre almost exactly three years ago, the speed of change in the building formerly the West Yorkshire Playhouse has been impressive. These two are not hanging around in turning the building they run into a place with which to be reckoned.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to the Playhouse to discuss ‘a big announcement’ with the people in charge of the building. Although I had heard a name change could be on the cards, I’d always considered it something discussed in the abstract, one of those ideas that might be floated, but never really acted upon.

It came as a shock when artistic director James Brining finally said the words.

“As of June 22, we’re going to be called the Leeds Playhouse.”

How big a deal is this, do you think, I asked the room of five of the Playhouse’s management team.

A collective intake of breath.

A pause.

“It’s big. On the day we announce, it’s going to be a big day,” says Brining.

“It’s the start of a new chapter. If you put it in Dr Who terms, this is like a regeneration.”

Depending on from where your view originates, the change in name is going to seem momentous or barely register. As Robin Hawkes, the theatre’s executive director says: “Everyone I meet in the city just refers to it as ‘The Playhouse’.”

There will be plenty of people in the rest of the Broad Acres who might not like this change, might even take as a personal affront. Brining, Hawkes and the rest of their staff are smart people. They know that’s quite possibly going to come at them today.

So why do it?

West Yorkshire has served perfectly well as the first part of the building’s moniker for nigh on three decades.

“It’s been triggered by the redevelopment which will finally see this building turn to face the city,” says Brining.

“From that simple idea, which is both physical and metaphorical, we have been saying that we want to engage with the city we are in - and we mean that in the broadest sense, I’m not just talking about Leeds postcodes, but the city region and the surrounding area. So thinking about that physical change got us thinking about the story of the Playhouse in Leeds, which didn’t begin in Quarry Hill in 1990.”

Tomorrow (June 23), the West Yorkshire Playhouse closes for business and BAM architects begin the process of a 15-month long redevelopment which will see a dramatic transformation of the building.