Next week sees the arrival of Transform 17, a four-day festival of new theatre – both home-grown and international – being staged at a variety of venues across Leeds, including theatres, art spaces, community centres and outdoor locations.
It is the exciting culmination of several years of thought, growth and development and is the kind of project which absolutely proves that when vision, ambition and sheer hard work are applied, great things can happen. The seeds were sown back in 2011 when Amy Letman, then associate producer at West Yorkshire Playhouse, was involved in the establishment of the first Transform Festival. The idea was to diversify the theatre’s programme and feature artists and work which would not traditionally be staged there. The following year Transform was commissioning work and by 2013 had ventured outside the theatre building to spaces around the city.
In the autumn of 2014 Letman left the Playhouse and by early 2015 had secured Arts Council funding to set up Transform as a spin-out company. “We were always working towards 2017 being the first citywide festival,” says Letman, the festival’s creative director. “Last year we did a ‘trailblazer’ as the first outing of the new company to give people a flavour of what it could be. This year’s programme is the realisation of everything we have been thinking about over the last few years.”
And what an exciting programme it is. The depth and breadth of work on offer to Leeds audiences is hugely impressive. The line-up includes three world premieres and two UK premieres and features work from ground-breaking international companies and cutting-edge artists from across the North of England. Combining pop-culture and performance art, interactive pieces, outdoor activist theatre and large-scale shows, the festival explores diverse issues of both local and global significance such as activism, community collaboration, gender politics, the digital age and the future of Europe; all very urgent and of the moment and chiming perfectly with Transform’s core principles. “When we first set the company up we spent a lot of time thinking about what it was here to do,” says Letman. “Part of it was re-imagining what theatre can look like, redefining what it can be.” That is certainly evident in the work being presented next week.
The lead production is The Darkest Corners, commissioned and produced by Transform, and created by acclaimed Leeds theatre company RashDash. Artists Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen confront violence against women in a piece which features live music, physicality and a large inter-generational community cast. Performed outdoors at a secret location in Holbeck, it is inspired by Leeds’ radical activist history, specifically the city’s role as the birthplace of the Reclaim the Night movement 40 years ago. Among other local artists featured are Leeds-based Selina Thompson who will be presenting a work-in-progress sharing of her ambitious new piece The Missy Elliott Project which will be three years in the making, Yorkshire-based Grace Surman will be performing the powerful choreographic piece Mother Load, a reflection on the relationships between parent and child and Bradford-based writer and theatre-maker Javaad Alipoor’s one-man show The Believers are but Brothers examines the crisis of masculinity in a generation of young men and how this can lead them into an online world of fantasy, radicalisation and violence.
International artists appearing at the festival include Berlin-based machina Ex, making their UK debut with their interactive show Lessons of Leaking based in Germany in 2021 shortly before the German people vote on leaving a broken European Union and Spanish theatre company El Conde de Torrefiel who will be bringing their hit large-scale show Guerilla, a dark dystyopian comedy featuring over fifty local people, examining the current generation’s thoughts on Europe and anxieties about the future.
“I think there is a real sense at the moment of people really caring about what’s going on in the world,” says Letman. “We need to make space in our communities where we can come together and reflect on that. The best theatre doesn’t feel removed, it connects.”
Transform 17, April 19-22.
For the full programme visit www.transformfestival.org Tickets are available through West Yorkshire Playhouse box office on 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk