THE new artistic director at West Yorkshire Playhouse is about as Leeds as it gets.
Although James Brining has lived and worked in Scotland for 14 years - the last eight years as head of the Dundee Rep - he was born and raised on Scott Hall Road on the border of Chapel Allerton and Moortown.
Long before he submerged himself in the theatre, the former Carr Manor primary school pupil’s first love was football and his beloved Leeds United.
Now 43 and a married father-of-four, his earliest memory was watching panto in the City Varieties as little more than a toddler, while his teenage years were characterised by visiting his local swimming baths and getting chips and scraps on the way home.
He describes his home as that of “a regular upper working class family”. Mum was a primary school teacher and dad was an electrical engineer for the post office. But despite these humble beginnings he was schooled at Leeds Grammar and went on to read English at Cambridge University where he first discovered his love of theatre and, more importantly, of directing.
“My parents both did well for themselves,” he says “They both came from humble roots but worked really hard and wanted the best for their kids. That’s who I am, where I come from.
“Coming from a city like Leeds it moulds your perspective on life and how you relate to other people, that’s why I’ve been very happy in Scotland, they’re very plain speaking and direct. There’s also a humour and sensibility which alot of northerners can relate to I think. A spade is a spade.”
Although having his parents close (they both live just outside York now) is a bonus for Brining, his primary motivation was joining a theatre which is considered among the best in Britain.
“It’s a brilliant, brilliant theatre.” he says. “I remember, I left Leeds for uni in 1989 and it was just before the Playhouse opened in 1990. I’ve always watched the effects of the theatre on the city. The Playhouse is the theatre I’ve had the most connection with outside the various theatres I’ve been working in over the years.
“That’s because I’ve always gone back to Leeds and seen what the Playhouse does in the city, whether it was while Jude Kelly was there or while Ian Brown was there. I’ve just had a real interest in it as someone from Leeds.
“When I went for the job they sent me every play they’ve done over the last 21 years and just looking through it is amazing: The Pirates of Penzance; Mr Herecles; Rita, Sue and Bob Too; Stig of the Dump; Singin’ in the Rain - I’ve seen alot of these shows over the years while coming home to see my parents and friends. So I’ve always retained contact with the theatre and the city.”
Brining will move down to Leeds with wife Beverley and the rest of their family in the summer. He has to ensure a smooth departure at Dundee before considering his arrival at Leeds.
When he gets here he believes the key to securing the future of the Playhouse is striking the right balance between staging populist shows and what might be considered more “highbrow” productions. He’s conscious of the fact that, in an age of austerity, funding will become increasingly scarce, so getting audiences through the doors is essential.
But he also believes that Leeds needs the Playhouse as much as the Playhouse needs Leeds, and he’s happy to galvanize the union.
“If I were writing an essay I would say that from the late 80s and 90s the theatre has played a big part in the turnaround of the city.” he says. “It was partly to do with general confidence and the growth of business and all that. But I think West Yorkshire Playhouse really put Leeds on the map too.
“Getting people like Ian McKellen performing there showed it wasn’t all about going down the M1 to London, it’s about Leeds being at the centre of Britain.
“For me, as a Leeds person, it’s a city I’m really proud to be from and I think we can stand up against any city anywhere in the world with confidence - and the Playhouse embodies that for me.”