New woodland wonder takes root in Leeds

The Wood Beneath the World, underneath Leeds Town Hall.
The Wood Beneath the World, underneath Leeds Town Hall.
Have your say

HIDDEN away underneath Leeds Town Hall, there’s something rather unusual going on.

Whilst the Leeds International Film Festival gets under way in the grand auditorium upstairs, down a dusty stairway and into the dark basement of this historic building is where you’ll find The Wood Beneath The World.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what’s in store for you if you’re brave enough to venture down there.

And I don’t want to spoil the surprise by saying too much.

But I will tell you that it involves a one-hour performance, music, actors, a large-scale forest installation, headphones, secret rooms and a pop-up bar.

It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in Leeds before.

Or anywhere for that matter.

As I walk down into the crypt,it really is like walking into another world.

I very nearly trip over a tree stump, and look up to see a vast, dimly-lit room full of countless trees, all of them stretching from floor to ceiling.

A team of set designers and volunteers are covered in mud and paint splatters, and concentrate hard as they put the finishing touches to the 10ft tree trunks and prepare the impressive performance space that has unfolded right in front of me.

It’s atmospheric to say the least, and a little eerie.

I know I wouldn’t want to be working alone down here, that’s for sure.

So, who are the people behind this magical, fantasy world that’s popped up in the middle of Leeds?

They go by the name of Lord Whitney. It’s a title that conjurs up an image of a regal, older gentleman – and they are the first to admit that.

But it’s actually the name of the art direction and studio design company set up by Leeds Beckett University graduates and friends Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney.

The pair, both aged 30, met when they were studying graphic art and design back in 2003.

Put together by their tutor to work on a project, their friendship soon blossomed and after graduating, they went on to set up their own company in 2009.

Just five years later and they’ve got some impressive projects under their belt, from fashion editorials and photo shoots to music videos and festivals.

“We’ve built a lot of sets for editorials for Rankin and done festival work for Glastonbury, Bestival and the Secret Garden Party, where we created a door within a door within a door – it was about entering different worlds.

“We enjoy anything playful and creative and things that challenge the way people think about art and design.”

That pretty much sums up their latest project as well.

The Wood Beneath The World aims to bring something original to the city.

Rebekah explains: “It’s about taking people out of everyday life, transforming the building and inviting them to see things a little bit differently.

“The idea is that you are completely immersed in the experience.

“You get so many people with their phones in their hand taking pictures at gigs and performances all the time, and we just want people to put their phones down and enjoy the experience.”

Lord Whitney co-founder Amy added: “We like to create an immersive environment that challenges everyone, but that’s suitable for all.”

Director Alexander Palmer, 21, says the same of his vision for the project: “It’s a retreat from the world above and your life in the city.

“You are journeying down to spaces that are not normally available to the public, and that adds a magical element.

“You are taking people away from every day life and the mundane and giving them something to really think about.

“It’s playful, immersive and interactive, and pushes the audience outside of their comfort zone.

“Everyone should come away from it with something that only they have experienced that night.

“We’re trying to give adults some childhood excitement back again, that’s what it’s all about.

“There’s lots of things to discover and explore.”

Rebekah added: “I like the escapism of it all.

“It just awakens something in you that is thrilling and exciting.”

The team clearly takes pride in being part of the city’s buzzing arts scene, and involves Leeds students to volunteer and help out with almost all elements of the show.

“We’re trying to bring something different to Leeds,” Rebekah said.

“We are big fans of immersive theatre and the north doesn’t have a lot of that, so we want that to change.

“We’re keen to help retain the talent here in Leeds too and we don’t want people to think they have to go to London to work on projects like this.”

Lord Whitney and their 60-strong team have plenty of passion for this project, which has taken since the Spring to put together.

Every minute detail of the experience has been scrutinised and thoroughly researched, from the sights, sounds and smells, right down to what’s in the actors’ pockets.

It’s strange to think that such a detailed and highly-skilled performance originally started out with a Santa’s grotto theme.

But it’s true, as Darren Potter, business manager for arts and venues at Leeds City Council, tells me.

“We had this raw idea of creating some kind of experience in this building – probably the most iconic building in the city – and turning it into a creative space.

“It started off as a very different approach to a Santa’s grotto, but not a shopping centre experience – something very different.

“From there, Lord Whitney and their team went away to evolve that idea and it’s gone well beyond that now.”

For anyone wanting some cheesy Christmas festivities, this is not for you.

There’s not a piece of tinsel, holly or mistletoe in sight.

No Rudolph, no elves – just a darkened room that’s been transformed into a huge forest.

“Families at Christmas are spoon-fed the same kind of tacky experiences, and I think kids and adults deserve more than that,” Rebekah adds.

Instead of the traditional Father Christmas types, the role will be played by a professional actor, who will recount old winter tales to school audiences and young children.

There will, however, be mulled wine and cider at the pop-up bar, located in the old police cells underneath the building.

The Wood Beneath The World is a joint partnership with Leeds City Council.

Business manager Darren added: “Working with new partnerships that are the best in their field is what it’s all about.

“We want to put on engaging events in the city and this has been a huge learning curve but an incredible one.”

Some of the shows have sold out even before opening night next week, and there are already plans in the pipeline to expand on the project.

“This is just testing the water this year, but we have got big plans for next year too,” Rebekah says.

“We are hoping to bring it back here but it will be very different and we hope to build on the performance element.”

Tony Burdin, chief executive of Sheffield Mutual Friendly Society

Sheffield Mutual achieves solid results as investment ISA grows in popularity