A theatre company's take-over of Holbeck WMC is key to culture for the local community

A theatre company that took over the oldest WMC in the country says they owe the people of Holbeck the best cultural life they can give.

By Emma Ryan
Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 6:00 am

Slung Low Theatre Company has travelled.

It has been to Edinburgh, London Sheffield, York, Manchester but it perhaps took a pandemic induced lockdown for it to find its purpose.

London didn't suit the big, brash productions that Slung Low (a group of undergraduate pals who admit that when they started they knew as much about theatre as they did about going to the moon) staged and neither did it like its politics. So, after 15 years on the road, the company settled into a space under the railway arches in Holbeck - but still something wasn't sitting right.

Alan Lane outside Holbeck WMC.

Director Alan Lane explains: "We came to realise we were a theatre company for the greater north. The kind of work we made, we could not do that in London. We are very good at blowing things up and quite good at making things sink - we are a theatre company that can be practical and pretentious at the same time. The railway arches were a good place to be but I was walking to the shop and thought, why are the people that live here not engaging with us?

"That space was not appealing to people. In order to enjoy that post industrial-chic nonsense, you have to experience other stuff first."

At the same time Holbeck WMC, originally founded in 1871 before moving to its present premises in 1877, was in trouble, despite volunteers and members doing their hardest to keep it going.

So a deal was done a couple of years ago where Slung Low stepped in, cleared the debts and gave the deeds back to the members, but continue to manage the venue. Derelict rooms were renovated and it now boasts a cabaret space and a floor for visual art. The bar continues to serve pints and packets of peanuts on a pay as you feel basis and proved very popular with the local community.

A foodbank has been operating from the bar during lockdown.

Fast-forward to the start of the COVID pandemic and Slung Low and Holbeck WMC changed its focus again.

A food bank started operating from the club and has delivered 2,500 food parcels in the last year and on average around 250 a week are given to people in need around the areas of Holbeck, Beeston and Cottingley.

However, something more was needed over the last year too.

Mr Lane, who was awarded a British Empire Medal ( BEM ) in the New Year's Honours for services to the community of south Leeds said: "It is our job to give the people of Holbeck the best cultural life we possibly can."

The WMC car park has also become the stage for events and productions.

Over the lockdown summer a series of performances were staged on floats in the WMC car park with local theatre company Wrongsemble, it wrote a book that was given to the children of Ingram Road primary school, the LS11 art gallery saw pieces of local artwork being attached to lamposts all over Holbeck and Beeston and street cobbles were painted and hidden around the community for people to find. A game-show was hosted via the internet and Alan and his five-year old son started undertaking fun, physical challenges.

Mr Lane said: "We are still doing that job of telling stories and bringing joy. We did readings at Ingram Road and asked children what they knew about Slung Low. One put their hand up and said 'you wrote a book'. One said 'you run theatre where we went to see that show'. The third kid said 'you deliver my food.'

"If you do one of those things, there is no point. If you do two or three - there is every point. This crisis is horrible but has been an opportunity for companies, like ourselves, to make sure we are doing what people need us to do."

This spotlight on Slung Low, comes as part of a campaign between the Yorkshire Evening Post and Leeds 2023 to showcase culture and creativity across the city. The idea is that from dance to design, art to architecture, poetry to pop, sculpture to sport, grassroots community theatre to performances on our world class stages, Leeds 2023 will unlock talent and creative opportunities for people from every district in the city.

A production by Wrongsemble last summer.

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