Plans for Leeds 2023 - the city's landmark year of culture - begin to take shape

When Leeds was robbed of its chance to become 2023 European Capital of Culture, it appears it lost none of its ambition.

Wednesday, 26th August 2020, 7:13 am
Alan Lyddiard, of The Performance Ensemble. He is planning a major outdoor production for Leeds 2023 using double decker buses. Picture: Simon Hulme

Brexit may have put paid to the city's dreams of landing the coveted and potentially lucrative title - after Brussels then announced a ban on UK cities taking part - but the city's plan B, Leeds 2023, is now beginning to take shape with some impressive projects in the pipeline.

Billed as an "international cultural festival", Leeds 2023 aims to harness the energy and ambition of the city's original European title bid and will see a year-long cultural celebration in 2023 regardless.

Local artists and grassroots arts organisations have been busy planning imaginative and innovative projects to mark the city's landmark year of culture - and now the first round of ‘reserach and development’ (R and D) grants have been awarded by organisers Leeds Culture Trust to help develop the exciting ideas.

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The East Leeds Project group, who hope to build a 'maker space' in Gipton near the Fearnville Leisure Centre. Pictured from left are: Claire Irving, Peter Cheetham and Kerry Harker. Picture: Simon Hulme

And they are thinking big.

Projects so far range from building a brand new creative space in east Leeds to an outdoor theatre showcase involving 16 double decker buses filled with audience members and performers, travelling to five sites across the city in one day before meeting up for a spectacular finale.

The latter is the brainchild of Alan Lyddiard, founder and artistic director of The Performance Ensemble, a Leeds theatre company for performers aged 60 and over.

His ‘Bus Pass’ project for Leeds 2023 will see ticket holders sit next to an older performer on the buses, who will guide them across the city while telling a story, shedding light on what it means to age in the 21st century. Working with Leeds Older People’s Forum and Leeds Playhouse, Alan hopes to grow his ensemble from 35 to 1,000 ready for the Leeds 2023 performance.

The 71-year-old, who has worked in theatre for over 40 years, said: “It’s very exciting. We’re taking it step by step and day by day. To be able to create a piece of work of that magnitude, the key is developing a relationship between ourselves and older people that want to take part."

Another scheme receiving funding is The East Leeds Project’s ‘Pavilion’ - the creation of an entirely new building for creative-minded people to 'make' things.

The ‘maker space’ aims to fill a void in east Leeds for such buildings, says the project’s founder and artistic director Kerry Harker, and could be used for everything from baking, to growing food, art, design, textiles, ceramics, wood-turning, sculpting, painting and drawing.

Kerry said: “It’s a space people can go to work, collectively and collaboratively, to access tools and get training and skills for the making of different kinds of things - to use a piece of equipment that they can’t otherwise afford, or they can’t have at home, or it’s too big. There are none of these kind of spaces in East Leeds at the moment."

The Pavilion project has also got on board forward-thinking Chapeltown based architects Baumon Lyons for the building’s creation and project bosses hope to secure a site overlooking Wyke Beck Valley.

But the space itself will be designed with the help of the community - with the recent funding boost an important step in helping them push forward the project for Leeds 2023.

Kerry said the funding is “amazing”, adding: “When you are looking at what’s happening in other cities where public funding for arts is being cut down to the bare bones or cut completely, I think it’s a really bold and amazing decision by Leeds to say ‘We are going to have this year’ and the funding is being committed to it, and there’s no sign of it being pulled.

She added: “To say Gipton is one of those R and D projects selected is giving a vote of confidence to the community in Gipton that often feels left behind all the shiny things happening in the city centre.”

Another project receiving ‘R&D’ funding is ‘Smeaton 300’, a venture by arts organisation Foxglove to uncover the incredible story of Leeds-born, world-changing engineer John Smeaton in preparation for the 300th anniversary of his birth, in 2024.

Smeaton 300 will be a celebration of Smeaton’s achievements - which included the designing of bridges, lighthouses, waterways and windmills in Leeds and beyond.

Jane Earnshaw, who runs Foxglove with Abby Dix-Mason, said: “He’s just this incredible story. He is the person who invented the term ‘civil engineer’. He is known around the world as the father of civil engineering and is a proper Leeds lad.”

Jane said the plan is for their work on Smeaton’s life story to generate some ideas for creative projects which can be held as part of the landmark year. She said: “We want to get artists to respond to his legacy. That could be looking at artists to create art to amazing events where families are building bridges in Millennium Square.”

Other projects receiving cash include Leeds theatre company Slung Low’s ‘Leeds People’s Theatre’ scheme which aims to create epic community-driven performances on a regular basis in the city.

The first Leeds People's Theatre project was a short film called The Good Book, which was released in May and featured a predominantly community cast from the city.

Music: Leeds, the not-for-profit organisation which links all things music in the city, has also received funding to develop 'Launchpad' - to build a local network and music directory to help emerging artists through mentoring, live performance opportunities and funded support.

Another project, Live Little Stories for Leeds, a collaboration between nine of the city’s theatre companies, received funding to create social-distanced performances for children in July to help children re-connect with live cultural experiences during the pandemic.

The city’s culture chiefs said the awarding of the grants, despite the disruption of Covid-19, signals the renewed energy to deliver Leeds 2023.

Kully Thiarai, creative director and chief executive of Leeds 2023, said: ““Our ambition is for creativity to fuel opportunities for everyone to thrive in our great city. We want to connect with everyone and every part of our city to showcase the creative talent of our communities and our artists. Building towards a year-long event of the scale and ambition of Leeds 2023 will take time, and it’s fantastic to see these projects begin to grow and take shape, when they could so easily have been derailed by the pandemic.

“I can’t think of a time when it was more important to be reminded of the power of the arts, culture and creativity to help connect people. Culture binds us together, has the power to transform lives, and offer hope for a better future which is why it’s important that we continue to support our artists and organisations to develop their ideas and relationships with local people.”

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Thank you

Laura Collins