#RWC2015: Game on for showtime

MATCH PLAY: Alan Lane of Slung Low and Tangled Feet's Nathan Curry in Millennium Square in Leeds which will become an open air theatre.
MATCH PLAY: Alan Lane of Slung Low and Tangled Feet's Nathan Curry in Millennium Square in Leeds which will become an open air theatre.
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After the Tour de France, can art and sport join forces for the Rugby World Cup? Sarah Freeman reports.

The Tour de France taught us many things about Yorkshire. By the time the peloton moved south and back across The Channel we had learnt that hay bales could be transformed into giant truckles of Wensleydale cheese; that a few pots of yellow paint go a very long way and that when the sun shines, Buttertubs Pass can pretty much rival any vista in the world.

We also learnt that when it comes to staging a world class event that can attract a local, national and global audience we had it nailed. It’s a formula Leeds is hoping to replicate, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, when the Rugby World Cup 2015 arrives here in September. Elland Road will stage two games of the competition in September, but while the on-pitch action will last less than three hours it is hoped the competition will provide a boost to Leeds’s bid to become European City of Culture in 2023.

Leeds-based arts production company Dep Arts has been tasked with coming up with a cultural programme which will help build momentum to the international games and bring an economic lift to the city. Working with both public and private sector, it’s a model which Dep Arts director David Edmunds says was born out of events like the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games and prior to that Liverpool’s successful reign as European City of Culture in 2008.

“We were involved with a number of events in Liverpool and that’s when I realised that there was a real appetite for these large scale artistic happenings,” says Edmunds. “The audience doesn’t want or need to know which company is staging the show or who designed the costumes, all it needs to know is that something is going on that they want to be a part of.”

Try will be the city’s official cultural World Cup programme and comes with an emphasis on taking events to the public. Conceived, produced and managed by Dep Arts, the Leeds company Slung Low, which last year staged its version of Moby Dick on the Leeds waterfront, will be behind a touring production, Rugby Songs, inspired by some of the sports iconic anthems from Swing Low, Sweet Charity to the All Black’s Haka.

On the eve of the first World Cup match in Leeds, Millennium Square will again be transformed into an open air theatre as a cast of 300 perform Collective Endeavour. The brainchild of Tangled Feet, the theatre company is giving little away about what the audience can expect. All they will say is that it explores the rugby traditions of justice and fair play.

Edmunds is not new to staging events which bridge the gap between sport and culture. While London might have had Danny Boyle to mastermind its opening ceremony, in the build-up to the Games, the rest of the country had iMove.

As part of the Olympic cultural programme, Dep Arts took Cycle Song, an opera celebrating the achievements of steelworker Albert ‘Lal’ White who won silver in the team pursuit in the 1920 Games in Antwerp, to Scunthorpe.

“In some quarters the idea of staging an opera in Scunthorpe seemed a bit foolish,” says Edmunds. “But you know what 10,000 people came. I do get a little tired when people regard culture as something which only appeals to a select few. It’s not.”

Edmunds grew up in Leicester and went to his first Tigers game around the same time he started school. Since moving to Leeds and having his own family he now spends much of his weekends either watching one of his three children play or coaching a young side.

With a life-long passion for the game, when it was announced Leeds would be one of the World Cup’s host cities he pretty much marched into the office of Cluny Macpherson, chief officer for culture and sport at Leeds City Council and demanded to be involved.

“While we have done a lot of work in cities like Hull and Liverpool we haven’t ever staged a major event in Leeds,” he says. “Given my love of rugby and my background in the arts, the Rugby World Cup was a perfect fit. This is about showing ambition, the kind which we need if we are going to have a chance of winning the European City of Culture bid.”

Leeds City Council is investing £35,000 in the cultural programme which has allowed Dep Arts to secure similar funds from both Arts Council England and the Rugby World Cup itself. Given all local authorities are operating under tight budgets there will be questions as to whether Try represents good value for money. “With these kind of events there is always a ripple effect,” says Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council. “Yes, we want people to come into the city and have a good time, but when they do that has an economic impact.

“Leeds really is coming into its own as a destination. The Tour de France showed that, as will the British Art Show when it opens here in October. The Rugby World Cup is another opportunity for us to market Leeds and demonstrate what a vibrant place it really is.”

With 10 weeks to go, the countdown is on, both for the World Cup and Try.

“When it comes to the overall competition my heart says England,” adds Edmunds. “But my head says New Zealand. The All Blacks are just too good.”

If it all comes together, one guaranteed winner could well be the city of Leeds.