West Yorkshire Playhouse celebrates 21st birthday

2002: West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Hamlet with Christopher Ecclestone in the lead role.
2002: West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Hamlet with Christopher Ecclestone in the lead role.
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From a precarious start to becoming the ‘National Theatre of the North’ West Yorkshire Playhouse is not only an institution in Leeds but a nationally renowned theatre complex which has put the city on the map. As it prepares to celebrate its 21st birthday next week,

Arts Editor Rod McPhee looks at one of our biggest success stories.

CYNICAL doesn’t cover it. When Jude Kelly arrived on the building site that would become West Yorkshire Playhouse, even the brickies put the boot in. “They told me: ‘You know this’ll be an Asda in a couple of years love, don’t you?’”

She laughs, but only now, safe in the knowledge that the legacy she left behind almost a decade ago is safe. It wasn’t always that way.

Throughout the 80s a small cluster of leading arts figures in Leeds had to battle to develop a purpose-built centre for theatre which would be a home to the whole spectrum of plays and the whole spectrum of society . Ultimately it fell on the Playhouse’s first artistic director to ensure it came to fruition.

Kelly says: “There was the Leeds Playhouse and there was Leeds Grand Theatre, but they represented a huge divide between the more experimental/fringe/community theatre and the more classical repertoire like Arthur Miller or Shakespeare. Most of the truly experimental work was being done in London.

“But my attitude was always that you shouldn’t have to go to London to get access to a hospital or a school, why should you have to go to London to access good theatre? So it wasn’t about just creating a bigger building, it was about saying something about Leeds and putting us on the map.

“If you want to be a first class city, it’s important to have first class theatre. When I came people were heartened and encouraged on one hand, while others thought I was being unrealistic and over-ambitious. But I felt you had to be ambitious for the city you lived in.”

The campaigners eventually secured most of the funding from local authorities to the tune of £15m including, notably, the soon-to-be disbanded West Yorkshire County Council which, as a final two fingers up at the Thatcher government that abolished it, handed over its last £2m to the project. Thus, the playhouse took the title of the county, rather than the city.

But by the time Judi Dench came to officially open the Playhouse, the fight had only just begun.

“It was quite hard from the beginning.” recalls Kelly. “I would talk to London agents for actors and when I’d mention West Yorkshire Playhouse they would say “Where?”

“So we had to build a reputation, but we did it. I think after about four years people started calling us ‘the National Theatre of the North.’ We liked the tag, but it was one we had to wait to be given, rather than attaching it to ourselves.

“From a point where we felt there was nothing like us outside of London, we reached the stage where I remember one director telling me there wasn’t anything like us inside London.”

West Yorkshire Playhouse is special because it is one of only a handful of producing theatres in the country. It is home to two theatres and numerous educational facilities which play host to various sections of society ranging from people with learning disabilities to elderly people.

The aim was never to create a stand-alone venue playing host to a series of touring productions, the goal was always to create an artistic hub which the community felt a part of.

But the Playhouse also had to gain credibility during the 1990s. Gradually Kelly attracted numerous famous names to the theatres – Prunella Scales, Tim West, a youthful Jude Law, Patrick Stewart. Even Alan Rickman came to direct.

The artistic director knew they’d really arrived when Ian McKellen visited the theatre to see a production of the Merchant of Venice and loved the place so much he signed up to a three-play mini-season in 1998 before he jetted off to film Lord of the Rings.

The variance of production fulfilled Kelly’s initial ambition of bridging the gap between challenging work and the more mainstream. On the one hand they staged the harrowing The Beatification of Area Boy by Nobel-winning writer Wole Soyinka in 1995, on the other hand Kelly enjoyed a massive commercial success with her revival of the musical Singin’ in the Rain.

It was a real wrench for her to leave the Playhouse in 2002, but also an indication of her achievement that she is now director of the Southbank Centre in London, one of the world’s biggest arts spaces.

“I have an enormous emotional attachment to Leeds and the Playhouse,” she says. “It’s like a love affair, really, and to this day I still accidentally introduce myself to people as the artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse, and then I remember I don’t work there any more.”

Although crucial, Kelly’s tenure at the Playhouse formed the second chapter.

The first started in 1970 when the Leeds Playhouse was formed in a sports hall owned by Leeds Metropolitan University.

From the beginning it was always a temporary fixture with a group of leading arts figures developing plans for a permanent theatre complex.

Leading the charge was Coun Bernard Atha, a long-time stalwart of local culture.

As early as 1980 the Quarry Hill site was earmarked for the new Playhouse but it took 10 years to get the plans off the ground and, more importantly, to secure funding.

“Most of the money came from local authorities,” he recalls. “But we had to raise £1.5m ourselves and what was very heartening was the fact that this was done by local people.

“The intention was always to create a people’s theatre, somewhere that was very different to your more elite venues. We wanted to feel like anyone could come into the Playhouse and do whatever they wanted.

“It was far more relaxed. To this days it’s unusual to see many people arriving for shows wearing a tie, which is a contrast to your more starched theatres where you were always expected to dress up.

“The whole ethos of the place was intended to be egalitarian. So there was no stage door, just one main entrance which you used regardless of whether you were the cleaner or Prince Edward attending a performance.

“It’s incredible to think of what the Playhouse has achieved over the last 21 years, to think that it now sits at the heart of a whole cultural quarter for Leeds and has really put the city on the map.”

The third stage of the evolution began in 2002 when Ian Brown took over as artistic director.

It was difficult following in the footsteps of Kelly but throughout the Noughties chalked up his own achievements.

As well as debuting new writing, frequently by northern writers, he’s also attracted several big names ranging from ex-Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston in Hamlet to Othello, with funnyman-turned-actor Lenny Henry taking a lead. Both were huge commercial and critical successes.

So too were the Christmas shows such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which attracted huge attention.

But there have been deeper achievements too, such as the creation of the nearby First Floor facility on St Peter’s Square introducing young people to the performing arts.

There is, and always has been, a distinct political undertone to West Yorkshire Playhouse, and it’s one which Brown thinks is fundamental.

“I’m sure lots of people think we are lefties,” he laughs. “I suppose we are in a way. I’ve certainly always believed in theatre being an egalitarian thing.

“From the beginning I wanted to run a building where we put on plays that might change people’s perceptions and minds because I do believe in multiculturalism and a liberal society.

“Which is why we’ve always stuck our necks out and done more challenging works. We did it 21 years ago and we’re still doing it today.”

But as well as wanting to present a certain prism to the population Brown insists one of their guiding mantras is equality.

He says: “I think the poor should have as much access to the arts as the wealthy. Jude had that attitude and it continues up to today.

“In Leeds I’m very aware that our audience are passionate theatre-goers, but I wouldn’t say our audience is posh, in fact, when I see what I’d describe as the upper classes in our theatre it’s unusual.

“I think what’s important is that people come because they like to see plays – and that’s it.”

As for the next chapter of the Playhouse’s history, that remains uncertain. It’s cruel coincidence that as they celebrate their 21st birthday next week they will also be preparing for inevitable spending cuts from both the arts council and local authorities.

There’s an irony in marking this milestone, given the faltering start of the playhouse and the parallels with today’s situation. But there’s little doubt that ‘the National of the North’ will survive and Brown remains upbeat.

“Up to now we’ve always tried to resist that comparison,” he says. “But it would be nice to get the National Theatre’s funding.”

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