Lockdown ‘knocked down’ Leeds Playhouse but it 'got back up again’ for Leeds communities
The lyrics are famous the world over, embodying true Yorkshire grit and the spirit of bouncing back from difficult moments. Chumbawamba's memorable chorus - 'I get knocked down, but I get up again' - has now become a mantra of sorts for Leeds Playhouse. So much so that the vibrant venue, forced to close its doors last March in the midst of its "busiest season ever" just six months after being refurbished, has the words emblazoned above its doors in neon.
As the pandemic unfolded, staff at the theatre quickly 'unproduced’ as they stood down, postponed and cancelled shows, but they have tried to stay true to the words in the Tubthumping lyrics.
The playhouse's artistic director, James Brining, said that’s exactly what they have done, having overcome the year’s challenges by working with communities across Leeds with a remobilised engagement team.
As we eagerly await the reopening of theatres and arts venues across the city, James tells how the Playhouse has adapted and will continue to adapt while beginning to operate in a new world.
He said: “After a period of being forced to un-produce, we’ve been trying to be as present and active as possible in people’s lives, having engaged with communities, people young and old and refugees and asylum seekers, offering them all a whole range of programmes.
“One is called Reasons To Be Hopeful which involves 10 artists working with 10 different people each in the community, implementing a creative process and asking people to go on a walk and look at the world through a creative lense.
“When people think and behave creatively it’s healthy and it gives them purpose and structure, enabling them to make connections with each other so people can come together that way.
“We hope that when we open we will have a big exhibition in the glass at the front of the theatre to show what they’ve been doing and working on together while physically apart.”
The Playhouse has also put on digital daily drama and theatre class warm ups and has been offering creative materials and resources in food parcels to those who are isolating.
James added: “Our creative engagement has always been very much what the Playhouse is about but it’s not necessarily the most obvious thing and people weren’t really aware of it before.
“This awful situation has allowed us to respond positively and focus on this which is really important to us and it’s become evident that our relationship with the city of Leeds and its communities is now more important than ever before.”
To celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, the theatre plans to put on an exhibition which will allow people to go into the cultural space, even if they’re unsure about seeing a play.
It will continue to incorporate digital access and technology into its new opening to ensure inclusivity to those who can’t make it to the theatre at all, including upcoming writing which is going to be on offer live and digitally.
While James thinks theatre is best live, he appreciates that the pandemic has proved this isn’t always possible.
He said: “Of course digital technology is a really helpful tool.
“If it’s the only tool it can be boring but it’s definitely proved to be one of many ways of engaging and it can be very liberating so we hope we can use this momentum to build forwards into the future.
“We will open our theatre as soon as possible when allowed as a place that the people of Leeds and further afield can come to enjoy, relax and be together.
“Our hub is a cross section of the whole city, and while there’s no substitution for that, we’ve always engaged with our wider community and this period has shown we can do more and combine different approaches to engage with audiences.
“I’ll be most happy when people are able to be relaxed in the theatre environment and when it’s full of so many different kinds of people using our theatre for all sorts - that’s when it’s at it’s best.
“If people can’t come to the theatre we can still play a positive role in people’s lives, because it’s our job to bring celebration, challenge and togetherness and that’s been denied.”
Leeds Playhouse will be announcing its ‘whole range’ of work coming up for the summer in the coming weeks.
James added: “We get public funding from people’s council tax and taxes and so we have a responsibility and a civic duty - that’s what I think of regional theatre in the 21st century, it’s a civic duty to play a role in our city, especially now as everything starts to come back to life.”