A first-time collaboration with the National Theatre and a major redevelopment looming. Robin Hawkes tells Sarah Freeman how the curtain is about to go up on a new chapter for Yorkshire arts.
On a Friday morning at the end of a long week, a feeling of relief is etched on Robin Hawkes’ face. As executive director and joint chief executive of the West Yorkshire Playhouse he has just helped mastermind one of the theatre’s most ambitious productions to date. Barber Shop Chronicles is the Playhouse’s first ever co-production with the National Theatre and have opened first in London, the press night reviews have just landed.
“Good aren’t they?,” says Hawkes, the big grin wholly justified. The clutch of four and five star reviews have variously praised the show, which weaves together conversations in six different barbershops, from Britain to South Africa, across the course of a single day, as affectionate and emotional. One couldn’t resist describing it as a “cut above the rest”. “The response has been such that it will be going back to the National later in the year. Whatever people say, reviews matter.”
They matter to the cast and the production team, but they also matter at the box office. When he arrived in Leeds to take up the newly created role two years ago, Hawkes was clear that as well as a commitment to quality theatre he also wanted to look at new ways of working.
A tie up with the National Theatre where he had spent the previous seven years - a Midas period during which the venue produced a string of hits from War Horse to One Man, Two Guvnors - was then an obvious first choice
“Of course it has felt a little odd being effectively the junior partner in the arrangement and a lot of things I had heard other theatres say about working with the National suddenly made a lot more sense. But it is definitely a partnership and the team here have been closely involved in the creative process from the very beginning. The playwright Inua Ellams spent a chunk of time in Leeds doing some early research and development at a barbershop in Chapeltown, we had a close eye on the script development and we have been down to rehearsals.
“Barber Shop Chronicles isn’t just a play produced by the National which is touring up here. It’s a piece which we have created together and which I hope has a relevance to and resonance with Yorkshire audiences.”
While Hawkes may have spent his early career in London, he wasn’t exactly a stranger to Leeds. His wife grew up in the suburbs and after two years he says the place feels like home. It’s that familiarity which means that his confident that a major redevelopment of the 27 year old theatre will reflect the city’s current needs. Costing £13.3m - the money coming from a mix of council investment, an Arts Council grant, fundraising and the theatre’s own coffers - it will be the biggest overhaul of the venue since it opened in 1990.
“The Playhouse is a great big building,” says Hawkes. “Everyone in Leeds knows where it is, but ask them to describe what it looks like and they’ll probably flounder. I know I would and work here. The design is of its age, but it does look more like a leisure centre than a theatre. Now we’ve got a chance to change that.
“The idea of a redevelopment project had been talked about for some time and it was absolutely one of the reasons why I wanted to the job. This kind of project happens once in a generation, if that, and it’s a privilege to get to take a venue like this into a new era.”
While there are still a few key decisions to be made, an artist’s impression from Glasgow based Page/Park architects has recently gone up just inside the foyer and the response from the public to the changes, which will see the theatre reorientated so that the entrance faces the new John Lewis, and a new facade, have been overwhelmingly positive.
“It might seem that we are spending a lot of money on a new front door, but there is a large psychological element to what we are doing,” says 34 year old Hawkes. “There was a very good reason why the building was designed the way it was, but the wider development plans for this part of Leeds never fully materialised and as a result the theatre now appears to be turning its back on the rest of the city.
“From the beginning we have worked on the principle that the building should be a democratic space. As a result we will have better wheelchair spaces at the front of the auditorium in the Quarry and changing the entrance is also part of that idea. We want the theatre to have a life outside of specific performances. We want everyone to be able to use the space, which at the moment they can’t.”
The plans are not entirely altruistic. Greater footfall means more cups of coffee sold in the cafe, more tickets at the box office and hopefully a bigger number in the profits column when Hawkes next looks at the accounts.
“One of the really exciting parts of the project is that the Playhouse will finally get a studio. For a little while now we have been using a rehearsal room to stage smaller shows and work in its infancy, but it’s not ideal. We are the only producing theatre in the city and a studio space will allow us to better nurture the creative talent which exists out there.
“We will also be increasing the number of seats in the Courtyard theatre from 300 to 400. Not every show in there will need those extra seats, but we know there have been a reasonable number of productions in that space which have sold out and we never want to be in the position where we are turning people away.”
Next week the Playhouse, along with every other theatre, gallery and museum in the country, will find out the results of its latest Arts Council funding application. Chances are there will be no change to the cash it receives, but the wider announcement will inevitably raise the thorny issue of north/south divide, which means London gets £41.03 arts funding per head of population compared to £13.74 for Yorkshire and the Humber.
“London gets so much funding partly because it has such a concentration of arts organisations and that’s something to celebrate, but yes, the whole sector is skewed. When I worked at the National I was equally guilty of thinking the world revolved around us, albeit subconsciously. If we were having meetings people used to come to me, rarely would I go to them.
“In that environment it’s easy to believe those stories that regional theatre is on its knees, but that’s simply not true. All local authority budgets have been squeezed, but from my experience in Leeds the council really recognises the importance that the arts have to play not only in the economy but in enriching the lives of people who live here.”
When he handed his notice in at the National a few colleagues thought Hawkes had lost his mind. Now two years on and having “a home with a flight of stairs, a garden with grass, and a 10-minute commute to work” he is convinced he made the right decision.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he says and with that he’s back to his desk and back to the job in hand.