Leeds Playhouse and its Pop Up Theatre

An artist's impression of how Leeds Playhouse will look once the work has been completed.
An artist's impression of how Leeds Playhouse will look once the work has been completed.
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The Leeds Playhouse building is being transformed but the theatre is still producing work and Nick Ahad reckons it’s a good decision.

The ground being broken on any building project is a significant moment.

This week the ground was broken on the site of the Leeds, formerly West Yorkshire, Playhouse and work on the £15.8m redevelopment began.

Robin Hawkes, executive director of the Leeds Playhouse, gleefully shared on Twitter footage of a digger ploughing up what will a year from now be the entrance to the redeveloped theatre.

It is easy to understand Hawkes’s enthusiasm. This is the biggest development for the Leeds theatre since it moved to its current location in 1990 from the former Leeds University site.

Sitting down with James Brining, the artistic director of the building, I wonder that he is in such buoyant mood.

Brining’s optimism is born out of a brilliant – and absolutely correct – decision to keep making theatre, even though the Leeds Playhouse building is closed.

“If you walk past at the minute, it looks like a building site and it looks like there’s not a lot of actual theatre work going on. We cannot say it enough; we are still open for business,” says Brining.

“While the main theatre building is being developed we have created a really special theatre in an entirely unique part of the building. We’ve had to knock down a wall and make a hole in an exterior wall to create a fire escape, but we think it’s worth it.”

It does seem odd to carry out major work on what will be a temporary space to create a theatre for the people of Leeds and Yorkshire for just nine months, but Brining and Hawkes’ decision is a smart one.

The temporary space in the Leeds Playhouse’s workshop will allow audiences to continue to stay in the theatre-going habit.

Brining has installed in this theatre a repertory company. Outside of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and a couple of theatres around the country, this once ubiquitous model of creating work has died out.

“It’s a group of ten actors playing in all of the shows across the season, from Road to the shows we’ll be staging in June,” says Brining.

“It was a system I used for ten years when I was running a theatre in Scotland and I think it’s great for the audiences, the actors, the productions. Audiences get to know the actors and get to see them playing in really different roles and different shows.”

It also means that the actors right now are rehearsing Jim Cartwright’s Road with director Amy Leach, which opens the new season a week today, David Greig’s Europe, directed by Brining, and learning the songs for the Christmas show, A Christmas Carol, heading to the theatre on November 20.

Brining says: “The human brain can cope with a lot. We’re not getting them to do everything at the same pace, it’s all about getting their heads locked into specific things at different times.”

And we will all reap the benefits: of the work that began this week on the building and the work being carried out while the building takes shape.

Road, Leeds Playhouse Pop Up Theatre, September 5 to 29.