The Carriagworks is ten years old this month. Neil Hudson looks at its colourful history and its bright future
Leeds’s muich-loved Carriageworks Theatre marked its tenth birthday earlier this month.
It was a significant milestone for the theatre, which has humble beginnings.
The 350-seat theatre and arts venue was born out of the council’s proposal to convert the former Civic Theatre, Cookridge Street, into a new £20m City Museum.
Home to amateur theatre in the city for over 70 years, groups using the Civic campaigned for a new city centre base.
Council bosses opted to build a new theatre across the road from the Civic in Millennium Square.
The project attracted the support of Yorkshire-born actor Timothy West, who visited the site in 2003 to announce it had been decided to call the new venue The Carriageworks, chosen because it forms part of the Electric Press complex, once the site of a carriageworks. The building dates back to 1840 and is visually impressive.
Mr West described it at the time as “an exciting development” but the high profile theatre scheme turned into something of a drama of its own when delays and cost over-runs sparked a political row.
With the final cost coming in nearly £2m over budget at about £7.5m, the curtain went up in November 2005 and The Carriageworks quickly established itself as an entertainment, meeting and conference venue.
In the first 12 months it hosted 280 performances and earned £145,000 in conference income, proving its critics wrong and establishing itself on the local and national stage as a force to be reckoned with.
In 2010, the cast of TV sit-com ‘Allo ‘Allo launched a panto version of Cinderella at The Carriageworks.
In 2012, it played host to Anthony Clavane’s critcially acclaimed Promised Land, which saw it gain national exposure.
It has established itself on the national circuit, attracting all manner of acts, but it’s the theatre’s work with children and people from disadvantaged backgrounds which sets its apart.
It has just completed a week-long celebration, with a series of events to mark the occasion, including workshops, tours highlighting the theatre’s history, even a teddy bear’s picnic and storytelling sessions for children.
Carriageworks’ Young Theatre Makers even staged their own production, 10, which ran throughout the week.
Linzi Tate began working at the theatre on Millennium Square as part of their front of house team in 2007 before moving to the box office the following year.
Today she is the Carriageworks’ programme director, overseeing the theatre’s artistic remit.
She said: “It’s been an incredible experience to see the Carriageworks grow and develop and to watch so many local families coming through our doors year after year. We’re like a family here and we’re very proud to say that a lot of our visitors say we’ve become like part of their families too, particularly around Christmas.
“Everyone at the theatre is really looking forward to showing people a bit more of what goes on behind the scenes here. It’s also our way of saying thanks for all the support we’ve had through the years and looking ahead to all the exciting things we have planned for the future.”
The theatre has two main stages, one capable of holding 350 people, the other 60.
The Carrigeworks has also managed to fill a gap in the Leeds theatre scene, fitting in quite nicely with other venues.
While Leeds Grand caters for the glitz and the glamour, the big name musicals and events on a national scale, such as Girls (showing now) and West Yorkshire Playhouse caters for the more experimental, edgier side of theatre and The City Varieties brings its own uniqueness to the party, offering a kind of adult-themed nostalgia, The Carriageworks remains quite unashamedly family orientated.
They have an active youth theatre programme, giving youngster the chance to not only act but to engage in the whole theatrical experience, from writing to directing and stage design.
Linzi said: “They get a professional director to work with them, they create their own productions, they write, direct and act.
“That’s great for young people because it increases their confidence levels so much and that has a knock on effect in that it’s really helpful in terms of helping them with their exams and helps them to be more creative.”
For the anniversary, the special production 10 comprised 10 scenes, one for each year the theatre has been in existence.
Coun Judith Blake, Leeds City Council leader praised the theatre.
She said: “When the Carriageworks opened 10 years ago, it faced a real challenge to establish itself in a city that was already home to a thriving performing arts scene.
“Today the theatre is a place that welcomes and engages thousands of local families and theatre-goers each and every year and a much-loved feature of our city’s cultural landscape.
“It’s wonderful to see how successful and popular The Carriageworks has become and I’d like to personally congratulate everyone involved and wish them many more years of bringing theatre to the people of Leeds.”