A new look and new beginning for Leeds Playhouse
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 October 2019
Leeds Playhouse reopens this month after a £15.8 million refurbishment that makes it more accessible to the public and primed for an exciting future.
The first time I saw Leeds Playhouse - then called the West Yorkshire Playhouse - I thought it was one of the most striking theatres I'd ever seen. It stood proudly and squarely on Quarry Hill, looked like a large, unlovely wedding cake and from the York Road approach to the city was grandly unmissable. Yes, it was a bit full of itself and a bit ugly; but at least it could be seen from miles away.
Except… er… I had actually been looking at Quarry House, home to the Department of Health and Department for Work and Pensions. Hmm. So where was Leeds Playhouse, then? Ah. That was the squat, modern, unassuming building next door which was EASY to miss because it was dwarfed by everything else around it. Also, from the outside, it didn't particularly look like a theatre.
In fact, some locals used to cruelly joke - perhaps not unfairly - that the Leeds Playhouse building (which opened in 1990) looked more like a shopping centre, swimming pool or police station.
'But then the architecture was very much of its time,' admits James Brining, the Playhouse's artistic director. 'Back in the late 1980s, the thinking was: "Let's not put people off by seeming too grandiose. Let's have a civic, municipal building." Trouble is, that downplayed the diversity of what we do here.'
Still, its appearance didn't stop Leeds Playhouse becoming the north's flagship theatre and garnering a reputation for formidable artistic innovation.
Brining's relationship with the Playhouse goes back a long way. He was born and grew up in Leeds, remembers its first location on the Leeds University campus, and his delight when it finally moved to Quarry Hill. 'I remember being blown away by this building when it first opened,' he says. 'But when I came back here seven years ago as artistic director, my first reaction was that it was tired, dated and not very accessible.'
Accessibility wise, it's easy to see what he meant. First of all, the busy A61 runs right in front of the theatre, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the city. Secondly, the main doors were located at the rear of the building. 'When I got here I remember saying we needed to turn the theatre around to face the city,' says Brining. 'I meant that both metaphorically and literally. Some people were a little bit surprised and thought: "How are we going to do that?!" That's what we've been working towards.'
In fact, over the last 12 months, Leeds Playhouse - which sits within the city's Cultural Quarter - has been undergoing a £15.8million refurbishment which was four-or-so years in the planning but is now finished and ready to be unveiled to the public. While the building keeps its former entrances, it now features an impressive extension on the front with a third entrance directly facing the new Leeds City College Building.
'We have a carefully thought through, culturally impactful facade - and you can see people through the glass, which was critical from my point of view,' says Brining. 'Plus you can see the word 'Playhouse' above it all. Now there can be in no doubt what we are, and what we're about: culture, storytelling and engaging with people in this region.'
It's part of a strategy to become more accessible and visible, stimulate conversation and put a smile on people's faces. As for being cut off by the A61, that's less of an issue if the theatre is more prominent. Which it now is.
'Some see the road as a barrier,' admits Brining. 'I think it's an opportunity. Thousands of people go past us on a daily basis, so if we can get into their consciousness, then that's all to the good.'
On the inside, there's a new restaurant and bar, and better access to the Quarry auditorium (which has capacity for 100 extra seats if needed) with accessible positions for wheelchairs. In the Courtyard auditorium they have replaced an old, squeaky seating bank, excavated the floor and added 50 extra seats to make it more comfortable and attractive. Sound and lighting equipment has been upgraded in both spaces, too.
An important new addition to the Playhouse is a third auditorium situated underneath the theatre, called the Bramall Rock Void.
'I always had an idea that we could create a new performance space in that area,' says Brining. 'Its advantage is that it can host smaller scale events and projects, and enable artists who are often at the start of their careers to create more experimental work which doesn't need the same production resource.
'It feels different from the other two spaces, and I like that. It allows us to make work that goes into a slightly different territory.'
At the time of writing, the aim is to re-open the Playhouse on September 30 so the public can come in, have a coffee and explore the new front of house.
The first show in the Courtyard (Trojan Horse) runs between October 3-5, and the first show in the Bramall Rock Void (There Are No Beginnings) runs between October 11-November 2. There's also an Open Weekend (October 11-13) where there will be tours, workshops and surprise performances.
All spaces will be open by the last weekend of October which is when Northern Ballet perform Dracula in the Quarry Theatre.
'Maybe people who aren't closely associated with the Playhouse think the building has just had a bit of a facelift, a bit of a spruce up,' says Brining. 'For me, it feels more fundamental than that. It feels like another chapter and I'm excited about what we can do next.
'It's a real privilege to lead the theatre in the place I was born, move our vision forward and continue to engage with the city and the region.
'It's our turn to have this investment and make this building as comfortable as possible for audiences. I feel proud and pleased to be able to open our doors again.'