West Yorkshire Playhouse celebrates 21 years

PUBLISHED: 00:16 02 March 2011 | UPDATED: 18:58 20 February 2013

West Yorkshire Playhouse celebrates 21 years

West Yorkshire Playhouse celebrates 21 years

The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds celebrates a milestone birthday this month. Tony Greenway talks to artistic director Ian Brown about what is expected to be a difficult future

Is the West Yorkshire Playhouse really 21 years old? Well, it appears so: Yorks Dame Judi Dench laid the foundation stone in 1989 and Doncasters Dame Diana Rigg was at the launch party in March 1990 to declare the theatre open for business.

One Dame is fair enough. But two?
Thats just greedy.

Since then, the WYP on Leedss Quarry Hill has challenged, surprised and entertained a generation of Yorkshire audiences. Award- winning theatre companies have graced its stages, as have a plethora of famous actors (Jude Law, for example, then at the beginning of his career, starred as one of the brothers in Death of a Salesman).

For its 21st year, the WYP is preparing to receive the key of the door and party like its 1989. Its also gearing up for a packed programme, a fundraiser and various other celebratory events.

Its a relaxing space, says artistic director Ian Brown summing up the WYPs enduring appeal. Audiences like it because its a democratic building: everyone mixes together and the seats are all pretty good.

Actors like it because theyre supported here. They dont feel like theyre battling to get paid on time. They find their way around the building easily; there are nice rehearsal rooms. We provide everything they need to do their job well. Production-wise, the Playhouse has always done its own thing, adds Ian. Its original and its pushed boundaries.

Ian took over as artistic director from the acclaimed Jude Kelly OBE (who is now running the South Bank Centre in London).

Looking back over his tenure, Ian chooses his family-orientated Christmas shows as personal favourites. They were something I introduced, he says. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland. Im also proud of the Shakespeare weve done here. Its a great stage for Shakespeare.

Lenny Henry, famously, came to the WYP two years ago to play Othello (acclaimed by critics and loved by audiences); and, later this year, Tim Pigott-Smith will be starring in King Lear, to be directed by Ian.

We want it to be an angry Lear, says Ian. That requires an actor who still has power. So I dont think Tims Lear will be doddery.

Naturally, audiences will flock to Shakespeare (especially if theres star casting involved) and a rip-roaring musical (The Wiz is the splashy turn at the WYP this summer). But the age-old conundrum for any artistic director is balancing the commercial froth with intellectual nourishment. Thats easier said than done, because you cant, for instance, put on a Strindberg season and expect people to stampede towards the box office. Yet it cant be all John Godber plays and productions of Blood Brothers, either.

No, says Ian. But we have more than one audience at the WYP. We have people who are up for a challenge, and others who are happy with things they know. We have a young audience, an older audience, and a family audience. As artistic director, if youre sensible, you try to reach as many of those different audiences as possible.

When it came to programming the 21st birthday celebrations, the WYP decided on Yerma by Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca and The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan. Not the most obvious choices.

We decided on Yerma because its a challenge, explains Ian. To my knowledge there hasnt been a professional production of Yerma for, ooh, I dont know, 20 years. And its a wonderful play and a new director. And were doing The Deep Blue Sea because we hadnt done any Rattigan - and its his centenary this year.

Ian now shares the running of the West Yorkshire Playhouse with general director and chief executive Sheena Wrigley. When I started I was solely in charge and that was quite a strain, knowing that we might have a financial hole at the end of the year but still having to whip up a storm in the rehearsal room.

Yes, about that. I hate to spoil the birthday mood, but the cuts are coming and the arts are going to suffer. Will the coalition government rain on the WYPs parade?

I think this will be the most challenging period for the arts for some time, says Ian. Even under Thatcher. Theres a lot that could go wrong in the next couple of years.

He sounds downbeat and that sounds gloomy but Ian is optimistic that the West Yorkshire Playhouse will be there to celebrate its next milestone birthday. Ive said publicly before that its unimaginable that there wont be a West Yorkshire Playhouse. But it is possible that there wont be as many theatres around this country as there were.

To get a positive out of a negative, Ian admits the WYP will have to box clever in the future. It will have to make new alliances with smaller companies and deliver theatre to audiences in increasingly creative ways.

Well become more of a home for new talent, new companies and new opportunities for young people to experience the arts, he says. And that could be exciting.

Heres to the next 21 years.

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