West Yorkshire Playhouse changes its name ahead of major redevelopment

Artist impression of the Leeds Playhouse redevelopment

Artist impression of the Leeds Playhouse redevelopment - Credit: Archant

West Yorkshire Playhouse is no more – long live Leeds Playhouse!

The new look Playhouse lobby

The new look Playhouse lobby - Credit: Archant

After years of terrible and terrifying panto (I lived in fear of being dragged on stage to sing a song with the dame), my first experience of ‘real’ theatre was electrifying. I was in the first year of what was then Halton Middle School in East Leeds and was on a school trip to Leeds Playhouse to see an innovative, funny and, frankly, chaotic play about a ‘mechanical mum’ (I seem to remember she had a jaunty saucepan lid on her head, a bit like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz but with added tea towels and whisks).

My best friend Mandy had a secret stash of Dolly Mixture to share, but I didn’t partake of even a single pink and white cube (my favourite) because I was so transfixed by the speed, fun and anarchy of the play. Theatre was better than sweets! What a revelation. When Leeds Playhouse left its university home, moved to Quarry Hill and became West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1990, I dutifully followed along, enjoying the new lease of life the new space offered to productions. But, I have to admit, I was a bit niggled by the name change. The Playhouse belonged to Leeds and, petulant as it might sound, I didn’t want to share it with the rest of the county. Imagine my joy when the theatre announced, just a few weeks ago, that it was changing its name back to Leeds Playhouse. No, imagine something with more clapping, skipping and smug grinning. There you go; you’ve got it.

The name-change marks a new chapter in the theatre’s 50-year history, embracing its current and future role at the heart of the cultural life of Leeds while giving a nod of appreciation to the innovators who were there at the very start in 1964.

It also comes at a pivotal time for the Playhouse as it embarks on a transformative capital redevelopment project which will result in a striking new city-facing entrance, improved access, enhanced financial and environmental sustainability, and a new performance space – the Bramall Rock Void – in the foundations of the theatre building.

The Searching for the Heart of Leeds company. Photography by Anthony Robling

The Searching for the Heart of Leeds company. Photography by Anthony Robling - Credit: Archant

‘The Playhouse has been, and will continue to be, a theatre for everyone; a philosophy written into the DNA of the organisation over 50 years ago by the theatre’s founding members,’ said artistic director James Brining. ‘Our audiences, whether they see productions on stage, participate in creative activities or simply use our café for the free Wi-Fi, all have a sense of ownership, and we are genuinely proud to place their stories at the heart of our work.

‘We love West Yorkshire. We’re the same theatre in the same location we’ve been in since moving to Quarry Hill in 1990. Changing our name to Leeds Playhouse is a progressive step forward, reflecting and acknowledging our rich and fruitful history.’

The theatre’s new name also reaps the rewards of pinning it geographically to a contemporary, dynamic and ambitious city with a regional, national and international reputation for excellence in culture and the arts. Rewards that look set to increase yet further when it reveals a new face to go with its new name.

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The £15.8million redevelopment project (just £800,000 is still needed) means the Playhouse will be presenting a pop-up season from September 2018 through to June 2019, with performances taking place in a temporary on-site space and in venues across Leeds. 

Ruth Hannant (far left) and Asmarina Voices, the Playhouse singing group for refugee women Photo: N

Ruth Hannant (far left) and Asmarina Voices, the Playhouse singing group for refugee women Photo: Nana Varveropoulou - Credit: Archant

The season features a broad range of modern classics, contemporary revivals and new commissions, many featuring a new ensemble company of northern actors, including Tessa Parr, who wowed Leeds audiences last year in Romeo & Juliet, seasoned theatre and television actor Robert Pickavance, Elexi Walker, who recently played Dr Watson at York Theatre Royal, and Simona Bitmate, who started her career as Ophelia in Hamlet at The Central School of Speech and Drama in 2010 and is set to revisit the role for director Amy Leach in Leeds next year.

‘We’re incredibly excited about our pop-up season,’ said Amy. ‘It’s a unique opportunity to present a brilliant, resonant array of plays in a variety of unusual locations.

‘Our superb ensemble of actors will help us to realise much of this season, taking on a range of roles from Shakespeare to contemporary classics such as Jim Cartwright’s seminal play Road. We really hope audiences will enjoy the thrill of seeing our acting company shape-shift between productions.’

Among the highlights of the pop-up year are a series of co-productions commemorating historic moments with Opera North, The Leeds Library, BBC Radio Leeds and Leeds College of Music, including a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the SS Empire Windrush and Airplays, four 15-minute radio dramas exploring migration.