Theatre director James Brining comes home to the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Meet the theatre director who is about to make a dramatic homecoming. Chris Titley reports

Born and brought up in Leeds, James Brining left the city just as the West Yorkshire Playhouse opened. Now he’s back, only the third person to take the helm of the playhouse, regarded today as one of the most important regional theatres in the country.

James tempers his obvious excitement at the move because he’s still very closely involved with his current job, as chief executive of Dundee Rep. He takes up his post as the playhouse’s artistic director in late summer.

Fast-talking and friendly, James is clearly bursting with ideas. But first he pays tribute to his predecessors in the job, Jude Kelly and Ian Brown. ‘The art and development work that has happened at the playhouse over the last 20 years is absolutely fantastic, and I am ery interested in that,’ he says.

‘And the brilliant craft skills in the playhouse – there’s great backstage skills – the whole package adds up to being one of the most important and one of the most interesting theatres in Britain.’

He aims to ‘develop a culture of creativity and excellence’. ‘Excellence has to be the watchword,’ he says. ‘What that means to me is making work which will stand up against work you’d see anywhere, whether that’s London’s West End or internationally.

‘It’s created and delivered to that particular standard and the experiences the audiences have are really memorable, really powerful, really uplifting, really life-affirming, really challenging. It’s not just about on stage. It’s about what the soup’s like when you go for your lunch, it’s about the whole aspect of what we do being as good as it possibly can be.’

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James has a track record which suggests he can deliver such lofty ambitions. After leaving school he read English at Cambridge University where his love of the theatre developed. He made his mark in Scotland, first with the Tag Theatre Company in Glasgow, producing plays for young audiences.

At Dundee he produced premieres, reinterpreted contemporary dramas and revived classic plays. His productions of the Proclaimers’ musical Sunshine On Leith and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd won TMA Best Musical awards.

‘I’ve got very eclectic and wide tastes,’ James says. ‘I love Shakespeare, who is the best dramatist; I love American drama, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller.

‘I love musicals, both old ones and ones to come: I love the scale and the effect music can have on an audience. There’s not much I’m not interested in.’

He feels anything is possible at the playhouse, with its 750-seat Quarry Theatre and 350-seat Courtyard.

‘The Quarry’s epic and it’s got a kind of scale to it, but I also like the fact that it’s not a traditional theatre space in the sense of the proscenium arch.

‘Then the Courtyard is intimate and flexible and creates quite intense experiences. As a theatre director, those are two terrific spaces to make work in.’

The regional identity of the playhouse is key to attracting audiences, whether they are traditional theatregoers or not, he says. ‘There’s a focus on Leeds, the city and the region that is important to me. To look for stories, and find stories that are about the people of the city and the diverse communities that make up the city. I’m interested in exploring and taking work out into communities, building relationships with things like youth theatres so you get a whole range of groups engaged with the playhouse in addition to the work on the stage.’

His own childhood in Leeds was ‘almost so happy that I can’t remember much about it,’ he says, laughing. Living first at ‘the Stainbeck end of Scott Hall Road’ then Lidgett, he went to Carr Manor Primary, St Matthew’s Middle School then Leeds Grammar.

James’s dad was an electrical engineer and his mum a teacher at Harehills Primary School, so ‘I was exposed to that really multi-cultural environment. That was all part of my sense of what Leeds was – a really diverse place. That’s really to be celebrated.’

Leeds in the 1970s and 1980s, he says, ‘wasn’t necessarily as confident and as vibrant a place as it is now. I just did what you do. I went to see Leeds United play every other week. I went to town on the bus. I remember going to rock concerts in Roundhay Park.’

Recent fictional portrayals of the Leeds of that era have painted it as a violent and grim city – most notably the Red Riding trilogy by David Peace. Is there any truth in that? ‘I remember the Yorkshire Ripper very strongly. I was about 13. That’s quite a powerful experience. In a way that’s part of the city’s narrative as well. I remember Leeds football fans had a terrible reputation in the 1970s, getting banned after rioting, things like that.

‘In terms of my own personal happiness, I was very fortunate, it was lovely; it was a great place to live. I was and remain proud of being from Leeds. It always slightly irks me that it never seems to quite get the spotlight that in my head it deserves.’

Perhaps that will change once he takes charge of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He certainly plans to put both theatre and city on the map, via productions with an authentically northern voice. ‘Whether it’s Alan Bennett, or Jeanette Winterson, or Caryl Phillips, or Simon Armitage, or Ted Hughes, there are brilliant artists from our part of the world. And I’m interested in employing the sensibility of those artists – and not just because they are northern but because they have a point of view.

Audiences like to see themselves and their communities represented on stage, I’m certain of that.’

So what would he hope to be the legacy of his stewardship of the playhouse? ‘To really make the theatre feel connected to the city and to the region. I’d like to come up with new ways of making that connection strong and meaningful.’


The print version of this article appeared in the May 2012  issue of Yorkshire Life 

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