Long-distance travel

It’s no surprise Leeds Playhouse’s entrance faces the bus station, says writer Alice Nutter, as it’s a place for all who pass through

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While locked down last year, Leeds Playhouse turned 50, having opened the doors of its original site back in September 1970. Down the decades, the theatre has become an intrinsic part of the cultural life of Leeds. Its re-emergence now is a major milestone, even in current tentative circumstances.

James Brining, artistic director of Leeds Playhouse, says: “The opportunity to mark the anniversary within this particular context has presented some really interesting variations
on what we might have otherwise done. Re-opening and being present in the life of the city feels like an important thing to be doing, but having this anniversary as a concrete reference point gives it more sense of purpose.”

This year’s celebratory programme includes assorted special projects, not least Decades, a series of new monologues set throughout the Playhouse’s lifespan. “We were originally talking about maybe doing some plays that already existed from across the decades, but that was just too complicated and cumbersome,” Brining says. “Then we pivoted and decided to commission monologues from local writers. That’s mushroomed into a major project now.”

Alongside new work by Simon Armitage, Maxine Peake and Playhouse youth theatre graduate Stan Owens, Decades includes a piece by Burnley-born writer Alice Nutter covering the 1980s.

“I would have been gutted if the Playhouse hadn’t asked me to be part of Decades,” Nutter says. “I did a free So You Want To Be A Writer course there when I was first starting out and the Playhouse has been really supportive of my work. In recent years, they have gone all out to be a theatre that reflects and gives voice and works with the people who actually live in its city. It’s no coincidence that the new Playhouse entrance faces the bus station. This is a theatre that wants the people of Leeds to feel it belongs to them.”

Indeed, Leeds Playhouse has long been committed to engaging with the local community. Brining says: “That’s about gaining people’s confidence and trust so that they know that we won’t just be here and gone. We’ve been running the same older people’s programme, Heydays, for over 30 years. It’s the longest-running programme of creative work for older people in the UK that we know of. That leads to a whole set of other things, such as working with people living with dementia, which we’re now sector-leading in.

“We’ve been a Theatre of Sanctuary for nearly 10 years, and those relationships, with refugees and people seeking asylum and the agencies that are working with them, they’re long-standing relationships. It’s about people understanding that we’re doing this because we want to make the world a more connected, enriched place.”

This year’s Playhouse’s programme is “deliberately diverse”, Brining says. “If somebody wants to come and see The Damned United, they may or may not want to see Dame Josephine Barstow doing A Little Night Music, or The Promise of a Garden, Alan Lyddiard’s installation piece with older artists. There’s a proper range in there, because we want to attract a very wide range of people.”

Paying tribute to the Playhouse, Nutter says: “At the next big anniversary, I hope another writer is able to say she did a free course there that encouraged her to be a writer. May the Playhouse long continue to open doors for people.”

The Leeds Playhouse 50th anniversary programme runs from 19 May, with some events accessible online (leedsplayhouse.org.uk)

Photo: Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining pictured during rehearsals for Europe, one of its anniversary works (The Other Richard)

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