A Playhouse at the heart of the city and region since 1970
Over the coming days, weeks and months we will be updating our new site with more information about the history of Leeds Theatre Trust and the theatres it has run since 1970 (Leeds Playhouse 1970 to 1990 and West Yorkshire Playhouse 1990 to today). In the meantime here is a very brief history of how we got to where we are. Keep coming back for more information.
In March 1964, the Arts Council was informed by Doreen Newlyn of a new committee in Leeds of 23 people who were ‘beginning a campaign for promoting a professional civic theatre in Leeds’. The committee sought to address the absence of a professional producing theatre within the large conurbation of West Yorkshire. In September 1969 the foundation stone of a Playhouse was laid on the southern edge of the university campus and Leeds Playhouse opened in September 1970.
The Playhouse of today was born directly out of Leeds Playhouse – a repertory theatre which started its Portakabin existence in what was always meant to be a temporary home under its Artistic Director John Harrison.
Built on Quarry Hill (the site of the most notorious slums in 19th Century Western Europe and later the infamous Quarry Hill flats which replaced them) the current theatre officially opened its door in March 1990 under its Artistic Director Jude Kelly, and was Britain’s largest new purpose built theatre for 15 years. Donald Sinden had turned the first sod in November 1987; Judi Dench had laid the foundation stone in March 1989, with Albert Finney performing the topping-out ceremony in September 1989.
The Arts Council deemed the newly, opened and newly named, West Yorkshire Playhouse to have ‘a fully conceived and implemented policy of imaginative, vivid and progressive work on stage, inextricably related to and complementing a practical commitment to ensuring that theatre is a vital part of community it serves’
The word vital still resonates in the 2015 Vision statement for the Playhouse.
From the beginning it was clear that the new West Yorkshire Playhouse was going to be more than just a performing space. The primary objective stated in the initial business plan was;
‘to change significantly the nature and extent of repertory programming by enlarging the repertoire to provide a centre for international as well as national work and to create a significant producing theatre with a fully integrated community programme acting as a resource for the City and region.’
In the first 6 years of operation the Playhouse produced 93 of its own productions (27 or which were world or British premieres) encompassing classics and contemporary British and European drama, modern theatre from around the world and had implemented a vigorous new writing policy.
Ian Brown succeeded Jude Kelly as Artistic Director in 2002 and brought with him a commitment to continue the vital and established role that the Playhouse was playing in the community. Under his leadership the Playhouse maintained its pioneering community engagement work and gained a reputation for the quality and mix of its work.
Following Ian’s departure in 2012 he was succeeded by James Brining. Although Leeds-born, James arrived via Richmond and Dundee (being described as a ‘Scottish Theatre Sensation’ by The Telegraph at the time of his appointment). With new-found vigour the Playhouse continues to develop and expand on the vision of Vital Theatre.
The Playhouse has two theatres, the Quarry with 750 seats and the smaller, more flexible Courtyard with 350 seats. However its reach goes far beyond those two spaces; over the 2015 autumn season its work will be seen in over 60 venues from village halls (Beryl on tour) to Wales Millennium Centre (Sweeney Todd). In recent years plays have been taken out into the local community with Little Sure Shot and Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads being presented in community centres around the city.
51 years on from Doreen Newlyn’s notice to the Arts Council and 25 years on from the opening of the new building, the Playhouse remains as strong as ever, producing great theatre for, and by, its communities in the heart of the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire and the UK.