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A celebration of community: Leeds Lads preview

4 March 2016
A celebration of community: Leeds Lads preview
The launch evening of Red Ladder Theatre’s new play, Leeds Lads, was characterised by two ideas – ‘Community’ and ‘Celebration’. In collaboration with the Leeds Civic Arts Guild, the play will be performed “by the people of Leeds....for the people of Leeds” at the Carriageworks Theatre from the 17th to the 25th of June and will bring the community together to celebrate the City and its achievements, in 1916 and 2016.

One hundred years on from The Battle of The Somme, Tara, a 16 year old girl whose grandfather was part of the Leeds Pals Battalion, reflects on the past. What follows are journeys in the past and in the present, exploring and asking questions about war, sacrifice, companionship and love. The play itself will both remember and celebrate the City, its contributions to the war effort a century ago, and its ethno-cultural diversity, both then and now.

Rod Dixon, now entering his 11th year as Red Ladder’s artistic director, spoke affectionately and at great length about the processes and outcomes of a community play. Citing his thoroughly successful 2012 production of ‘The Promised Land’, he said that they serve as a “bridge” between professional theatre and the ever-exciting world of amateur dramatics. For instance, members of ‘The Promised Land’ who had joined the production with only limited theatrical experience, have since enrolled in drama schools across England, pursuing acting careers. This may be the most exciting element of Leeds Lads; the opportunities provided for 30-40 amateur actors and actresses to become part of a passionate community, helping them to develop their skills under such an experienced and professional production team.

This is especially true for one man. Cast as a Sergeant Major and as himself, Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s involvement in Leeds Lads may seem a bit peculiar. It’s easy to question why someone who has achieved what he has in a 16-year career with the Leeds Rhinos is actively swapping the Carnegie Stadium for the Carriageworks theatre. Listening to him speak, however, the answers are obvious. He is clearly not just a rugby player; and to define him as solely that, fails to recognise what he calls the growing collection of feathers in his cap. He is a fan of theatre, a father of four, a school governor and a self-proclaimed symbol of multicultural Leeds. Most strikingly, though, he’s a believer in the idea that self-improvement happens when you are placed "outside of your comfort zone". Not only does he share the same community values as the production team, but he also an embodiment of what the play will celebrate.

The philosophy that Rod Dixon and David Wheatley of the Leeds Civic Art Guild share is that participation in theatre should be widely accessible. Their open auditions (19th/20th March) will ensure that anyone from Leeds who has been on stage before (or not) will have the opportunity to be a part of the 40 - strong cast alongside Jamie Jones Buchanan. These auditions are limited to over 18's, though plans have been put in place with Red Ladder’s director of youth theatre, to showcase short dramatic performances from local schoolchildren before several of the shows in June.

What is also interesting about the production of Leeds Lads is that it will be Red Ladder’s first community play since the Arts Council unfortunately withdrew its funding for the company. As a result of the cuts, funding is now largely dependent on charitable donations (Over £30,000 so far) received through its ‘Save the Red Ladder Campaign’ and funding from Leeds City Council. In a sense, Leeds Lads is already a triumph in the face of adversity; on one level typifying and symbolising the grit and the glowing positivity of Rod Dixon, Red Ladder and every one of its supporters lean on one another, celebrating the unbridled passion for (amateur) dramatics that continues to unite them as a community. While Red Ladder’s continued existence is fundamentally important for the dramatic heartbeat of the City, as Leeds Lads shows, the role it plays in uniting and celebrating the community should not be overlooked.

Auditions for Leeds Lads take place on the 19th and 20th of March and the production runs from the 17th to the 25th of June, at the Carriageworks Theatre. Find more info on the Red Ladder website.

By James Gwyther
James is a Volunteer Writer for Leeds Living, covering topics such as eat/drink, city living, culture vulture and music/dance.
Photography provided by Malcolm Johnson