Different spaces : Rethinking Theatre out of the Theatre

Richard Horsman takes a look at Leeds theatres and their spaces – and meets key users and providers Amy Letman (Transform 19) and Ben Hepworth (Prime Studios).

Going to the theatre in Leeds can be quite an adventure. The Grand is still there, of course, as a palace of red plush for Opera North, big stars and touring musicals; the City Varieties remains recognisably an old-time music hall for standup, music and pantomime. Then it all starts getting a bit strange.

Even the purpose-built Leeds Playhouse is camping in a temporary and unconventional home; the current season is being staged in a chilly and authentically industrial scenery dock underneath the main house, whilst the main theatres are refurbished as part of the building’s multi million pound makeover.

When it reopens, audiences will also be treated to shows in the so called “Bramhall Rock Void”, a novel performance space created underneath the tiered seating of the vast Quarry Theatre.

The void, previously just wasted space, was left when the original architects decided it was too big a job to blast out the huge rocks that give Quarry Hill its name. Their successors have decided on a more subtle touch, fitting seating and lighting around the heavyweight original features to create an intimate and unique performance area.

Out of the City Centre, Slung Low has also pioneered the use of unusual spaces for theatre. The HUB, or “Holbeck Urban Ballroom” was for several years based in an old railway arch on Bath Road, a space chosen to feel less intimidating to first-time audiences than a city centre chocolate box. They’ve now moved into the Holbeck Working Men’s Club, which has the same benefits of being close to its community with much better beer, and no need any more for blankets to keep the audience warm. Slung Low also performed their large-scale piece The White Whale (based on Moby Dick) in the middle of an actual dock on Leeds’ south bank.

Radical theatre Red Ladder upped the ante a couple of years back, taking over the Albion Electric Warehouse on South Accommodation Road for their performances of The Shed Crew; a tale of drugs and youth gangs based on Bernard Hare’s tales of Urban Grimshaw and housed in, er, an old derelict warehouse.

The Albion Electric space itself is far from derelict, but has enough authentic shabbiness to have audience members nervously checking that their wallets were safe after being jostled by cast members playing the gang. Or maybe that was just me. The same venue hosted a harrowing version of Mother Courage last year, with audiences promenading from one part of the building to another to follow the action.

Leeds-based Front Room Productions have chosen to stage some of their work amid the stalls of Kirkgate Market, a readymade proxy for Dickensian London, and at the Home Farm at Temple Newsam, which has provided a novel home for Shakespeare. They’ve also invited audiences into a teenage bedroom in Headingley, and their next, site specific, production will be based on the historic Middleton Railway.

Punk Performed at Prime Studios. jma photography.

Now the City’s biennial Transform Festival has taken over a working film and TV studio next to the Northern Snooker Centre on Kirkstall Road: Prime Studios is its Festival Centre, serving as a base for shows, events, discussions and parties … and also as a chillout zone for performers and crew.

Amy Letman. Photograph provided by Leeds 2023.

Amy Letman is Creative Director of Transform 19. She says the takeover of Prime Studios is “mischievous” and, speaking in the Archive coffee shop and event space housed within Prime, she told me it’s important to be there:

Ben Hepworth is Managing Director of Prime Studios. He’s more used to hosting film productions and TV commercial shoots in his cavernous premises, but he was delighted to be invited to host the Festival Centre for Transform. He sees benefits in using non-traditional spaces for performance:

Ben Hepworth, Prime Studios. Photograph provided by Prime Studios.

The Transform 19 festival continues until the 4th of May with other locations including the Leonardo Building just of Millennium Square; and yet another repurposed industrial space, Canal Mills, for Tianzhou Chen’s “An Atypical Brain Damage”, described as “a dark pop opera” where “big city fashion arrogance goes side by side with the camouflage jackets of Chinese rice growers … part club, part performance, part culture clash”. That’s on Friday and Saturday, 3rd and 4th of May. Full details are online at https://transformfestival.org/ Canal Mills is already established as a music venue, and it intends to develop as “a constantly evolving space for all mediums of creative output, from exhibitions, pop-up restaurants, live and electronic music events to fashion shows and theatre projects”

Leeds Playhouse, meanwhile, unveils its new season on the 16th of May. This is the season which will include performances in the Bramhall Rock Void for the first time; meanwhile, their Christmas treat in the big Quarry Theatre above has already been announced as the blockbuster Wizard of Oz. https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/whats-on/

Slung Low is programming a varied and eclectic variety of shows into The Holbeck Working Men’s Club; details can be found at https://www.slunglow.org/upcoming-holbeck-events/

Front Room Productions are promising further details soon of their Middleton Railway site-specific performances at https://www.frontroomproductions.co.uk/upcoming-productions

Red Ladder, in partnership with Bradford’s Freedom Studios, are touring “Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile”, the show based on Adele Stripe’s biography of troubled Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, to community venues across the region http://www.redladder.co.uk/whatson/black-teeth-brilliant-smile/

Meanwhile, another Leeds company, Riptide, have done away with actual venues altogether for their “immersive” performances. From the pilot show “You Are Here” in 2015, through the club-based “Swarm” to the fully pervasive, month-long experience of “The Lucky Ones”, they make Leeds, its streets and everyone in them part of their productions. Audiences navigate their way through the adventures using iPhones, sometimes having real world encounters and sometimes experiencing the story and its characters online. Their next production “Sonder” is coming later this year: http://theriptide.co.uk/projects#/sonder/

There’s still a place for the Grand and the City Varieties, of course, in the mix – and Leeds Playhouse will soon be as vibrant as ever. But it’s apparent that audiences are no longer content to sit in dedicated spaces to experience performance, and Leeds is at the forefront of the move to utilise spaces that are as individual as the performances they host.

Watch this space.

Feature photograph by jma photography.  Punk at Prime Studios.


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