Transform season is introduced as a two week conversation about theatre. It’s all about change; changing what it means to be an audience member, exploring how performance can, and should, change us, and changing how the West Yorkshire Playhouse actually works as a space.
These probably sound like lofty ideals which might be difficult to relate to actual performances, but they’re immediately addressed by the format of the season. The programme is dynamic and diverse, changing from day to day, and hour to hour. Unique guides are printed for each day, giving a brief outline of the events going on. The busiest day fell on Saturday 11th June, a kind of day out at the theatre, with a non-stop whirl of opportunities taking those with the stamina right through from the daytime café-bar activities to the 9:15pm ‘Headline Act’, Lemn Sissay’s Something Dark.
One of the best things about Transform is that it’s an open invitation for the public, whoever you are and whatever your background, to come along and get stuck in. On entering the building there’s a large chalkboard posing the question “What would you change about the WYP?”, a challenge the people have risen to admirably, with answers ranging from “More physical theatre”, to comments about start times and ticket prices. This encapsulates the vision curators Alan Lane and Kully Thiarai had for Transform season, as the start of an exciting public conversation about WYP and theatre more generally. There’s also the Twitter fountain, bringing participants in from all over the world to join the discussions, and Pilot Theatre’s online live-streaming of events and interviews.
This focus on involvement and questioning is followed through in the free events held in the café-bar. In the centre of the space is a strange office-like area containing a photocopier, lots of newspapers and several piles of paper. This is The Book of Politics, described by creator Topher Campbell as the “photo-copying of people’s thoughts”. Passers-by create a page displaying their thoughts, in words, pictures or collage, on any issue concerning them. These will then be bound and sent to the “powers that be”, namely Number 10 and various government bodies. At the far end of the room there’s another odd piece of theatre going on, Story Map: What I Heard About the World, which consists of a large canvas littered with post-it notes representing countries. It’s an all-day drop-in performance which creates a map of the world from memory. Each country is accompanied by a story of a fake, replica or substitute, with contributions invited from the audience. Story Map is great fun to watch, and definitely worth revisiting throughout the day as the piece grows.
The evening saw a move to more traditional studio-bound pieces, beginning with The Tin Ring, an adaptation of Holocaust survivor Zdenka Fantlova’s book. This work in progress was simply but powerfully performed by Jane Arnfield. Traumatic and raw, this piece was a real challenge, presenting a tiny taste of the unbelievable horrors and suffering of this historical event. The evening also featured Simon Manyonda’s mesmerising performance in The Mamba, a piece telling the story of a Nairobi gangster. His life is radically altered by the hope and new respectability his football club inspires in him. Both of these pieces were all about the transformative power of stories. Perfectly in line with the ethos of Transform, I came away from The Tin Ring feeling quite different, certainly rather queasy, but convinced of the importance of remembering and preventing these kind of atrocities, while The Mamba’s hopeful ending seems to uplift, but also to question the notion of change, with its allusions to Obama’s dubious promises in The Mamba’s inspirational speech to his football club.
Theatre is dynamic, in all its forms. For a performance to be engaging it helps if something or someone changes, and it is generally accepted that theatre ought to move its audiences. In a sense Transform season has merely picked up on this obvious, although undeniably fundamental, theme. But it’s also extended the idea, asking and inviting us to ask questions, to really look at change and what that might mean for theatre, for audiences and participants. Transform is very much what you make of it; how much you chose to do, and how much you chose to give, is up to you. It’s a challenge, and a rare opportunity. Try it, get involved in changing theatre, and give WYP the chance to change you.
Transform season runs until Saturday 18th June at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. A full brochure can be found on the WYP website.