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Behind the Scenes at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Transform 13

Posted on 18 April 2013 by Laura Turner

SONY DSCWest Yorkshire Playhouse’s season of new work, Transform, is back this year to question what makes great theatre. Subtitled ‘My City, My Leeds’ the project is getting personal to celebrate its roots with performances popping up in unusual spaces across the city, from shopping centres to high rise towers.

I spoke to three of the many artists involved about what they’re bringing to this year’s festival. Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland of RashDash Theatre were first involved with Transform in 2012 and this year return as an associate company hosting a scratch night for local artists; Alan Lane from Slung Low tells us how his company has been part of Transform as it’s developed over the years; and first-time Transformer Ellie Harrison reveals more about her collaborative, site-based performances, which have taken place in domestic gardens, pubs, clothes shops, derelict churches and roads as well as more conventional theatre spaces…

What kind of work are you creating for the festival?

RashDash: There’ll be some kind of performance element to us hosting the scratch – we’re not sure what yet but it will involve music, song and some weird and wonderful costumes… maybe. We’ll be meeting up with various local artists throughout the week and getting to know them and their work a bit better.

Alan Lane: We are making a show, The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show, about Dave Toole, a dancer, and Johnny Eck, the legless Hollywood star of the 1930s. It’s outside in the tilt yard of the Royal Armouries, where they do the jousting. Audiences will sit outside and hear the show through headphones. It’s going to be quite circus-y. Hopefully quite fun. Certainly epic. It, alongside the talents of Dave Toole, features the Oldest Woman in the World and a performance by Ballerina and the Tiny Tiger. Who is a Tiny Tiger.

Ellie Harrison: The Rage Receptacle is an installation for public spaces. For the past three years I’ve been making a sequence of seven projects called The Grief Series. Each part of the series corresponds to a phase of a seven stage grief model. The Rage Receptacle is Part 4 and deals with Anger. Whilst all the projects combine to make the series, each piece very much works on its own. For each part of the series I collaborate with a different artist working in different disciplines. The Rage Receptacle is made in collaboration with sculptor Paula Chambers and architectural designer Bethany Wells. It’s a question of thinking about how an audience move around the space. What they might like to discover and what they might find challenging. It’s also been a process of mining the complex meanings of everyday items. Can the objects we interact with everyday be transformed into sculptures and take on new meanings?

Are there artists or companies who have inspired your practice?

RD: Physically – companies like dot504, rootless root, Gecko and Do Theatre. Music wise – cabaret artists like Meow Meow, Amanda Palmer, and world music with eastern scales, epic harmonies and lots of big drumming.

AL: Dave Toole has inspired my practice, really, Google him now – he’s extraordinary. I was very inspired by the opening of last year’s Paralympics and the work of the directors Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings. And beyond that Robert Le Page, Robbie Williams and Amy Letman [curator of Transform].

EH: Bobby Baker’s playful approach to difficult topics has had a huge impact on my work. Whilst The Grief Series talks about difficult things, it does so in an accessible and playful way. Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Dellers’s work has been a huge inspiration for this project, combining contemporary art with an openness and warmth.

Etiquette of Grief Landscape 1What does theatre mean to you?

RD: An experience that’s live, transient and unrepeatable. When it’s at its best it moves you deeply and lingers in your head. Something that speaks to your body as well as your brain – your whole being. Something that speaks about the world we live in now.

AL: Coming together with your fellow man to try and further understand the relentless joy and misery of being alive in this moment right now. Also blowing stuff up and playing music at the right moment so that people feel proper sad.

EH: Oddly enough it’s not a word I use all that often. There is such a wealth of different performance practices, some of which can be housed within a theatre building and some of which can’t and shouldn’t be because it would rob the work of what makes it wonderful. I think the key is to see a greater level of communication between people making different kinds of performance, from plays to performance art. I hope that Transform Festival is helping to bring these different people together and that audiences will see something they might not have tried before.

What’s it like taking inspiration from a city when creating new work?

RD: Because Leeds is the city we’re based in and have lived in for years, she is always part of process in some way. It’s not as explicit as thinking about Leeds and then making a show. We feel like our identity as a company is wrapped up in the experience, sights and smells of Leeds.

The scratch will take place in the front of house space, or – The Playground – as it’s being known for Transform. There’s no captive audience and hopefully the bar will be busy and buzzing. Its not an an usual space for performance, but a different kind of audience and atmosphere to tackle.

AL: Every city is different so we spend a lot of time working out the best type of show for that particular city. We are lucky that Leeds is our home city, we’ve wanted to make this type of show here for a while. Leeds is going through a real boost at the moment – Trinity Shopping Centre opened recently to much national applause, the City Council is much more robust and confident than similar city councils – but it still has issues reconciling this bright future with its past. That’s very interesting to explore.

EH: I think it’s something I always do and as I live in Leeds, it is often this city
that informs the work I make. Bethany [Wells] remarked that what we have made draws on Leeds as a landscape in quite a nuanced way and actually, perhaps the fact that I live here makes me less sensitive to that. I have a huge amount of civic pride for Leeds given that I grew up down south and now I can’t imagine moving anywhere else. Without clinging to the cliché that people are friendlier up north, there is an honesty and pragmatism here, whether people are being nice or not and I really value that.

photoWhat can audiences expect from your performance?

RD: A trio of weird women playing some fun tunes… But we’re making it all this week so it’s as much a mystery to us as yet…

AL: A Freak Show gone wrong. A tribute gone wrong. And hopefully by the end they’ll know who Dave Toole and Johnny Eck are and why they are important.

EH: That sense of the live, of sharing space and time with the performer and the rest of the crowd is something film and television just can’t compete with. For this reason I’m interested in how theatre can make ‘liveness’ central to the experience in the way that football and live music does.

A moment of quiet self reflection as a break from the bustle of the city. But different audiences will have different expectations. There will be people who have seen the work in the brochure or are familiar with The Grief Series and they will have a completely different set of expectations to an accidental audience who just happen across it on the street. I hope it will be some people’s first experience of installation, whether they are young children, people who might not experience arts activity, or seasoned theatre goers who are feeling adventurous and want to try something new.

For details of all three performances and the rest of the Transform programme – and to buy tickets – visit http://www.wyp.org.uk/what’s-on/2013/transform-my-leeds-my-city/.

Image 1: RashDash

Image 2: Ellie Harrison’s Ettiquette of Grief

Image 3: Alan Lane

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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Behind the Scenes: TRANSFORM 12

Posted on 21 April 2012 by Jessica Wilson

TRANSFORM 12 is the second festival to be produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse aiming to make extraordinary work with artists who urge audiences to think differently, not only about theatre making but also about life. Over two weekends in April (19-22 and 26-28) Leeds will play host to one of the UK’s newest theatre festivals, incorporating work by theatre makers from West Yorkshire and beyond in a playful festival.

The first TRANSFORM festival in 2011 developed relationships with artists who work in diverse ways. This year’s festival aims to sustain and build upon these collaborations, as well as creating new ones with the artists programmed for TRANSFORM 12. Associate Producer Amy Letman maintains that regional producing houses, such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse, are a dying breed, so she aims to emphasise the Playhouse’s presence as a producing theatre, programming unique work through TRANSFORM 12. A number of collaborations are taking place with many different artists, highlighting their work through the association with a regional producing house.

The programme of work has stimulated numerous events for audiences to engage with throughout the theatre space, giving those who will attend a role in making the festival what it is. Letman talks of the adventure of reinventing the West Yorkshire Playhouse through the sheer variety of theatre makers programmed to present their work and provide spectators with new experiences. The Playhouse’s ethos is one of community engagement with the local population; consequently TRANSFORM 12 can be seen as a reflection of the Playhouse itself as it looks to programme novel work through its relationships with theatre makers across the country.

In championing the festival, Letman focuses on one invitation specifically: Chris Goode & Company. Following the creation of Open House last year for TRANSFORM 2011, Chris Goode & Company has been commissioned to create and develop a new piece of work especially for the festival. As a continuation of this relationship with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, TRANSFORM 12 will see Chris Goode & Company present 9 featuring local participants from across Yorkshire, taking a leap into the unknown to perform on the Courtyard stage. Working closely with directors Chris Goode, Kirsty Housley and Jamie Wood, alongside designers and the Playhouse’s technical teams, nine non-performers with little or no theatrical experience have created nine highly personal, expressive solo performance portraits. This collaboration between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Chris Goode & Company is one which Letman clearly cherishes, combining the new and experimental with tradition and stature.

Chris Goode & Company received 120 applicants for the creation of 9, invited 56 to audition and eventually selected the final participants to collaborate with. After three months of creative process, 9 illustrates the transformative potential of theatre for participants and audiences alike. The journeys of nine regular people culminate in one show. In this piece, the traditional finished product joins with the ethos of Chris Goode & Company, which relishes the theatrical abandonment of the company and genuine collaboration with the nine would-be artists. Letman asserts that maintaining relationships of this kind is vital for the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s future as a successful and daring producing house – in terms of regional theatre – for the arts sector.

The “Company” part of the Chris Goode title refers to whoever the company works with, which, by extension, includes the audience and whoever is involved in the theatre making at that particular moment in time. Chris Goode & Company aims to reach out to as many people as it can, creating relationships to give its work a sense of transformation and renewal; a microcosm of the spirit of TRANSFORM 12. The festival is therefore part of a process of change for the Playhouse and other regional theatres, encouraging them to embrace alternative work, thereby increasing their “mainstream” capacity. Audiences are able to try the new experiences provided for them by TRANSFORM 12 and other experimental festivals like it, with so many meaningful pieces on offer across the two weekends. Letman describes the sheer variety of work which will be part of the festival, such as that which is still being developed, finished productions, and even those where TRANSFORM 12 will be the only opportunity for the audience to see them.

Alongside commissioned pieces of performance sits a festival programme brimming with energetic work by some of the UK’s most original and inventive theatre artists. For Letman, the Playhouse has been seen to marry the flinging open of its doors with the crafted, finished pieces it is recognised for, now strengthening its relationships with theatre makers and continuing to create new experiences for audiences. The traditions of the Playhouse have been revitalised through both TRANSFORM festivals, taking over the West Yorkshire Playhouse as a progression of the exciting foundations laid by TRANSFORM of 2011. As for 2013, watch this space.

TRANSFORM 12 is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this weekend and next. For more details and to book tickets, visit the theatre’s website.

For an exclusive look at what TRANSFORM has to offer, visit www.youtube.com/user/WYPlayhouse to watch videos of the making of some of the shows, and the programme’s trailer.

Image credit: 12 Proposals for a Better Europe, Nicolai Khalezin and Chris Thorpe

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Feature: Transform your theatrical experience at WYP

Posted on 01 June 2011 by Alice Longhurst

Photo: Sheila Burnett

One of the few constants in this world is that it always seems to be changing. That’s certainly the case at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse this June where the Transform season will mark a complete departure from the ‘normal’ workings of the theatre. According to Associate Producer Amy Letman, Transform’s Curators Alan Lane and Kully Thiarai are creating “the first line in a conversation”, inspired by the changing nature of the theatre experience and the shifting boundaries of what it means to be a spectator. Everyone’s invited to join the discussion.

The big idea is to bring together new audiences and a wonderfully diverse and eclectic selection of artists to challenge how we relate to performance. The programme looks enticing, boasting pieces as different as The Soldier’s Song, an intimate screen karaoke encounter; 21 Writers, showcasing three-minute shorts from new writers who have taken the Playhouse’s free five-week course; and Open House, a piece that will be developed over a week in a collaboration between theatre-goers and a team of theatre-makers headed by Chris Goode. Letman promises there’ll be a real mix of pieces, from both established hands such as Goode and younger, less experienced theatre-makers.

It’s not only the nature of performance that will find itself all shook up. Installation artist Shanaz Gulzar is colonising the front of house space in Steamline 21, an intriguing mix of Steampunk (described in the programme as science-fiction inspired by Victorian technology) and Art Deco. She’s creating a setting in WYP’s café and bar for the grand finale, Smoke and Mirrors, a modern cabaret evening which will bring Transform to an exuberant close on the 18th of June. Including magic from Tim Sutton, performances from burlesque dancers The Wau Wau Sisters, Flick Ferdinando’s dark comedy Horse and surprise acts to be announced on the night, this “sexy, splendid and ever so slightly scandalous” finale sounds like a suitably unusual end to a season of change. Fancy dress is actively encouraged.

Transform is going to be big on interactive theatre. The idea is that you buy a wristband and this gets you a whole day out at the theatre -  a WYP “experience day”. Opportunities range from adding your thoughts to The Book of Politics, which will then be sent to ‘the powers that be’; to a one-on-one live music performance in the world’s smallest venue, Folk in a Box; and Story Map: What I Heard About the World which invites theatre-goers to help “map the entire world, alphabetically, in a day”. On the 11th of June participation goes global with A Midsummer Night’s Stream. The events at WYP will be shared live through Pilot Theatre’s online streaming channel, allowing anyone, wherever they are, to get involved and interact.

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in performance, too. Geraldine Pilgrim, Artistic Director of Corridor, is seeking “anybody that likes to dance – or just move” for Handbag, which will set the people of Leeds jiving around their bags. And Peepolykus is creating a different science-inspired piece each day for The Ionian Enchantment, performed, directed and written by anyone who is game enough to have a go. Interested individuals just have to send in a CV and are invited to attend a free workshop led by Stephen Canny, BBC Four’s Comedy Executive.

There’s a real youthful vibe to Transform. There is a sense that something is really happening here, something new and different for the Playhouse, something which feels genuinely exciting. Plus it seems Transform is just the beginning for innovation at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Set to launch in October, Leeds Furnace will see the Playhouse working with up-coming and mid-career theatre creators to launch new pieces, perhaps marking the continuation of the conversation Transform has started.

It’s certainly a necessary conversation. The arts are changing; what it means to be an audience is shifting. Going to the theatre is no longer just about taking your seat and passively observing, nor should it be. Transform promises to investigate what it is we actually want from a performance, how we can change the very nature of theatre. It’s a noble and worthy proposal, focusing on issues that really matter, and it will be interesting to see just what the ensuing discussions reveal.

The Transform season runs from the 6th to the 18th June at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Wristbands cost £15 (£10 concessions).

Main Image: Bourgeois & Maurice by Tom Jef

Alice Longhurst

Alice Longhurst

Alice studies Liberal Arts at Kings College London with a focus on literature, history and Spanish. She has notions of entering the vicious world of journalism when her heady university days are over, although she would much rather prefer to find a way to make ends meet as an arts critic and writer of fiction.

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