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’s-on/2013/transform-my-leeds-my-city/.

Image 1: RashDash

Image 2: Ellie Harrison’s Ettiquette of Grief

Image 3: Alan Lane