Photo credit: Farrow Creatives
Being out in the communities around the city is absolutely fundamental to what the Playhouse is about for me. It’s important because I believe we have a responsibility to give as many people as possible the opportunity to experience what we do, whether that’s the shows we make or the participatory projects we create.
We need to be pro-active, to go into different communities and environments so that people can experience this on home turf as well as here at the Playhouse. I recognise that theatre buildings can be off-putting, that tangible and intangible barriers exist which prevent people from coming to experience our work where we create it. But it’s not just about our responsibility to make our work accessible, I also love the atmosphere and environment that this approach generates in the venues we visit.
I began my career touring shows out of the back of a transit in Tyneside. I spent five years making work in Southern England on the rural touring circuit. I made theatre for venues large and small, as well as in schools and found spaces as Artistic Director of TAG based in Glasgow. All of these different opportunities have instilled in me the belief that great work happens in non-conventional spaces, that the contract between actors and audience is a different and very often a rich and satisfying one when the company is in the audience’s comfort zone, rather than the other way round.
We took this to an extreme last year with our first community production, Talking Heads, by playing three shows in the living rooms of three Leeds residents. I’ve rarely experienced the intensity and excitement that those performances generated. Talking Heads was a good way to launch the scheme.
The show was part of a bigger event, celebrating the work of Leeds writer, Alan Bennett, and it is crucial to me that the work we take out to communities is of the same quality as that which takes place in the Playhouse. All our community shows will be performed at the Playhouse. The only difference is that the tickets are a fraction of the cost of the same show presented at the theatre. I was keen to direct the first community production in order to demonstrate that even though the income target might be lower and the audience smaller, the work is of the same importance to us wherever it may be performed. We made great headway last year and the Community Ambassadors, who were recruited when we established the scheme told us there was an appetite for a show aimed at younger audiences.
We responded by creating Little Sure Shot, which has proved extremely popular with audiences all around the city. The show, directed by Amy Leach reminds me of the work by companies like 7:84 in Scotland, who in their heyday took shows with music to village halls and community centres the length and breadth of Scotland. Little Sure Shot celebrates a feisty heroine who battled against stereotyping and prejudice, all to a brilliant country and western inspired soundtrack with really open and generous acting performances.
The experiences we’ve had of visiting our community venues has been really, really positive. People are welcoming, hugely excited about us being there. It’s exciting for the performers as well to go into those environments and receive such a warm reaction. It’s fundamentally different to just playing in your own territory.
We’re also interested in a long-term relationship with these communities, developing relationships with individuals within areas who can connect us up with other people. We have encouraged hundreds of people to come and see shows at the Playhouse for heavily discounted process, broadening the audience we are serving within the city. We’re also opening up our talent development programme and arts development activity in these areas, so it’s really rooting us in the city, particularly in areas of the city from where we tend not to draw our audiences.
Theatre is perceived by some as something which is for certain kinds of people. I don’t accept that as being a fait accompli. At West Yorkshire Playhouse we engage with all sorts of people in many different ways which contradicts that cliché. But it’s also fair to say that we take our responsibility to enable people to be touched by what we do seriously and being pro-active through this Community Engagement scheme is one important way of addressing that responsibility.
Find out more about the West Yorkshire Playhouse on their website.