Wednesday, December 2

Leeds Playhouse’s James Brining talks about staging work in a pandemic

Leeds Playhouse was one of the first big regional theatres to reopen their doors after lockdown offering some short works in partnership with Opera North and now they’re back with a more expansive winter season.

The team used that short Connecting Voice season to test their safety measures which included temperature checks and rigorous social distancing in the spaces. The fact it was both safe and pretty much sold out made Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining even more determined to offer a bigger winter season to resume playing an active role in the city’s life during this pandemic.

“Ultimately the way I feel is we get public money, and are here to give people in the city for lots of different reasons a focus, and some way of connecting and exploring the human predicament,” says James. “And to just close the doors and kind of sit tight as it were from March right away through to potentially next March just feels disastrous to me

“In a way that was letting down our audiences and communities. Partly it’s also because what do we do with our staff, and all our freelance teams that we work with, we say to them there’s no work to do. So it felt important to explore how we might be able to be open in a safe way when that was possible.”

Brining’s tenure at the Playhouse has seen them completely refurbish the venue to make it more accessible, and he has built strong relationships with other local companies, which he was able to call on to spread the risk in these uncertain times for all creatives.

“I think it’s because we are working in partnership particularly with local organisations, big and small, so right back to early March we were talking to Opera North, to Northern Ballet, Red Ladder Wrongsemble and Riptide. Actually, if it was just the Playhouse we wouldn’t be able to put a season of work together as the risk would be too high, the potential for losing too much money would be too high.

“Hopefully we can provide those companies with opportunities to perform with their teams, their staff and their freelancers. That’s how we’ve managed to put together a series of work which is actually quite big in some respects, I think there are 120 performances in this three-month block of time.”

There was another nice surprise when London’s Bridge Theatre made an unexpected call to offer a transfer of their hugely successful Talking Heads season.  The result is that big hitters Imelda Staunton, Maxine Peake and Tamsin Grieg will perform during the season, and the Playhouse’s now traditional blockbuster is back with a revival of A Christmas Carol.

“The Bridge got in touch to see if we were interested in talking to the actors about bringing some of the Talking Heads and, of course, we were as it’s Alan Bennett. Even though that’s not a Leeds company it’s a Leeds writer whose voice is being showcased,” notes James who clearly snapped their hands off.

“We’ve pieced together a combination of visiting work, working in partnership, but also work that we’re creating particularly looking towards the Christmas period where we’ve got A Christmas Carol.  Who knows we may not be allowed to be open by then, so there’s a risk around that show, but in any case we’re also creating a show that will be back of a truck which is going out around the city. That feels really important as there’s lots of people who aren’t, or won’t, feel comfortable coming into the city centre.”

Brining is clear that safety of customers, staff and backstage worker is his number one priority, and he wouldn’t be going ahead if he wasn’t satisfied they had put in the appropriate measures. Most of the works have small casts, but A Christmas Carol director Amy Leach is already using the learning  from the Connecting Voices to work out how to keep her bigger group of actors and creatives safe through their run in the Quarry.

“The safety thing is something that overarches all of this and that’s been a real stretch for the theatre in terms of our staff, backstage and front of house, and how to keep people safe,” notes Brining as he thinks about a period that is unprecedented during his long career. 

“We deliberately designed Connecting Voices so as to help build a far greater organisational capacity for moving people around comfortably and safely. The backstage is actually quite daunting and Amy’s having to face this in terms of the design and reconceptualisation of Christmas Carol.

“A friend of mine who has just done a season of Jesus Christ Superstar told me that the choreography backstage took longer than the choreography onstage, so the path of every actor when they leave the stage, where the props go,  where the stage management will be are as carefully choreographed as it was in front of the audience.”

No-one is pretending this season is anything like a full return but it’s a bold statement of solidarity for theatre lovers and communities living in Tier 2. Despite all the challenges Brining thinks it is worth it.

“I can see why some people might just go it’s too much trouble, or you can’t make enough money, but from our point of view this season of work is designed to basically try and break even, wash its face, We’re a registered charity, we’re not here to make a profit, we’re here to not lose money

“We’re here to provide employment opportunities. and as the nights draw in people’s mental health, people sense of connection, sociability is going to get more and more challenged in these circumstances.

“I think it’s really important that we are there to enable people to have some kind of safe outlet, and the feedback we’ve had pretty much universally from people who been into the theatre is they feel very safe and they feel very secure.”

Anyone who went to Connecting Voices knows that the Playhouse staff were completely committed to the safety of everyone in the building. and the audiences were only too happy to comply to get their fix of live work. But what the Playhouse are really trying to do with this season is hope which theatre at its best is uniquely placed to offer even in the most troubled of times.

To book tickets go to www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk or box office 0113 2137700

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