Friday, December 3

Leeds Playhouse’s Rio Matchett talks about the return of their Furnace Festival after a two year break

There is always a joy in watching fully formed work, but there is equal satisfaction being able to watch artists develop new pieces, which is where a safe space like the Furnace Festival at Leeds Playhouse comes in.

Artists often talk about learning as much from failing as what works so Furnace offers them a year-round development programme which the Playhouse says is their development engine offering a place to play and learn as pieces come to life.

The Playhouse use their Furnace brand to describe all of the work they do to generate and create new performance work that supports the local creative community

Usually that work is showcased in an annual live programme where artists present their work in all sorts of stages of development but last year was cancelled for obvious reasons.  The artists have continued to work safely, but the virus forced a two year layoff for the live shows, and now Furnace Festival is back offering a glimpse of what local creatives have been up  to behind closed doors.

Our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke caught up with Rio Matchett who oversees Furnace to find out more about what we can expect from this year’s live festival which runs until Saturday 13th November.

Rio, give me a sense of how Furnace works?

We work across disciplines – writers, designers, dancers, technicians – you name it. Similarly, we work across all career stages so people who are just dipping their toes in for the first time, and want to try something out, right up to really established career professionals.

For artists who might be thinking about joining the programme just what level of commitment do you expect?

There’s a whole range of levels of commitment that people can opt for, so sometimes it’s a couple of hours drop-in workshop through to slightly longer residencies working on shows for a few months right up to residencies of one or two years. So, it’s a massive and varied engine.

It’s important a regional powerhouse like the Playhouse supports new artists, but surely there is an element of self-interest too as you must be looking for work that might appear on your bigger stages?

We have a really clear vision of the creative ecology at the Playhouse, one third of which is Furnace. So, we talk about our programming, the work on our stages and creative engagement work and then Furnace. Our ecosystem works at its best when all three of those things are in conversation with each other. We’re absolutely interested in finding that next hot thing, and that exciting artist, although we also spend a lot of time, energy and resources supporting work that goes on to other places. That’s very much part of our remit as an NPO supporting work even if it doesn’t necessarily sit best with us a performance.

It must be a real kickstart for new and emerging artists to be able to access the undoubted creative and technical firepower the Playhouse can deploy?

We really do see ourselves as custodians of this public resource and it is easy to forget when you’re on the inside. The privilege of working in my job is that I get to spend so much time with artists, so I’m constantly reminded of that fire and thirst for work. I’m privileged to be able to work in an organisation this size as it’s really about remembering this resource isn’t one that I own, or Leeds Playhouse owns.  Leeds Playhouse is a resource that belongs to the artists of Leeds.

What do you hope the artists and audiences will get out of Furnace?

Really for us it’s about getting those artistic communities back into the building, or even if not back into the building because we have made some of the events acceptable by Zoom for people who aren’t ready. And reconnecting with our bodies as theatre is such a physical embodied experience, it’s all about being in that room. I really believe that nothing quite hits the same as being in a room with a live performance.

The last couple of years have been tough for everyone so it must have been tempting for the artists working with you to just give up?

It’s partly about celebrating the perseverance of the artists over the last couple of years and the various artists that we have been able to continue to support through the pandemic. It’s also about kicking off those generous conversations again as there has been a lot of talk hasn’t there about building back better, and what are we going to do differently? I think Furnace will be an occasion when we get to really start putting those principles into practise, and bringing wider people into that conversation.

The mix of offerings at Furnace has always ranged from the embryonic right through to more realised pieces.  Last year’s live event was rightly cancelled so unusually some of the pieces we are seeing in 2021 are actually ready to tour.

Absolutely, so in particular How to Be a Better Human, which is Chris Singleton’s piece, and Me, Myself and Misha, which is a dance piece by Ana Silverio. They were actually both shared as scratch pieces as part of Furnace festival in 2019 offering their embryonic 10 minutes. Over the last 18 months we were trying to get artists in the building as much as we could safely, and they were both artists who came and had residencies and technical support in the building. They’ve now going to complete these pieces, and for them it’s a celebration of that perseverance over the last couple of years

I’ve seen Furnace pieces in all manner of odd spaces all over the Playhouse so having access to the intimate Bramhall Rock Void studio space must be an important development for the Furnace programme?

There’s something about the intimacy of that space that really engenders conversations, and that’s what Furnace is about somewhere you can really chew the fat. Some of the stuff we put out there maybe won’t work and that’s so useful to feel that out with a generous audience who are going to work through it. That so heavily informs how the work continues to develop, and I think there’s something quite raw about the space, so it feels like we’re all part of something.

So the audience can help create an atmosphere where artists can suss out what works and what doesn’t?

It absolutely is about creating a space that is safe to fail and I think the work that we’re interested in is stuff that is really challenging, that is exciting, whether that’s in terms of the content or the form, or the style. I don’t think you can discover that without taking some risks and taking risks that things will go wrong.

And maybe take some of the pressure off artists who are still finding their feet post pandemic?

The Playhouse has very broad shoulders and I like to think that’s part of what we can do for artists as there’s so much pressure on freelancers that every project has to be a success, and every idea has to develop. I hope what we can do through this sharing of our resources is just take a little bit of that pressure off. 

Furnace runs until Saturday 13th November. All the events are either free or pay-what-you-can. Go to to book.