If there was one company you might expect to take theatre out of its safe traditional spaces playing to the usual suspects it would be radical mischief makers Red Ladder.
Since 1968 this decidedly left leaning company has created work that challenges the way we think about the world, so it’s no surprise they created Red Ladder Local.
Like all great ideas it is simple. Instead of just playing big theatres, Red Ladder and other companies take scaled down, but high-quality, productions to non-traditional venues like community centres, pubs and working men’s clubs.
It all started when Red Ladder’s producer Chris Lloyd went along to the then Yorkshire Playhouse to see a new short play called Playing The Joker, and he had a lightbulb moment which led years later to the creation of Red Ladder Local.
Our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke, who has been to see plenty of Red Ladder Local productions, talked to Chris Lloyd to find out how they developed this unique collective of off grid venues.
Playing The Joker was part of the Playhouse’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint series where you could watch a short play with a full tummy and a drink in your hand, so how did that lead to thinking we could tour this to new venues?
They did it in the foyer, they’d created this kind of weird tent, it was about a fictional day in the life of Eddie Waring, who was a kind of Yorkshire legend, but there were mixed emotions whether he’d sold out. There was a sense he was maybe a professional Yorkshireman. It was a short play, maybe 40 minutes, and I just thought it was a perfect vehicle to take round rugby league clubs.
And that night Leeds Rhinos Chief Executive Gary Hetherington was in the audience which was a stroke of luck.
I rang him up and said look if we did this again would you support it? He said they would host the opening performances if you like, and put us down as a partner. That helped towards Arts Council funding as they are partners from outside the industry, so I put a small bid in for some strategic tour funding.
So that bid was successful, what happened next?
We took this play round from Hull to Whitehaven and Workington on the west coast and did the rugby league heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire. It was great success with post-show Q and As, which often lasted longer than the play itself, as there was great thirst to talk about rugby league and Eddie Waring.
Controversially in 2015 you lost all your Arts Council National Portfolio funding which meant you had to find new ways to keep going, so did it seem natural to stay afloat by working in non-traditional venues?
We thought that there was a real thirst for taking theatre into rugby league clubs, which was welcomed and embraced, so we applied to the Arts Council for some strategic funding to broaden that network. So not just rugby league clubs, but sports clubs, working men’s clubs and community centres. We then toured Playing The Joker a few years later across a real range of venues from Wakefield to Barnsley on what was called the Northern Social Circuit back in 2017.
So, in a way losing your core funding almost forced you to rethink how you could get work out to people?
It came out of adversity, and it’s transformed how a lot of people see theatre. It busts the myth that theatre isn’t for the likes of us, but I think it compounds the myth that theatres aren’t for the likes of a lot of people. It’s not what you see when you are in the theatre, but the etiquette surrounding it, it’s the cost and quite often theatres are in urban centres so getting there and transport aren’t great, especially if it’s 10.30 at night. There was a great thirst to see theatre, but not necessarily in theatres.
So, what sort of venues are we looking at?
There’s a place in Belle Isle which is a community hub, so they do courses on computer literacy, guitar lessons, macramé and people gather there. With the loss of pubs these community centres have become more even important as cohesive spaces.
Then you had another stroke of luck when a pub conversation left you with the theatrical rights to a best-selling book.
One of the first productions we toured was The Damned United. When we lost our funding, we were incredibly fortunate I knew David Peace, who was the author of the factional book. We were sat in the pub, and he said would you like the rights to The Damned United to help you in your struggle.
And getting the right to put on stage Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 days as Leeds United manager was the real catalyst to create what we now think of Red Ladder Local.
We took those ideas, staged it at the Leeds Playhouse, and we applied to the Arts Council to turn that into a touring production. I had the notion that when we were touring to non-traditional venues the quality of the production would be exactly the same. Same writers, same performers, same production values in terms of light, sound, set, costumes. We have to compromise in places in terms of masking what the venue looks like. The idea is make it transformative, so it’s not the same as if you were coming to soft play, but not make it uncomfortable so it still feels like your manor, but it’s changed.
How that impacted on how Red Ladder create a show?
The set for The Damned United was designed so it was deliberately modular, so it looked fine at the Playhouse or Wakefield Theatre Royal, but it would work in a working men’s club or a community centre. The set might be slightly smaller, but it was the same set, projections and lighting. To us it was very important that it wasn’t a dumbed down or diluted version. It wasn’t a poor man’s option.
And do you think taking theatre to nearer where people live has an impact?
Wherever we perform we do bring a non-theatrical audience. One of the other motives in working in non-traditional space was a twofold thing. It was to generate different audiences to see our work and for people who like our work to see it in non-traditional space.
So, you think staging work in places off the beaten track can be a two way process?
The idea was to get 50% of the audiences from the venues themselves who already use the spaces to try something different, and the other half were people used to going to the theatre and were willing to try seeing theatre in a different space.
And what has the feedback been from the actors who are often performing in very intimate spaces.
The audience are sat two yards away from you, they can see every bead of sweat or spittle. It’s not like watching the telly, and things go wrong, although they rarely do. I remember Damned United at Featherstone, and there’s a bit where Brian Clough gets a call to tell him his mum’s died, and the phone didn’t ring. The actor was waiting for it to ring, and in the end he just had to busk it, he just said this should be ringing, and that doesn’t happen on the telly. That tension is always there with a live performance, and it’s electric at times.
And that creates a very different atmosphere in the room.
It feels probably the way theatre was 400 years ago as the relationship is there. When we play Belle Isle or Gipton the audience frame the piece and there is a different way of engaging with the work which is more personal. In a way it’s truer, you’re not on guard, so people can absolutely be themselves and react accordingly.
Wrongsemble are about to take The Not So Ugly Sisters out on a Red Ladder Local tour and to find out where go to http://www.redladder.co.uk/whats-on/current-shows/ or https://www.wrongsemble.com/the-not-so-ugly-sisters