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'If regional theatres just do the same thing, they won't be here in 20 years.'

Paul Clarke talks to West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Amy Letman as their challenging 'Transform' season kicks off

Written by . Published on June 8th 2011.

'If regional theatres just do the same thing, they won't be here in 20 years.'

A NEW piece of exploratory and quite challenging theatre moves into the West Yorkshire Playhouse tonight.

Transform, curated by Alan Lane and Kully Thiarai, runs from June 6 – 18 and includes work from several artists, most of it interactive. The whole idea, according to WYP, is to investigate 'how theatre can be Transformative and the changing ways it engages with audiences.'

Paul Clarke caught up with the Playhouse’s new associate producer Amy Letman to talk about why Leeds should use it or lose it...

"If there aren’t people here then it can’t continue.  That’s not a threat but it’s a call to action."

So what was the genesis of Transform?
I only arrived at the Playhouse two months ago. They have a strategy over the next two years to try lots of different new things and I’m part of that.

I was freelance in London and New York then I came over to work in Leeds to work with lots of artists who were doing more experimental work and push the boundaries. I wanted to do it in Leeds and to do it at the Playhouse, which is probably traditionally considered a more classic venue.

So what can Leeds theatre fans expect?
(Creative director) Ian Brown wanted two curators to bring in a new perspective to some of the work and to challenge what we do.  So he invited Alan Lane who runs Slung Low and Kully Thiarai, who is a Leeds-based director and curator, to put together a programme which is Transform

It’s basically working with new artists doing new work and opening our space up to new possibilities. Testing what we imagine theatre to be and what the audience imagines theatre is. Testing their experiences when they enter the building we have installations you can walk into, suddenly you are somewhere and someone will sing you a song.

We have works that unfold over several days and rehearsal spaces. We have work that is devised that day and then presented in a new part of the building.  An installation artist has been commissioned to transform the front of our space into something quite extraordinary. 

At the end of the two weeks it will look completely different, all the furniture will be gone and there will be people swinging from the rafters.

Which artists should we look out for?
There’s just a brilliant show on every day; I’m so excited that some of these artists are coming to Leeds. So for the first time we have Dom Coyote, who is an artist from Kneehigh who is now coming to develop a piece here and then present it.

There is Imitating the Dog, a Leeds-based company, who are premiering their new show here.

Shared Experience are performing as is poet Lemn Sissay, who is obviously nationally and internationally renowned.  So it's jam packed with high calibre work and it’s happening here in Leeds. 

But I think it’s really important that people come to see it so it can keep happening.

Some of this work is challenging and different, so is it case of use it or lose it?
If there aren’t people here then it can’t continue. That’s not a threat but it’s a call to action.

Come on Leeds, you want this work, it’s on in London, it’s in Manchester, it should be here. You need to get down here and watch it so it can really thrive. 

So the artists will come back and say: ‘The Playhouse in Leeds…awesome audiences….gotta go back there’.  And if that happens then this will happen time after time in this building.

The Playhouse is also a business and it needs to generate income.  If they put Shakespeare on and get Maxine Peake in they know they will get a decent sized audience. But this is riskier so is it up to us to get behind it?
Exactly..that’s really it. If big regional theatres keep doing the classic tried and tested bums on seats works then I really believe in 20 years they won’t be here any more..there won’t be a need for them unless they doing rewarding work that is urgent and relevant and of its time, which is what Transform is. It’s really important and I trust the people will come along for the adventure and I know they will.

When I saw Transform was coming it seemed me to be an addition to the output not a substitute, so is there really a niche for this sort of work in Leeds?
The Playhouse are really committed to this kind of work and it’s not like everything we do is going, but this sort of work is here too so let’s support it.

It’s really difficult to pick a night during the two weeks but I suggest one show that will be really worth seeing is the Wau Wau Sisters’ Last Supper.

It’s been described as irreverent, sacrilegious foul-mouthed and uninhibited.  I feel this is really exciting for Leeds as it’s two incredible performers coming over from New York just for this gig.

They swing about from the ceiling…they get the audience involved as they recreate the Last Supper with tequila and champagne.  It’s just a great night starting at 9.15pm on Friday 17th June. 

It’s what theatre should be - everyone getting engaged and being shocked by something new.

People are very familiar with this space so will it look different?
It will look totally different, and if you come every day you will see it change. By the end of the season at our cabaret night, Smoke and Mirrors, you will see the whole space will look completely different and become a beautiful club, steam punk style.

Theatre snobs often think these small scale productions aren’t any good because you don’t have the big names and big production values…so is this a high quality season?
Alan Lane and Kully Thiarai, as directors and artists themselves, are the very top of their game creating some of the most exciting work of our time. They were the best people to design this programme.

So it is really the very best people doing the very best stuff….there’s no doubt about it.

The Playhouse has to be very careful with its programming, like all regional theatres, so how supportive have they been?
They have been absolutely behind it. What I would say is come to Transform and be the first to join the adventure. I am here after June and there many more exciting things planned, which I can’t talk about now. If you come and support Transform then it really is just the beginning.

Have you had good feedback on the programme?
It’s almost appealing to a new audience. It’s really two calls to action.

One, to the people who come and see shows already, this is for you too, and then to a new audience who might not have been here before. I’ve had a really good response from people who haven’t been here before and said: ‘This is great…it’s really exciting.’

Transform runs until Saturday 18 June and you can find out more and book tickets at www.wyp.org.uk.

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