Blog: What should the regional theatre of the future be doing?
19th April 2011
Larger theatres have a duty to support innovation and cater for communities – and we at West Yorkshire Playhouse are no different blogs Ian Brown for The Guardian Theatre Blog.
In June the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I am artistic director, is presenting a season of work called Transform. Through it, we’re opening up our building to work that hasn’t before now had much of a place in our scheduling. We’re trying to become receptive to new possibilities. We’ve tried not to programme pieces of work that are finished and polished, or that will be complete once press night is over. Instead, we’re attempting to engage in a process of discovery – to experiment with what a 21st-century regional producing theatre can do to engage and intrigue audiences, and to respond to artists capable of bringing new perspectives to bear on what we do.
We’re also asking questions. Some examples: how does our rehearsal room work as a venue for Chris Goode’s innovative new durational work, Open House, which is being performed in one of our rehearsal spaces? Can we encourage 100 volunteers to perform in our theatre alongside artist Geraldine Pilgrim? What will happen to Tales from the Raun Tree by Dom Lawton, initially scratched at BAC in London, when it is given space to develop further in Leeds? How will audiences of a “traditional” regional producing house respond to this work? What new audiences might come through our doors in the process? And will anyone prove sufficiently uninhibited to perform karaoke in Quarantine’s The Soldier’s Song?
Even before all the recent talk of arts cuts and economies, we were thinking of how to share more of what we have at WYP. We’re living through a very interesting and creative period – something I think is largely to do with a growth in performing arts in schools, colleges and universities, which has enabled students to think very widely about the possibilities of performance. These young artists are entrepreneurial and imaginative and have seized opportunities to create and provoke. Surely it’s the job of an established theatre such as ours to harness and present some of their work.
With resources becoming scarcer, larger organisations have a duty to help smaller ones (though we’ve taken quite a hit too). We’re also trying to find out how best to make this happen. The curators of Transform, Alan Lane and Kully Thiarai, began by composing a series of questions and provocations to put to artists they hoped to involve in the season. The final ones are worth repeating here: “What is the transformational element in your project – for you, your audience, and the broader theatre ecology?” and “What challenges does your work provide for West Yorkshire Playhouse?”. The task is for artists to stretch both themselves and us. We’re all in this together, as David Cameron might say.
Currently, we’re talking to companies to thrash out the possibilities and practicalities. Space and money – and the lack of both – will have a bearing on what occurs in June, but perhaps with some imagination and goodwill we can use our combined resources and energies to create an environment to produce some really wonderful things.
It’s worth stressing that, even with all the cutbacks, theatre is still a vital part of many people’s lives. Audiences here and more generally have held up remarkably well during the recession. We’re not looking to alienate our existing audiences, and we’ll continue to produce the sort of high-quality theatre for which we are already celebrated. But I’m convinced that a greater diversity of programming in a theatre such as ours can encourage a greater range of people to venture through our doors. We have a duty to cater to as wide a cross-section of our communities as possible.
Our name states that we’re a playhouse, so let’s make this a house – a home – in which we give ourselves, our artists and our audiences a chance to play.