This year continues to be incredibly challenging for everyone, and art is just one of the many industries that have been badly affected by COVID-19.
Leeds Playhouse has been welcoming audiences for 50 years, and as a registered charity the theatre creates pioneering and inspirational work in the heart of Yorkshire. As proud supporters of their Access Partnership, we get front row seats to see the positive impact it has on the local community and the opportunities it provides to people with disabilities.
The historic venue recently underwent a £16 million transformation which includes improved access to and around the theatre which was meant to lead to sell-out crowds – instead they’ve had to cope with six months of empty seats due to the on-going pandemic.
Outside Leeds Playhouse there’s a bright sign that reads "I get knocked down but I get up again" – and it’s never been more appropriate than in these times. This article looks at how the charity has coped since March, has a chat with their hard-working team and looks at how performances are finally coming back to the Playhouse.
A bit of background
Our relationship with the Playhouse began informally when we arranged a successful trip for about 30 disabled children, their siblings, parents and staff to attend a Christmas show.
This developed into a formal Access Partnership, which has grown from strength to strength over the past 11 years. Our partnership has led to more than 500 accessible performances, including the Playhouse’s pioneering development of Relaxed and Dementia Friendly shows which are now nationally recognised.
This video, filmed earlier this year, takes a look at our proud partnership and what makes the Playhouse so special:
Back in 2017, we were named the first Principal Capital Partner in support of the theatre’s major capital redevelopment. This early commitment to the project contributed towards £2.75m fundraising target, and confirmed our support of the Playhouse for the next five years.
We were delighted to see their commitment to vastly improving access and they delivered on their promise with level access in the auditoriums, improved lifts to navigate throughout the building and more central locations within all the theatres for wheelchair users.
Sadly, due to COVID-19, many people are still waiting to experience the inclusive and incredible facilities but not even a pandemic can stop the Playhouse making a positive difference.
A quick chat with the team
The Playhouse team took time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their experiences during the pandemic, and how it feels to be putting on performances again.
The performing arts were one of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic. How has the closure of Leeds Playhouse affected performers, staff and the community?
We had to close our doors in mid-March, cancelling and postponing all shows and engagement activity. This was particularly hard as we'd only recently re-opened in October 2019 after an 18-month major redevelopment.
Over 90% of our staff have been furloughed as part of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, leaving only a small team to deliver our current work. This has helped us to reduce outgoings to secure our future. We knew we must ensure that the Playhouse, set up by the people of Leeds for the people of Leeds, which is also a charity (255460), continues to be a shining light of community and hope, ready and able to open again as the restrictions are lifted.
We wanted to emerge from this situation having been useful to and supportive of the most vulnerable of our communities through these difficult times, and to be ready and able to continue to produce vital theatre for the people of Leeds and the surrounding regions. Which is why we've continued to engage with artists, participants and audiences about plans for the future.
The Playhouse is a theatre famously created by the people of Leeds – how have you been able to stay connected during lockdown?
When theatres closed due to the pandemic, our purpose was clear – to connect with people and challenge isolation. Our main priority was our Creative Engagement community work with existing and potential new participants who were isolated during this time.
We launched PLAYHOUSE CONNECT during lockdown, which evolved into a series of dynamic, online projects that engaged over 4,000 people in Leeds from April to August 2020. Some of these projects were for people due to perform at the theatre, some were for entirely new people, and some were existing partnerships brought to the forefront.
This work resulted in various creative outputs and delivered real positivity in the face of adversity. Activities have included the delivery of over 200 lockdown creative craft activities and interactive storytelling videos for our female refugee Asmarina Voice choir to share with their children. We've also run regular Zoom sessions, sent resources to People Living with Dementia plus video resources sent to partner schools and over 100 calls to participants.
This has culminated in PLAYHOUSE CONNECT: A DIGITAL SHOWCASE which showcases all of this incredible work that has been co-created with our staff, freelance artists and the project participants and all have their roots in what the individuals want to say about themselves, their experiences and the world at large – to celebrate, challenge and inspire.
Photo credit: Anthony Robling
We're so thrilled you've been able to re-open your doors. What measures do you have in place to keep everyone safe?
Following detailed planning in line with government guidelines, culminating in a successful trial event, a range of safety measures have been introduced. These include socially-distanced seating, e-tickets, deep cleaning, staggered entry times to reduce queues, temperature checks, a face covering policy, and sanitising stations throughout the building, which benefits from newly redeveloped large and airy foyers, and a newly installed state-of-the-art ventilation system.
We remain committed to making sure the Playhouse is accessible to everyone, along with our support from Irwin Mitchell as Access Partners. Audiences can tell us about access needs when booking via the
Priority Access Scheme and if anyone needs support with this. please get in touch with Box Office.
You're generously providing free tickets to NHS staff this Christmas. What does supporting our key workers mean to you?
Our key workers, and especially those working for the NHS, worked tirelessly throughout the first wave of the pandemic and are now preparing for another wave. Selflessness, bravery and kindness, are just some of the wonderful qualities demonstrated by so many within the NHS, qualities which the nation came together to acknowledge and celebrate throughout lockdown. It feels totally appropriate now, and in fact it’s a real pleasure to make this gesture in order to show our appreciation, both on behalf of the Playhouse but also on behalf of our audiences.
Can you give us a sneak peak in to any upcoming performances or events you have planned for 2021?
We’ve just launched the Autumn/Winter 20 season. We’re now turning our focus on Spring 2021 and beyond – details will be released in the next few months.
What it means to be part of the Playhouse
Artistic Director James Brining shared his thoughts on what being part of the Leeds Playhouse means to him personally.
James said: “I love being part of the Playhouse. I’m part of a community of brilliant people who are all quite different, but united in their love of making fantastic theatre, connecting with people to develop them and their life chances, and creating opportunities for people to express themselves through our art form in new and interesting ways.
"But the Playhouse is more than the people who work there all the time. We’re also a hub for hundreds of artists and theatre workers, many of them local, other from elsewhere in the UK or abroad, which makes my job constantly interesting and stimulating. Moreover, the audiences, participants young and old, business, civic leaders and community leaders with whom I have regular contact makes it feel like the Playhouse is the crossroads at the heart of the city.
"Being Artistic Director of this theatre is a huge privilege and one I relish every single day."
The show must go on
During these unprecedented times, Leeds Playhouse has continued to communicate with the wider community through PLAYHOUSE CONNECT. They’ve engaged with more than 4,000 people through direct contact, online activity and regular newsletters – but they’ve longed for the chance to perform in front of a crowd again.
Understandably, they’ve taken their time to ensure the safety of all their staff, artists and audiences but following on from their pilot events at the end of September they have re-opened for performances.
They're are taking it steady, one show at a time, and will be checking the latest government guidelines on a daily basis. Ongoing social distancing restrictions still apply to the actors, dancers, musicians and backstage staff and audiences will be required to wear face coverings at all times.
The team at the Playhouse won’t be happy until they can welcome everyone back but we all have to start somewhere during this new normal.
You can find out more about the Leeds Playhouse and see what’s on in October
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