A series of new plays about Yorkshire life across the decades, from the 1970s to the modern day, will mark the 50th anniversary of Leeds Playhouse this summer. Maxine Peake, Simon Armitage and Alice Nutter are among the playwrights who have been commissioned to write the short dramas, which will be staged in groups of three at the theatre and streamed online.
The Playhouse’s artistic director, James Brining, said: “We’re in our sixth decade now so we commissioned six writers to create monologues of 15-20 minutes each, all set in a different decade.” The pieces give a “northern perspective on how things have shifted over that time” he added.
Decades: Stories from the City begins with Armitage’s play The Bodyguard, directed by Brining, set in 1979 and following a 13-year-old teenager. Nutter has written a piece set in the 80s and Peake has written one for the 90s. The plays set in this millennium are by Leanna Benjamin, Kamal Kaan and Stan Owens.
“For quite a small idea it’s become a big project,” said Brining, who is looking forward to welcoming back audiences. The Playhouse reopened for a short period last autumn, which he said had stood them in good stead for this spring’s anniversary celebrations, also set to include an exhibition about the theatre’s history. “We had 3,500 people through the door in those five weeks [last year]. We got brilliant feedback – people said they felt safer in the theatre environment than in the supermarket. The notion of us reopening in May for the first time since March last year would have been very daunting.” The exhibition, he added, is “another way of encouraging people to come back into the theatre without necessarily having to see a show”.
After a 28-year spell as West Yorkshire Playhouse, the theatre reverted to its original name in 2018 and underwent a £16m redevelopment. Its new building had been open for just a few months before it closed because of the pandemic. The six Decades dramas are all written by playwrights with a connection to the region and the Playhouse. Nutter, a former member of the band Chumbawamba, took a writing course at the theatre which went on to commission her first play, Foxes, staged in 2006. The triumphant line from Chumbawamba’s single Tubthumping – “I get knocked down but I get up again” – is lit up in red neon on the new building. Nutter said she and her former bandmates are proud of it. “Most of us still live in the city – it does represent the resilience of people in Leeds.”
Nutter’s Decades play, Nicer Than Orange Squash, is inspired by her arrival in Leeds in the early 1980s and “the absolute idealism, excitement and madness” of when she lived in a squat. It was a vanished era when working-class people could more easily embark on careers in the arts, she suggested. “You could live on the dole and become a creative person. All that has completely gone. The arts are a much less egalitarian place.”
Over the past year the government had prioritised safeguarding the “major institutions” and “the establishment” in the arts during the pandemic, she said, rather than work that “came up from the ground and makes what is distinctive about Britain, from pop music to theatre”.
Her play will be directed by Evie Manning from the Common Wealth theatre collective which is based in Bradford and Cardiff. Nutter said they shared the same ethos: “You work in a gang with people. It’s collaborative, it’s not all about you – it’s what you make as a group.”
Decades opens on 19 May. Brining said that the early days of the theatre’s closure last March had been “incredibly intense” and there had been a “sense of an existential crisis: would we survive?” The announcement of the furlough scheme was a huge relief. “We’ve been beneficiaries of significant amounts of public funding to help us get through this period. Whatever one thinks of this particular government, I have to acknowledge that we’ve been really supported.” He added that the last year has underlined the precarious situation for the many freelancers in the arts. “As a sector, we have taken note of that. I’m not sure if the government has responded to that as well as they have to the threat to institutions.”
The theatre’s creative engagement programme became crucial during the pandemic, said Brining, as it reached out to vulnerable people in the city who experienced isolation and mental health difficulties. Theatres play an important civic role as spaces where “people from very different backgrounds can rub shoulders” and will play an important role in society’s recovery as we come out of lockdown, he suggested. “We encourage inclusivity, openness and diversity – we encourage people to come together, whether it’s for stories, participatory activities or a cup of tea.”