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An Underground Theatre, a Dead Body and a New City Centre Park – The £15.8 Million Refurbishment of Leeds Playhouse is Moving Apace

· James Tweddle · Culture

Quarry Hill’s arts hotspot is ready to fulfil its true potential.

Leeds Playhouse

Leeds Playhouse is undergoing a multi-million-pound refurbishment, but what does it mean to you and me?

For nearly 30 years, West Yorkshire Playhouse has regaled the crowds with original productions, made right here in Leeds. From Shakespearean plays to critically-acclaimed ballets, family-friendly shows and hit musicals, they’ve earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the best producing theatres in the country. But while their work has moved with the times, the theatre itself has not, so now they’re starting a new chapter as Leeds Playhouse with a £15.8 million regeneration project.

A Christmas Carol

Credit: Andrew Billington

“The Playhouse opened on its current site in 1990, and over the course of the last 28 years, it’s seen very little investment in its fabric and infrastructure,” Robin Hawkes, Executive Director and Joint Chief Executive of the Playhouse, told us. “Parts of the building are looking very tired and unloved, they’re not in keeping with the contemporary feel of the rest of the city centre. We really hope the new building will make it really obvious that there’s something creative and exciting going on inside!”

The multi-million-pound development wouldn’t have been possible without the help of their partners. Arts Council England stumped up £6.5 million, Leeds City Council added another £5 million to the pot and The Liz & Terry Bramall Foundation kindly donated £1 million to the project, so when Irwin Mitchell, SOYO and Moda came on board as Principal Capital Partners, they were able to start work on an ambitious programme of improvements, designed to turn the theatre into a beacon of artistic excellence for decades to come.

For the first time ever, Leeds Playhouse will have an outward facing entrance. “It was an accident of history that the building was designed to face that direction and maybe when it was designed that made sense in a way that it doesn’t now, because actually in 1990 the Playhouse was in a state of splendid isolation on Quarry Hill and there wasn’t very much going on around it, so it made sense to face out in to the car park. Today more people are coming to us on foot from the train station, so it’s really important for us to make it easy for people to get into the building from that side.”

Leeds Playhouse

The new entrance will make the Playhouse more open and accessible, but it will also transform the dated architecture into a modern marvel. The fortress-like brick facade that faces us now will be replaced with a wall of glass, as windows stretch from the floor to the ceiling. But they’ll be broken up with panels of colourful ceramic tiles from a local factory, in a nod to the beautiful tiles found in Leeds’ old Victorian architecture.

It’s a statement design worthy of one of the city’s finest cultural attractions – and as they upgrade the entrance, they’ll also renovate the theatre itself. The plan is to improve accessibility, so everyone can enjoy their shows, and build a new coffee shop, restaurant and bar to tempt people in.

But the most exciting change is taking place inside the playhouse building itself because they’re creating a brand new theatre. Named the Bramall Rock Void, this intimate space is being dug out of the building’s foundations and is set to seat 100 people. Found in the undercroft, it will have a totally different feel to the Quarry and Courtyard Theatres, with the opportunity for a more raw and unfiltered experience. It’s an exciting new addition, but one that has uncovered a few surprises along the way – including a dead body.

Road

Credit: Kirsten McTernan

“It was a bit of a surprise”, Hawkes admitted. “It turns out the area where we were digging was actually a graveyard back in the Victorian era, which should have been long gone. The team were busy digging away and one of them spotted something a bit unusual, and it turned out to be a skull. The police were called but quickly realised whatever was there was old enough not to be of interest to them. Since then we’ve had archaeologists on site to make sure everything’s properly excavated and exhumed. All the remains they have found are going to be transferred to the Leeds City Museum for research purposes.”

They may have hit a few stumbling blocks along the way, but work is moving apace and the newly renovated theatre is due to open in autumn 2019, at the same time as the new Leeds City College Campus next door. The two couldn’t be better placed, as one trains the next generation and the other nurtures new talent. And it gets better, because Leeds City Council has promised to develop the slice of wasteland between the two buildings into a brand new city centre park.

On the surface, this is just a long overdue renovation project, but when you look at the bigger picture, you’ll soon realise that it’s much more than that. It’s an investment in the city’s cultural scene, a vote of confidence that will help to bolster our reputation and cement our place as one of the most exciting and culturally diverse cities in the North, so we can’t wait for their shiny new theatre to be unveiled. And in the meanwhile, we can continue to watch their groundbreaking work (including their Northern take on A Christmas Carol) at their Pop-Up theatre on the grounds.