Someone once told me that the physical shape of a theatre building reflects the work that happens in it and the people who engage with it.
If you applied that idea to West Yorkshire Playhouse where I work, you might say that the enormous size of our building reflects the breadth of the work that we create and programme. You could say that the fact that the Playhouse looks a bit like a community swimming pool or a supermarket reflects our approachability or our commitment to make our building accessible to everyone, regardless of their background.
You could say that the building’s large, overhanging roof reflects that we’re a place of creative shelter for everyone and, as the first ever Theatre of Sanctuary, we’re a designated safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers.
You could say that our imposing presence on Quarry Hill reflects our status as artistic leaders in the city – we’re steady, stable and permanent. We’re in a position of privilege so it’s our responsibility to be aware of that privilege and to use it to champion, support and empower organisations with less.
Live Art Bistro’s building is a former motorcycle accessories shop on Regent Street. It’s an unconventional, non-conformist site for an arts space. The first time you encounter it, whether it’s by accident or by design, its existence seems improbable, unexpected and unpredictable and, in turn, so does its work. At LAB, audiences are as likely to find a soup kitchen or community meeting as they are a drag queen or a raucous party.
LAB’s license to use their venue is vulnerable and uncertain, so they are constantly on the balls of their feet, ready to move at a moment’s notice. This is reflected in their programme which consistently feels audacious, dynamic and urgent. They’re pioneers – blazing a trail of the boldest and best contemporary performance work.
It’s subversive, occupying a traditionally commercial space and reclaiming it for creativity and experimentation. It’s an act of resistance against the expectation that art should only take place in designated spaces and its work is frequently provocative, political and polemic. It’s an inherently queer space – welcoming of all people; fluid in its adaptability and consistently challenging the norm. It’s grass-roots and glitter; dust and determination.
Live Art Bistro and West Yorkshire Playhouse are two very different organisations. We have different identities, different priorities and different buildings. Articulating what differentiates us allows us to celebrate each other’s strengths and minimise each other’s weaknesses. It allows us to work together as colleagues, not as competitors. It’s a clear statement that we believe that a diverse community is a rich one; that there’s strength in numbers.
And, while we’re obviously very different, we have a vital shared priority – to create a space where people of all identities and backgrounds can come together and share a creative experience.
LAB is fundamental to a thriving, bustling and rich cultural ecology in Leeds. It’s so important, in fact, that you might think it’s as permanent a fixture as the Playhouse. Sadly, this is far from the truth. LAB has never received any public funding, it’s kept afloat by the vision, tenacity and dedication of its three Creative Directors, a passionate team of volunteers and a fiercely loyal audience.
Our partnership with Live Art Bistro is an ongoing, evolving thing. We have regular conversations with each other, discussing everything from comic books to business plans. This spring, our partnership manifests in the co-presentation of two smart, provocative and thoroughly entertaining pieces of contemporary theatre – Mia: Daughters of Fortune by Mind The Gap and DollyWould by Sh!t Theatre. These two shows exist in the grey area between live art and storytelling; between LAB and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
We’re committed to continuing to build on our partnership with LAB and we already have plans for projects we’ll be working on together over the next few years. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see you at LAB sometime soon. I’ll be the one shouting from the rooftops about how brilliant they are. Come up and join me.
Gilly is New Work Producer at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, where she develops new theatre projects and builds local, national and international partnerships. Originally from Glasgow, she’s worked as a producer for ten years and has lived in Barcelona and San Francisco.
When she’s not at the theatre, you might find her playing video games, reading graphic novels or forcing people to look at photos of her two cats.
You can find her on Twitter @gillypiece.