James Brining: 'We don't want to appeal to only theatregoers'

The artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds talks about being a local, the upcoming ”Strictly Ballroom” and how important it is to have Yorkshire stories onstage

James Brining, the artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse
James Brining, the artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse

You are originally from Leeds. What, if anything, does that bring to your role as artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse?
I suppose that because I am from Leeds, I can have a view about it without worrying about offending anyone. To be fair, when I ran the Dundee Rep, I was never made to feel like an outsider. It was always open and friendly and positive. But I think there is a danger that you arrive in a place, and then leave again. I clearly have roots here and I really care about this city and this theatre. I remember it opening.

Since you started in 2012, you’ve had some big successes – not least the recent Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. What drives you as an artistic director?
There are lots of things, but one is the creation of exceptional work. Without that, we aren’t a theatre. And that work needs to feel urgent and relevant and it needs to connect to today and to Leeds. Last year we played to 350,000 people – 200,000 in Leeds and 150,000 on tour. Those shows range from Chitty to Sweeney Todd, which we did with Welsh National Opera, and the likes of Kes. We want to appeal to a broad range of audiences. We are a theatre that aspires to connect with lots of different kinds of folk. Not necessarily people who define themselves as theatregoers.

You’ve got the Brontë season coming up, is it also important to have voices from Yorkshire in the theatre?
With the Brontës it’s both a global and local perspective. These storytellers are world famous and truly exceptional, and they are from ten miles down the road. We want to see how those artists and the stories they were telling connect with us now.

It sounds as though Villette isn’t going to be a direct novel to stage adaptation…
I am not interested in doing versions of novels that are costume dramas. They just aren’t what we’re about. Linda Marshall-Griffiths’ re-imagined version has the main central character but it goes into the future. It also brings the other Brontë sisters into the texture of the piece.

Had you been thinking about staging a Brontë season for a while?
Yes. Funnily enough, 2016 is 200 years since Charlotte Brontë was born. So this date had a certain significance. But we have been trying to line it up for some time. I think it’s good to take a writer and to examine that writer from a number of perspectives, like we did with Alan Bennett when I first arrived. Included in the season is a rock version of the Brontë family story, and Northern Ballet are staging Wuthering Heights.

You’ve had some big musical hits recently and one more big musical to come this year…
Yes working on Strictly Ballroom, with Drew McOnie and Global Creatures is going to be really exciting. It’s the first time it will be seen outside of Australia. The work Drew’s done that I’ve seen in auditions and workshops is really thrilling. I think musicals can be a really affirming, uplifting theatrical form. They aren’t all like that, but we have the capacity and experience to make big shows. And when the theatre is packed and people are having a really good time, that is a really valuable thing to generate. The people of this city deserve to see fantastic work that has originated there and which then goes elsewhere.

There seems to be a lot of co-productions between other theatres across the country at the moment, do you think that’s a good thing?
It’s quite hard to judge as I was north of the border only four years ago, but I know that for next spring we are talking to a number of theatres about projects we are excited about. I have really enjoyed working with other places and comparing what each of our audiences make of work. I think that to have quite a narrow ownership over our work, which is maybe what it was like 30 years ago, isn’t necessarily that healthy or outward looking.

What’s your favourite thing about Leeds and the West Yorkshire Playhouse?
What I love is when you have two shows on in both the Courtyard and the Quarry theatres with quite different audiences. And as they empty out you get a sense of the flow and the mingle of the two groups of people. It is really joyous. You get such diversity in audiences in this theatre. Also, the Quarry theatre is quite a challenging space, but if you can make it work in there, you can genuinely get the audience to gasp. Leeds itself if really grounded and you can’t get away with being pretentious here. There are a million stories to tell.

Villette runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 24 September to 15 October. Strictly Ballroom – The Musical runs from 30 November to 21 January.

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