50 year landmark moment for West Yorkshire Playhouse

Fifth May marks a milestone in the Playhouse’s history, as 50 years ago the campaign for Leeds to have its own Playhouse was heard before a public meeting held at the Leeds Town Hall. The campaign, which began four years before, had rapidly gained momentum resulting in widespread public support calling for a purpose-built producing theatre for the city of Leeds.

This significant moment on 5 May 1968 saw campaigner Doreen Newlyn at Leeds Town Hall claim Leeds needed a professional repertory theatre. Supported by Leeds born Hollywood legend Peter O’Toole, Hunslet-born Keith Waterhouse and, then Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse, John Neville, the group protested to the people of Leeds ‘a city without a theatre is a city without a heart’. The Town Hall was filled to capacity with over 200 more supporters being turned away.

Leeds Playhouse, as it was originally known, was largely built on small donations from local people who raised £20,000 after a public appeal for funds. Leeds City Council, which had originally opposed the project, matched the figure and pledged a further £20,000 (and £5000 annually) towards the development.

The project went ahead following further grants from Arts Council England and the Gulbenkian Foundation, with the foundation stone laid on the southern edge of Leeds University campus in September 1969.  Leeds Playhouse opened its doors for the first time one year later in September 1970. Leeds University hosted the theatre for 20 years before it moved to its current site on Quarry Hill in 1990.

Lead campaigner Doreen Newlyn said: “May 5 was a day of triumph and delight.  It decisively established the campaign for all to see. This was about establishing a theatre for the community, to enrich the lives of all our citizens, old and young, for years to come. It was hard work and wasn’t without its turmoil and disappointment, but we were socially motivated and determined to succeed. It fills me with great pleasure to see the vision and ideals laid out at the Town Hall meeting are still being realised today.”

West Yorkshire Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining said: “It is wonderful that the core values of community and inclusivity that sparked a group of passionate and dedicated individuals over 50 years ago are still at the heart of the Playhouse today.  We pride ourselves on our pioneering creative engagement work, our nurturing artist development programme and producing world class theatre, from the large scale to the intimate. We’re constantly challenging perceptions on and off our stages, and are continuing to grow and strengthen the relationship this theatre has with the city of Leeds and beyond.  

We are indebted to the original 13 campaigners including Doreen for their vision and relentless energy in making it happen in the first place and I’m delighted that she feels we are living up to their ideals.”

This 50 year landmark moment marks a pivotal turning point in the Playhouse’s history. From July 2018 West Yorkshire Playhouse will embark on a major redevelopment project, with the current building on the Quarry Hill site being transformed and modernised, with changes including a new city-facing entrance, improved access in and around the theatre, and the addition of a new studio theatre space, the Bramall Rock Void.