Features Published 7 May 2015

Transform: A Year of Transistion

James Varney talks to producer Amy Letman about the evolution of the Transform festival at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and where it's going next.
James Varney

The whole idea at the time was about diversifying the program offer at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and opening the Playhouse up to a different kind of conversation with its audience. And there, at the time, wasn’t really a dialogue with the artistic community in the city, or with devising makers, or artists that were just working in different ways to the traditional playmaking process. So it was part of a number of interventions within the space of a few years at the theatre, where they were looking at starting to reinvent themselves. Transform I think was the most outwardly visible way of the Playhouse having those sort of intentions.

The first year was mainly visiting pieces. At the time we worked with two curators: Alan Lane from Slung Low, and Kully Thiarai, who now runs Cast in Doncaster. We just put together a programme which looked and felt quite different to anything the Playhouse had put on before and some of it felt quite radically different to anything that had ever happened here. And we just tried to push the place a bit and shake it a bit and use the spaces in different ways, throw some parties, do some crazy, crazy stuff. And that kind of ethos has continued through each year but I feel like every year we’ve tested another element of what Transform could be.

In 2014, we had a confidence. We’re a festival. We have an audience that are following us and are engaging with us, we have longstanding relationships now with some really key companies and makers. We have a track record, we know what works. And it felt like we kind of had the blueprint down in a way. The festival was wanting to grow and get bigger and develop, and we wanted to be able to give more support to artists and more space and do more stuff, but that was becoming quite difficult doing it from the Playhouse. Because most of the festivals in the UK aren’t produced by a theatre, they’re their own company and they collaborate with different organisations. And so it was becoming harder because we were finding that we needed to have a dedicated team rather than just me and then staff at the theatre but juggling it around all their other commitments.

This whole international dialogue had started in Leeds around European Capital of Culture. I was having quite a lot of conversations with different people in the city about the lack of international performance coming to the city and the lack of international dialogue. Then I got the Arts Council Artist’s International Development award last June and went to this amazing international festival which totally reinvigorated me and just helped me refocus on what my tastes are and what I’m really passionate about and the power of theatre and intercultural collaboration.

So this year is a transition year. And it’s a way of taking a break from the pressure of realising a big festival each year to recalibrate, reorganise ourselves and refresh our thinking before we launch as an independent company. And the plan is that from 2016 onwards, Transform will exist as a new company. It will produce the festivals in lead partnership with the Playhouse but also with a range of other partners in the city, so it will become a citywide international festival for Leeds.

But we will come back in spring of next year, this time next year there will be a Transform festival, and the spring of ’17 there will be a Transform festival. I feel a little bit like these three days are a scratch, the whole thing is basically a scratch. And each of those showings that you’ll see over the next couple of days is a work-in-progress or the very early, seedling ideas of what we hope might become one of our major shows over the next couple of years. So it all is leading to something, it’s not just exploration for exploration’s sake.

It’s about the artistic community that have been so engaged in Transform since the beginning and are so key to its development and growth. It’s about our partners, and it’s about our core and committed audience followers, who are mainly artists or part of the arts scene. We really want to work to engage a really wide group of audiences and we really want it to be for the city. And a lot of our ideas around creating more site-specific work and community engaged work are focused on that idea, as well as just putting on some really brilliant experiences and events. This is more of a transition moment for us.

What do you think is the most important thing about Transform, past, present and future?

Past: Creating a space for experimentation and work that is different, and bold, and adventurous.

Now: International dialogue is really key. Creating a space for collaborations between local artists and those internationally. As well as just looking outside of what’s happening here and looking at the world, now, artistically and socially and politically.

And the third thing I think is celebration of the city. By the time we’re city-wide there’ll be Transform projects happening throughout the city, we’ll be bringing different organisations and partners together to collaborate, and we’ll be really putting a spotlight on what’s happening here in the city as well. And I think it’s about bringing other people in from an international conversation, it’s about bringing other people in to help us simply highlight and celebrate what we already have and do so brilliantly here.

It was always going to be this way. We just didn’t know it yet.

Listen to this interview on SoundCloud

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