I’m folded into a striped deckchair, grass at my feet and a glass of wine in my hand, watching a performer in a bear costume drag a tied-up man onto a bandstand decked with fairy lights. At the end of my first day in Leeds, this is the unlikely scene in which I find myself in the buzzing foyer of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, suitably reimagined for the theatre’s third annual Transform Festival. I’m in the Park, a slice of the English summer transplanted into the Tardis-like building. The brief for designer-in-residence Hannah Sibai, I’m told, was to bring a bit of Leeds into the Playhouse, creating a welcoming space where visitors can relax, drink, stumble upon some art.
It’s a dialogue with the city that characterises Transform, which this year carries the strapline “my Leeds, my city”. Distinctive among other theatre and performance festivals in a similar mould, many of which host the same nomadic work and artists, Transform is injected with the unique flavour of Leeds as a place. Sites are important, as are people. When I grab coffee, cake and a quick chat with festival producer Amy Letman, she tells me that the programme grew from a scribbled map of the city, a neater version of which now appears in the Transform brochure that sits open on the table between us. Tracing her hands over the different areas of Leeds as she discusses the work, Letman talks me through the connection of each piece and each artist to the city, explaining the desire to take work out of the Playhouse and into unexpected locations.
One of these unexpected locations is the Royal Armouries Tiltyard, an impressive outdoor space situated in the middle of an over-developed ghost town – all sleek apartment blocks and yawning open spaces. Audiences are led here from the West Yorkshire Playhouse – the connecting “hub” of the sprawling festival – via a meandering audio walk through the city’s streets. Navigators, a piece created by Leeds University students following workshops with artists Invisible Flock, is well meaning but hindered by the disruptions and limitations of its physical surroundings, less in dialogue with its site than tussling with it. The evocative collage of voices pumped into our ears has to compete with traffic and early evening urban bustle, its delicate spell too easily broken by the intrusion of today’s city into the mental images it conjures of Leeds’ history.
The piece of theatre that occupies the outdoor space we eventually arrive at, situated at a dynamic nexus between Leeds old and new, is Slung Low’s The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show. A show that is mostly about trying to make a show, Dave Toole’s achievements as a dancer and performer are contained within a meta-theatrical structure that attempts to sidestep Toole’s own gruff modesty, while Toole himself just wants to tell the story of American freak show performer Johnny Eck; a show within a show within a show. The strange spectacle of the freak show in this circus-like space is also central to the conceit, complicating the gaze of the audience and the deliberate naivety of the humour. There’s always a slight jagged sense of unease.
With the afterglow of the Paralympics now faded to the stony cold reality of slashes to disability benefits, Slung Low are necessarily unflinching about the reality of ongoing prejudice faced by the disabled community. As well as being playful and celebratory – and, ultimately, uplifting – the piece unleashes an accusatory sting, sneering at the supposed “changing of perceptions” that was achieved by the Paralympics in London. By demonstrating the parallels with Eck’s prejudice-tainted experiences back in the 1930s, the piece suggests that not so much has changed after all. But the show is also about Leeds, about its inhabitants’ own particular brand of self-deprecation and eschewal of “fuss”, about the landscape of past and present that forms the show’s twilit backdrop. It’s a celebration for a city that doesn’t like to shout about its achievements.
Back in the Park space for that night’s Live Art Bistro, what’s striking – other than the heartening numbers turning out for performance art on a weekday evening – is the mix of people in the room. There are students, Playhouse staff, audiences who have wandered in after another show, and a wide range of artists, many of whom are involved with the festival in some way. As several of the individuals I speak to note, the transformation (forgive the pun) of this space has turned it into a place where artists want to linger and chat, immediately forming a relationship with the building through simple proximity. As Letman puts it, Transform has “ignited the enthusiasm of artists in the city”, forging links with the wider artistic community that might not otherwise exist.
The benefits of these links for both artists and theatre are immediately evident in the events taking place around the edges of the festival, including last week’s scratch programme and Emerge night and the playful live art interventions that now dance around the groups drinking and chatting on the surrounding deckchairs and picnic tables. Alongside the bear, there’s a story archive collecting narratives of Leeds; a witty, knowing take on food and gender stereotypes from The Souvenirs; a series of statements about the world punctuated by the knocking back of drinks. Just before I reluctantly leave this indoor bubble of summertime to make my way back to my hotel, one of the lightly swaying performers on the bandstand stage gulps down another shot. One for the road.
Read part two of Catherine’s commentary on Transform 2013.
West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Transform 2013 run from 16 April 2013 to 27 April 2013.