One of the joys of my job is the contact I have with creatives from across the arts and cultural spectrum. Live performance, however, be it theatre, music, dance, poetry or otherwise, is something incredibly special. I have been fortunate, thanks initially to my parents, that visits to the theatre and to local schools and town halls, where we would go to see amateur productions, have been part of my life since childhood.
Sadly, there are many people who have never set foot in a theatre or seen a live performance of a play, but thankfully there are theatre companies determined to change that and make high-quality, relevant theatre accessible to everyone. One such company is Red Ladder Theatre, based in Leeds, who I am so pleased to welcome to Queen’s Mill on a regular basis. I recently caught up with Chris Lloyd, the company’s producer, on a visit to check on our forthcoming hosting of Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation of David Peace’s bestselling 2006 novel The Damned Utd – but more of that later.
Theatre visits: intimidating for many people
Both myself and Chris have heard numerous times the words, “Theatre is not for the likes of us”, which is a common response in many working class and deprived communities. Chris, though, passionately believes that it is the process of going to the theatre, not the play itself, that can be intimidating and unwelcoming for many, especially for those who have not been before, and puts a series of obstacles in their way:
“Do you dress up you? How do you make a booking and reserve a seat if you don’t have access to the internet? You cannot just reserve tickets and rock up, you must pay online in advance, or you don’t get in. Many people living in poverty don’t have access to a laptop or smart phone.
“What if the theatre is in another town? Going to the theatre is often expensive enough with tickets costing £20–£25 or more. Parking is expensive and what if the performance doesn’t end until 10:00 o’clock at night. Is public transport still running and if so, is it safe?
“We need to take away all the uncertainties of a trip to the theatre and one main way in which you can achieve this is to stage the play somewhere locally and in a setting the audience will be familiar with.”
Bringing theatre to familiar locations
This is where heritage buildings, community centres, village halls and even pubs and clubs come into their own. These are locations that members of the community are familiar with, places they use for a wide variety of purposes. They know the staff and are more at ease with each other. A ticket can be purchased directly from the venue and be paid for in cash.
“People are not intimidated when they go to somewhere they are familiar with; people know the form, they know the bar staff, they know the price of things and there are often no transport costs. The only risk we are asking people to take is to give an hour and ten minutes of their time. Hopefully, it will be something they really enjoy. In the end they might not like that particular show but that is OK. You watch the television, but you don’t like everything you see but you give it a chance. It is showing how vastly different live theatre is from watching the television or going to the cinema and that can only be good.”
Performing in unusual spaces is something the company has done through much of its existence. The other great plus for the organisations collaborating with them is that through various funding streams, ticket prices are made affordable for a significant percentage of the area’s population, with tickets often costing no more than £5.
Since 2006 the company has also returned to touring and performing in theatre studios, such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but without losing their links to non-theatre spaces, where they continue to bring the same high-quality touring shows to the community.
Red Ladder Theatre Company
So, who are Red Ladder?
The company was formed in 1968 as a radical socialist theatre known as The Agitprop Street Players. Disturbed by the Vietnam War and the ongoing American presence in in that country, they would protest at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, stood on, yes, the actual red ladder which is now in the company’s store in Leeds.
They became a cooperative in London for several years before a move to Leeds in the 1970s and a change in their structure the following decade. Over the years, artistic directors and producers have come and gone, taking the company in one direction or another. Chris likens it to being the same broom handle but with a succession of new replacement brush heads – different but ultimately doing the same job. For many years they focused on theatre for young people, but with changes in the curriculum, council changes in funding priorities and the rise of the digital age, this was dropped. They also hosted the Asian Theatre School, later Freedom Studios.
Exciting new plays, family shows and a wealth of local talent
Today Red Ladder features a wide range of plays, often focussing on many of the social and political issues facing society. These might be men’s mental health or the lived experiences of the Black community, as in My Voice Was Heard but It Was Ignored by exciting talent Nana-Kofi Kufuor, which they are taking to the Edinburgh Festival. They also work with a range of other companies and have brought several superb family shows to the district, including the extremely popular retelling of the Cinderella story, ‘Not Such Ugly Sisters’, in collaboration with Wrongsemble.
The company works mainly with Yorkshire writers, actors, and technicians. Chris was at pains to point out that there is no need to go to London to audition, as there is a wealth of talent within the county. He also added that the use of local people adds to the authenticity of the company and re-enforces the company’s links to the community, especially when cast members speak with a similar accent.
Red Ladder also runs Red Grit, a unique actor training programme which offers high-quality, intensive actor training at no cost to the individual. After a successful taster session, it is planned to offer a full course in Castleford as well as in Leeds.
A radical theatre company of recognised importance
Finally, back to The Damned United. This play, based on Brian Clough’s troubled time as Leeds United manager, has a special place in the company’s history and in fact saved them from disappearing altogether. Facing financial problems, David Peace signed over the theatrical rights for the book to Red Ladder in a move that saved the company.
The website states that Red Ladder are the country’s leading radical theatre company and I have absolutely no doubts of the accuracy of that claim. They continue to address the social problems that still affect this country 50 years after they were formed. They also continue to make their performances accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Long may they continue to do so.
The Damned United is at Queen’s Mill on 27 June. Further information and tickets available here.
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