The campaign to build new theatre in Leeds began at a meeting on 12th March 1964 when a group of friends decided to campaign for a repertory theatre with its own company. To canvas opinions of other people in the town another meeting was called, and the Leeds Theatre Committee formed with Sir Roger Stevens, the Vice-chancellor of Leeds University as Chairman.
The theatre committee put forward the idea of a building to house both a theatre and a concert hall. This led to the formation of a joint committee with the council and the Leeds Music Committee. A site was chosen west of Oxford Place Chapel in the Park Street area, and planning permission was given.
At this time there were big cuts in public spending, and it became obvious that the new theatre would not be built for a long time. Temporary premises were sought, but nothing suitable was found. The University, itself short of money had to postpone the building of a new sports hall adjacent to the existing hall, on a site at the top of Calverley Street. They offered this site to the Theatre Campaign Committee, rent free, for a period of ten years. The theatre trust agreed to build a theatre which had the same external structure as the existing Sports Hall. At the end of the lease the theatre would move into a new Arts Centre, and sell the shell of the Playhouse building to the University for conversion to a sports hall.
There was opposition from the Council and others who pointed out that Leeds already had a theatre, the Grand, which was not well supported. Also, why not support the amateur productions at the Civic Theatre? Some people thought that Leeds needed a concert hall more than another theatre. Despite oppostion the theatre committee decided to go ahead, and in February 1968 the Leeds Theatre Trust Ltd. was incorporated. An application was made to Leeds City Council for financial support. To show the degree of public support for the theatre a petition signed by 21,568 people was sent with the application.
A public appeal for funds (£150,000 was needed to build the theatre) was launched at a mass meeting in Town Hall on 5th May 1968. The meeting was addressed by Peter O'Toole, the actor; Keith Waterhouse, the playwright; John Neville, the Director of Nottingham Playhouse and other well-known people. £20,000 was raised by public subscription, but the project still needed support from the Council, who promised £25,000, and £5000 annually if necessary. This, along with grants from the Arts Council, and the Gulbenkian Foundation meant that the project could go ahead.
The architect was Bill Houghton-Evans and he had the difficult task of keeping costs down while designing a theatre that would fit into the rectangular building required for the sports hall. Also, the interior was to be made so that it could be moved to another site, leaving the shell of the building suitable for conversion to a sports hall. The theatre had to be comfortable, safe and fire-proof. The contract for the building work went to Robert R Roberts of Leeds, and on 25th September 1969 the foundation stone was laid by the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Alderman A R Bretherick. The cost of the building work was to be £141,546.
The theatre, which could seat 750 people, was built in the style of a classical Greek theatre with a central stage and tiered seating on three sides. There was a 'thrust' stage, (a stage which projects into the auditorium), so that there are no barriers between actors and audience. There were entrances to the stage at high and low levels. The height of the building meant that props could be 'flown' into the rafters. The latest stage equipment and lighting was installed, as well as ciné equipment for film society shows. Behind the stage was a scene dock, and space for rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms. Below the seating were the foyer, bars, cloakrooms and offices.
The Playhouse opened on Wednesday 16th September 1970 with a performance of 'Simon Says' by Alan Plater. The Director was Bill Hays, and there was a resident company of about twenty actors. The theatre was opened officially on 10th December 1970 by Prince Charles who attended a Royal Gala performance of 'Oh Glorious Jubilee' by Clifford Hanley. At the weekends the theatre was the venue for the Leeds Film Theatre, which was opened on 27th September 1970 by Harold Lloyd, when the film shown was 'The Kid Brother' which he made in 1928.
|Click images to enlarge|
Leeds Playhouse, beginning construction
Leeds Playhouse, under construction
Leeds Playhouse, nearing completion
Stage under construction