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This is the story of Leeds Playhouse

A theatre at the heart of the city and region since 1970.

In March 1964, the Arts Council was informed by Doreen Newlyn of a new committee in Leeds of 13 people who were beginning a campaign for promoting a professional civic theatre in Leeds. The committee sought to address the absence of a professional producing theatre within the large conurbation of West Yorkshire. In September 1969 the foundation stone of a Playhouse was laid on the southern edge of the university campus and Leeds Playhouse opened in September 1970.

Moving up

The Playhouse of today was born directly out of the original Leeds Playhouse – a repertory theatre which started its Portakabin existence in what was always meant to be a temporary home under its Artistic Director John Harrison.

Built on Quarry Hill (the site of the most notorious slums in 19th Century Western Europe and later the infamous Quarry Hill flats which replaced them) the current theatre officially opened its door in March 1990 under its Artistic Director Jude Kelly, and was Britain’s largest new purpose built theatre for 15 years. Donald Sinden had turned the first sod in November 1987; Judi Dench had laid the foundation stone in March 1989, with Albert Finney performing the topping-out ceremony in September 1989.

The Arts Council deemed the newly opened and newly named, West Yorkshire Playhouse to have “a fully conceived and implemented policy of imaginative, vivid and progressive work on stage, inextricably related to and complementing a practical commitment to ensuring that theatre is a vital part of community it serves.”

From the beginning it was clear that the new West Yorkshire Playhouse was going to be more than just a performing space. The primary objective stated in the initial business plan was “to change significantly the nature and extent of repertory programming by enlarging the repertoire to provide a centre for international as well as national work and to create a significant producing theatre with a fully integrated community programme acting as a resource for the City and region.”

In the first six years of operation the Playhouse produced 93 of its own productions (27 or which were world or British premieres) encompassing classics and contemporary British and European drama, modern theatre from around the world and had implemented a vigorous new writing policy.

Ian Brown succeeded Jude Kelly as Artistic Director in 2002 and brought with him a commitment to continue the vital and established role that the Playhouse was playing in the community. Under his leadership the Playhouse maintained its pioneering community engagement work and gained a reputation for the quality and mix of its work.

Following Ian’s departure in 2012 he was succeeded by James Brining. Although Leeds-born, James arrived via Richmond and Dundee (being described as a “Scottish theatre sensation” by The Telegraph at the time of his appointment). With new-found vigour the Playhouse continues to develop and expand on the vision of Vital Theatre.

The Playhouse has two theatres, the Quarry with 750 seats and the smaller, more flexible Courtyard with 350 seats. However its reach goes far beyond those two spaces; over the 2015 autumn season its work will be seen in over 60 venues from village halls (Beryl on tour) to Wales Millennium Centre (Sweeney Todd). In recent years plays have been taken out into the local community with Little Sure Shot and Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads being presented in community centres around the city.

Going back to our roots

54 years on from Doreen Newlyn’s notice to the Arts Council and 28 years on from the opening of the new building, the Playhouse remains as strong as ever, producing great theatre for, and by, its communities in the heart of the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire and the UK. To reflect our local focus, and the strength of the community in the city we call home, the decision was made in 2018 to return to our original name of Leeds Playhouse, and that’s who we are today.

The Redevelopment 

In June 2018 the Playhouse began the next chapter in its history.  During 2018/19 the Quarry, Courtyard and foyer areas will be transformed with a new city-facing entrance and vastly improved access for all our users.  The new building will reopen in autumn 2018, but in the meantime we will programming a full season of shows in our 350 seat Pop-Up theatre created in one of our workshop spaces.  You can find more information on the redevelopment by clicking here and full details of shows in the Pop-Up theatre here.

  • View the full Playhouse Timeline


    A committee was formed to start campaigning for a new permanent repertory theatre.


    Leeds Theatre Trust Ltd was established. 1200 people attended an event in Leeds Town Hall to start the campaign for a new theatre in the city.
    ‘A city without a theatre is a city without the heart’ was the rallying cry of local hero Keith Waterhouse.


    Leeds Theatre Trust started to search for existing premises, which could be used as a temporary theatre – eventually offered by University of Leeds (rent free in a building intended for use as a sports hall once the theatre had found a permanent home). Architect William Houghton-Evans.


    Leeds Playhouse opened, under the Artistic Direction of Bill Hayes (until 1972).

    The first performance on held on 16 September 1970 with Sir Tony Robinson appearing as Simon in Simon Says.

    In December 1970 HRH Prince Charles attended a Royal Gala performance of Oh Glorious Jubilee.


    John Harrison took over as Artistic Director (until 1990).


    World première of The Wedding Feast by Arnold Wesker and Paul Schofield as Prospero in The Tempest.

    Before he hit the big time with Soft Cell, Marc Almond used to work behind the bar.


    30,000 people signed a petition to keep the Playhouse open on the University site for the ‘Leeds Needs the Playhouse’ campaign.


    Leeds City Council earmarked a site on Quarry Hill for a permanent theatre.


    £1m grant from West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, soon to be disbanded, was given on condition that the new building was named West Yorkshire Playhouse.


    The first sod was dug by Sir Donald Sinden in November.


    In March Dame Judi Dench laid the foundation stone (which can be seen in the entrance of West Yorkshire Playhouse).

    Albert Finney performed the ‘topping out’ ceremony in September.

    Heydays was formed.


    On 8th March West Yorkshire Playhouse Playhouse (Architect The Appleton Partnership) was opened on Quarry Hill by Diana Rigg.

    The first Christmas show as Sugar, a stage version of Some Like It Hot starring Andy Serkis.

    Artistic Director Jude Kelly (1989 – 2002) directed the first play Wild Oats by John O’Keefe, with Reece Dinsdale taking the lead role.

    From 1990 – 2011 West Yorkshire Playhouse Schools Touring Company was committed to providing top quality theatre to schools.


    The Servant of Two Masters, starring Toby Jones was the first production to transfer internationally (to Italy) as part of the Goldoni Centenary celebrations.


    Jude Law, Ken Stott and James Purefoy starred in Death of a Salesman.


    The Beatification of Area Boy featured Nigerian actors and musicians, which went on to tour internationally (USA, Australia, Geneva Festival).

    The Playhouse was awarded the Prudential Award for Theatre in recognition of its excellence, creativity, innovation and accessibility.

    Jude Kelly’s King Lear starred Warren Smith and transferred to the Hackney Empire.

    The Playhouse invited a series of guest directors – Steven Berkoff directed and starred in Coriolanus, Barrie Rutter, Prunella Scales and Alan Rickman.


    Matthew Warchus’s (now director of Old Vic) production of Peter Pan was staged at the Playhouse.


    Sir Ian McKellen joined the rep company appearing in The SeagullPresent Laughter and The Tempest.


    Shockheaded Peter was a major co-production with Improbable.


    The Christmas production Singin’ in the Rain transferred in July 2000 to The Royal National Theatre and won an Olivier Award for Best Musical. It then came back for another Christmas Season in 2001 at the Playhouse before heading off on a national tour.

    Feeling Good Theatre Company formed from Heydays members to portray positive, informed stories of ageing.


    Beautiful Octopus Club was established as a Club night for people with learning disabilities.


    Patrick Stewart joined the playhouse for the Priestley Season.


    Ian Brown joined at Artistic Director (till 2012).

    Chris Eccleston starred in Ian Brown’s first production as Artistic Director in Hamlet.

    Tom Courtenay wrote and starred in Pretending to be Me, directed by Ian Brown.

    Carnival Messiah was written and directed by Geraldine Connor.

    Wind in the Willows, adapted by Alan Bennett was directed by Ian Brown.


    Runaway Diamonds by the Schools Touring Company was a sought after education tool and contributed to schools achieving the Stephen Lawrence Award.


    Taking almost £1m, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe became the highest-grossing Playhouse show so far.


    A partnership was formed with Szechuan People’s Theatre, China.


    The SPARK programme ran in Bradford Schools and across the UK and Ireland.


    A co-production of Othello with Northern Broadsides included Lenny Henry, who launched his stage drama ‘career’ at the Playhouse.

    Dandy Lion Club introduced for young people with learning disabilities to enjoy a day of creative activities with their families which led to Relaxed Performances and BUZZ.


    First Floor was established as a designated space for young people at St Peter’s building, after 3 years of fundraising £750,000 to convert the building.

    Access Partnership with Irwin Mitchell Solicitors was established.


    UK’s first Relaxed Performance – introduced to the UK by the Playhouse in its Christmas production of Cinderella.

    Creative activities for people with dementia introduced through Peer Support Cultural Partnership.


    The Deep Blue Sea marked the national launch of the Terance Rattigan centenary and starred Maxine Peake.

    Transform was launched by Alan Lane and Kully Thiarai with two weeks of constantly changing ‘festival’ style programming.

    Our studio season Furnace was also formed during the 21st birthday year.

    Our production of Annie went onto a UK and world tour and is opening in the West End later this year.

    The Playhouse received the Arts & Business Young People Award for introduction of Relaxed Performances with access partner Iriwn Mitchell.


    James Brining joined as Artistic Director.

    Playhouse Youth Theatre was established.


    Refugee Boy and its subsequent tour led to the Playhouse Theatre of Sanctuary status.


    The first dementia friendly performance was performed in the Christmas production of White Christmas.

    Our Time project was created for people living with Dementia.

    The Playhouse became the World’s first Theatre of Sanctuary.

    First Floor won Best Place for Children and Young people in Leeds at the Child Friendly Leeds awards.


    A new logo and brand was developed by Chilli, a Leeds and Australian-based branding company.

    The Playhouse won two national Dementia Friendly awards, led by Nicky Taylor.

    Chitty Chitty Bang Bang became the Playhouse’s biggest box office show and toured the UK for over a year.


    Successful application to Arts Council England for a grant for the redevelopment, and Architects Page\Park were appointed.

    Playhouse staged the UK première of Strictly Ballroom the Musical, which goes onto Toronto in April 2017.

    The first major collaboration between Opera North and the Playhouse with Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.


    Arts Council Stage 2 application Redevelopment moves into stage 3 of the application.


    On June 22 the Playhouse announced a year long programme in a Pop Up Theatre built in one of its workshop spaces.  The season includes Jim Cartwright’s Road, Hamlet and A Christmas Carol as well as contemporary classics such as David Greig’s Europe and Debbie Tucker Green’s Random.

    West Yorkshire Playhouse returns to its roots, and relaunches as Leeds Playhouse.

    On June 23, following one of the busiest years in its history the Playhouse closes it doors with Talking Heads in the Courtyard and Searching For The Heart Of Leeds in the Quarry.

    The Redevelopment is due to take around a year with an inaugural season in autumn 2019.

Major funders
Arts Council England Leeds City Council The Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation
Principal Capital and Families Partner
Caddick Developments
Principal Capital and Access Partner
Irwin Mitchell Solicitors