Amy Letman, the creative brains behind the Leeds event, talks to Matt Trueman about her mission to make the city a thriving scene for local and international artists, the power of producing radical work in alternative venues, how this year’s ambitious programme continues to push boundaries, and why it is vital to focus on the future
Festivals can remake a city – look at Liverpool, Manchester and Hull. All have had a massive influx of civic investment in the wake of significant cultural festivals. In the heart of Yorkshire, Leeds is laying down its cards with one of its own – albeit with a difference. Transform is an international theatre festival grown from the grassroots.
“It’s completely obvious that Leeds should have an international festival,” says Amy Letman, artistic director of the biennial affair. “It’s a super-international city, the second most diverse in the UK after London, with 170 different languages spoken here. It has a very strong subculture, an incredible underground music and DIY arts scene. Transform is a response to all of that.”
It might be a minnow of a festival – just eight years old and run by a team of five for less than £300,000 (Manchester International Festival turns over nearly £10 million) – but Transform’s programme shows no shortage of ambition. Over 10 days, artists from China, Germany and Brazil will criss-cross with local artists and community work at venues across Leeds. That interaction is key. Letman wants the “scale of ambition and production” inherent in international work to inspire local artists on the ground and up the artistic ante.
Transform began in 2011 under the auspices of West Yorkshire Playhouse – a ‘change’ project opening the venue up to experimental performance and alternative practices. Slung Low’s Alan Lane and Kully Thiarai, then of Cast in Doncaster and now National Theatre Wales, curated a 12-day festival produced by Letman that sought to shatter the city’s expectations of theatre.
Over its 10 days, Chris Goode ran an open rehearsal room and Geraldine Pilgrim had women dance round their handbags. Shows spilled across the whole building – below the stage, under the foundations – even out over the city at large. “What we want from our theatres and our festivals has changed,” Lane said back then. “Boldness is the braver course and is the way not only to survive but thrive.”
Three years later, however, Transform took flight: Letman led it into independence. Leeds Playhouse was weathering funding cuts and, encouraged by the city’s Capital of Culture bid, she had grander ambitions for its flagship festival.
“It needed its own team and its own funding model,” she says. “With experimental theatre, every show has to find its own model, so it’s not going to fit into the schedules and deadlines of an institution. The timescales are different and there’s discomfort for both sides. What the work needs is a producing model that’s able to be totally malleable to the wills and needs of an artist and their process.”
Transform is still in its infancy as an independent: 2017 was framed as a pilot run. Letman believes festivals divide in two: political, civic interventions that boost a city’s reputation – and its coffers – or more organic events that grow “incrementally” to serve a city’s needs. What the latter lack in resource, they make up for in local, grassroots support. For her, it’s as vital to boost local artists as it is to bring in radical work from elsewhere. Transform’s first ever commission was Javaad Alipoor’s Fringe First-winning investigation into online radicalisation The Believers Are But Brothers, recently adapted as a BBC film. This year, Leeds-based artist Jamal Gerald and the local dance duo 70/30 Split (Lydia Cottrell and Sophie Unwin) are both on the bill.
Letman was herself drawn to Leeds by its artistic scene. She moved there eight years ago, after interning with theatre company Fuel and the London International Festival of Theatre. Having struggled with London’s size, she found a small but supportive artistic community at Slung Low’s venue the Hub on a weekend visit and so upped sticks almost straight away, when a job at the Playhouse came up. “Eight years later, I’m still here. My whole practice has become about Leeds.”
“What started as a change project for the Playhouse, I now see as a change project for Leeds itself,” the creative producer continues. “How can Leeds open up to new forms of theatre and art without that work feeling other or on the edge, just a daily part of life in the city.”
Born: 1987, Birmingham
Training: Drama and Theatre Arts, Goldsmiths, University of London
• Wanted, Chris Goode and company (2016)
• The Darkest Corners, RashDash (2017)
• The Believers Are But Brothers, Javaad Alipoor (2017)
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a waitress.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Intern at London International Festival of Theatre; associate producer at Leeds Playhouse.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That things take time.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Nele Hertling, she founded a bunch of stuff in Berlin; Lucy Neal and Rose Fenton, co-founders of LIFT.
What is your best advice for aspiring producers?
Take the time to work out what your vision really is and why. Build the right allies and support around you early on.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Letman believes experimental and alternative work is inherently accessible – arguably “more so than a narrative, naturalistic play”. She points to the lack of a language barrier and to a plethora of influences from beyond theatre that may be more recognisable to new audiences than they are alienating. Her programme often has a boisterous, polymorphous streak: Tianzhuo Chen’s An Atypical Brain Damage is “part pop opera, part club experience, part performance art”; Motus’ MDLSX and Julian Hetzel’s All Inclusive are tub-thumping ‘son et lumière’ spectaculars.
Elsewhere, Transform reaches out to its community, stressing art’s civic function. Early on, Goode’s 9 handed a stage to nine local residents, a tool for each to say their piece in public. The director’s follow-up, Wanted, polled prospective audiences about what they’d like to see on stage, then duly delivered it.
Letman points back to Jude Kelly’s legacy in Leeds, establishing Heydays for the over-60s and the Beautiful Octopus Club, a night out for adults with learning disabilities, in the mid-1990s. Neither was strictly a theatre activity, but both were integral to an arts organisation. The Playhouse remains a very public space today, open to all and a base for local groups.
Festivals, Letman believes, can open a city up even more, spreading out across an area to engage with specific issues on the ground. Two years ago, RashDash created a show in a low-lit car park agitating to make the city safer for women at night and, this year, Germany’s Machina Ex will invite walking audiences to re-imagine the way surveillance operates in their city.
Letman also knows the power of producing radical work in alternative venues, be they university theatres or community halls, where new audiences might see it and find themselves inspired. “The whole city, to me, feels like an opportunity,” Letman says. “Where can we make work? Who can we collaborate with? How can we make projects materialise here?”
What’s needed now, she thinks, is a focus on the future. Transform 19’s biggest event is, arguably, When It Breaks It Burns – a Brazilian show by Sao Paolo schoolchildren who occupied their schools for six months to protest education cuts. Transform has set up its own year-round youth collective, Future Radicals, who’ll perform this year too. “You don’t want to just drop people after the festival, but that’s a challenge for us.” Letman is adamant festivals can shape the future and open up the possibilities of a given place.
Transform’s own future remains relatively unfixed. With Leeds planning, once again, for a year of culture – Leeds 2023 – Transform has become central in preparing the ground. Two more incarnations are in the diary already, but after that Letman is more philosophical, wary of the standard expectation that organisations are built to last. “The concept of a festival is about responding to a context,” she says. “I don’t want it to become one of those festivals that exists because it always has. Transform could easily continue, but it has to be malleable to the city’s next steps. Leeds – and the world – is changing.”
Founded: 2011 at West Yorkshire Playhouse; became independent in 2014
Turnover: £270,000 in a festival year; £70,000-£90,000 in a non-festival year
Funding: Arts Council Project Grants (about £70,000); Leeds Playhouse, Leeds 2023, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, British Council, Foyle Foundation, Leeds Beckett University, Goethe Institute
Staff: Five (one full-time, one part-time, three freelance)
Key contacts: Amy Letman, creative director; Sammy Gooch, general manager; Sophie Drury-Bradey, associate producer; Tshayi Hercules, Future Radicals project manager; Alice Boulton-Breeze, marketing manager
Transform 19 runs until May 4