In part one of our interview with Leeds Playhouse Associate Director Amy Leach our features editor Paul Clarke finds out more about their acting ensemble that will perform in the Pop Up space during the theatre’s year-long refurbishment.
When Leeds Playhouse closed its doors for a multi-million pound refurbishment they decided to create an ensemble of 10 actors who would appear in all the shows they will stage in a specially created pop up theatre in a former props space.
Artistic Director James Brining will be directing the ensemble in a production of Europe, but Associate Director Amy Leach was first to take the reins as they took on Jim Cartwright’s Road, which was certainly a big test for this newly formed team.
“The idea of an ensemble is an extraordinary thing, and I’ve really noticed it already, and we’re only a few weeks into it,” recalls Amy. “When we were rehearsing Road we had five weeks before going into tech, but in that time two of the weeks we spent rehearsing Europe, which is the next play most of them are doing.
“We also learnt the songs for A Christmas Carol, had fittings for Road and A Christmas Carol and we had design presentations for all three shows. At first you could see that on the first day when we started rehearsing three things all at the same time their brains were melting at the stuff they were taking in.
“The potential in actors is extraordinary as they are amazing, amazing creatures. They do such an amazing thing, and to see them jugging all those different shows is astonishing.”
Anyone who has seen the quality of the ensemble work in Road that has earned them rave reviews will know Amy and James have got the casting spot on. They’ve brought together experienced actors with some young guns and clearly have the sort of chemistry that will stand them in good stead during their year long journey together.
“That kind of capacity to learn skills as a group has been amazing and I’m just starting to see how they work as a team. There was something really lovely about the last run through of Road and leaving that rehearsal room because normally that will be the final day you will be in there. From an actor’s perspective it is the beginning of the end as it then press night and the run.
“They were all saying how different it felt opening Road, and then we get to go back into the room to start rehearsing another play. There is sense of them being a bit more relaxed, and they not thinking ‘shit, what is the next job I’m doing.’ Suddenly they can play together in a different way, and it is really extraordinary way to work.”
When actors like Sir Ian McKellen are interviewed they often talk about the rep system they grew up with as companies spent months on the road going round regional theatres doing many different plays. When the Playhouse were looking to create their own rep company they had to think long and hard what the ensemble would look like and how that would impact on the quality of the work.
“The old rep system they would rehearse for a week, put it up the next week and then do another one,” muses Amy. “The speed at which they rehearsing those plays was absolutely insane and probably meant some of the shows weren’t always that good.
“We knew we wanted our ensemble be to very Northern, so wanted as many actors as possible who were locally based, or from the wider North originally. We knew we wanted to aim for a gender balance, so we have five women and five men, and we wanted a diverse group of actors
“We were looking for versatility, and people who have ensemble bones so they can turn their hand from Shakespeare to A Christmas Carol and then a modern classic. We all wanted people who would relish that as we went to some actors who weren’t interested in living in Leeds for a year and doing a whole range of things. What we’ve ended up is a group of people who absolutely relish the opportunity to play lots of different parts, and none of them are starry actors. They are interested in the endeavour of an ensemble.”
The only big difference is most companies only stay together for a short period of time until the job is done and they go their separate ways. The ensemble will be together for a year and Amy is well aware that tensions – artistic or otherwise – could fester.
“It demands a kindness which I generally expect from companies and we talked about that in the first couple of days how we need to give each space, to look after each other and to be kind. They all seem obvious things, but is all the more important when we are going to be together for a year.
“We are a family, and sometimes families rub each up the wrong way, and get each on each other’s nerves. All actors work in different ways like we all learn differently in classrooms and they are all starting to understand how each other works. What they won’t have to do is prove themselves in each job and have that first week saying how they work. We can get stuck in and go deeper as we go through the year.
“I haven’t done the edit of Hamlet yet, but now I know those actors I can think can make it so we can best out of them.”
Whilst being member of the ensemble is a rare opportunity for actors used to following jobs around the country it is also a chance for the directors to push the work with people they will get to know well.
“When I go into the casting process I often don’t have a very clear idea of who should play what part, and I don’t have a particular look. What I’m interested in what truth those individual actors bring to the part, and what they will do that I would never have dreamt of.
“It’s about creating the circumstances where they feel safe to make offers, and that I’ll run with those offers, and what we are doing is working towards telling that story in the best possible way. It’s a real honour to get to play with this amazing group of people.
“The response to the Road and one of the universal things, even from people who don’t like the play, was ‘wow, that ensemble are amazing’, and the acting quality is outstanding. So people are saying they can’t wait to see what they do next.”
Europe, Leeds Playhouse Pop-Up theatre, Friday 12th October – Saturday 3rd November. Box office 0113 213 7700. Book online www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk