Without Bradford’s historic Playhouse, actors Duncan Preston, George Layton, Billie Whitelaw, Peter Firth, Gorden Kaye, the late Mary Tamm, and film director Tony Richardson might have taken different paths in life.
Their glittering careers on stage and screen started out at the Little Germany venue, founded 80 years ago with writer JB Priestley as president.
Throughout its history the theatre, originally the Bradford Civic, has survived off-stage dramas, including financial struggles, fires and temporary closures. When its original home, Bradford’s Jowett Hall building, burned down in 1935, it moved to its current site in Chapel Street, Little Germany. It closed following a fire in July, 1996, re-opening the following year.
In 2001 the theatre faced closure again with debts of £14,000, prompting the Telegraph & Argus to launch a Save the Priestley campaign. A total of £25,000 was raised to save it. Following a brief closure in 2003, it was saved with a £40,000 loan and £20,000 donations.
In 2008 it went into administration again and the following year was re-launched, by a new team, under the name Bradford Playhouse. Vintage costumes were sold to pay debts and a development programme was supported by a £51,000 Arts Council award.
In 2011 another team took over, then in September last year the venue went into liquidation with historic debts of around £300,000 – the latest in a series of financial setbacks over recent years.
Shortly after liquidators took hold of the property, it was leased by a company called Be Wonderful Ltd.
Now husband-and-wife team Jono and Clare Gadsby are at the helm. As Takeover Events & Theatre Ltd, they’re leasing the building, now called the New Bradford Playhouse, for six months from liquidator Clough and Co.
Jono and Clare, who met as drama students, are developing use of the property – which has a 300-seat main theatre, a 70-seat studio and a cabaret area in the spacious basement bar – prior to making a formal bid. If they get the green light next March, longterm plans will include transforming the building’s exterior, highlighting its presence on Leeds Road.
“It’s a beautiful Art Deco building and we want to build on that. We want to engage with its past, as well as making it more accessible,” said Jono. “We’d like a glass frontage, turning it around so the entrance is from the main road, not tucked down a side street. We desperately need to put a lift in – it’s very frustrating that we can’t accommodate as many people as we could – but we’d need £50,000 for that so it won’t happen overnight.”
The couple, working with a voluntary team of former Playhouse members and new faces, are currently focusing on opening up the venue for amateur dramatic companies and community groups, as well as professional artists.
“Our aim is for a community venue, with art at its heart,” said Clare. “We’re keen to support Bradford’s amateur network, and attract professional productions too. This is a beautiful building with lovely original features and flexible spaces; it can be used for so many purposes.”
The Playhouse’s long tradition of Saturday morning drama classes has been restored, with a new youth theatre group. There’s a programme for emerging young artists, with a gallery in the bar and plans to turn large upstairs rooms into collaborative spaces for artists.
Jono and Clare are keen for young actors and directors to develop work, using rehearsal and performance spaces.
“When we started out with our own productions we didn’t have much mentorship,” said Clare. “We’re helping people build production packages, which they can take on tour. We offer advice about things like marketing and funding.”
Jono, from Pudsey, was in the Bradford Players and grew up watching shows at the Playhouse. He says it bridges the gap between smaller performance spaces and the main stage, enabling a variety of productions from edgy theatre to amateur pantomimes.
“We have a fully-equipped stage which can accommodate big spectacles, and furniture-building workshops. Developing work under one roof enables those starting out to learn the skillset for bigger spaces.”
The couple are working with Little Germany Action Group on developing the area’s infrastructure. The Playhouse bar, with vintage sofas, coffee tables and lamps, attracts local business people, and recently hosted an office Christmas party.
“This area has suffered from misconceptions about crime and lack of parking. The reality is there are hundreds of car parking spaces, behind the theatre and in the multi-storey, and the Little Germany Action Group has worked hard to make the area safe. There are lots of people living and working here now,” said Jono.
As well as working with emerging theatre groups, and collaborating with the University of Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill, Jono and Clare are developing their own productions at the Playhouse. They include ‘Macbeth by Facebook’, to be performed next year.
Other projects include playwright Jonathan Hall’s ‘page-to-stage’ writing workshops, a resident jazz band, and Late Lounge sessions, starting on December 13 with swing band Dominic Haplin and The Honey Bees.
The Priestley Coffee Bar and Lounge is open Monday to Wednesday, 10am to 7pm, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10am to 11pm. A kitchen is being developed, with a view to serving food.
“People drop in for coffee or a glass of wine, it’s become a ‘second living-room’ with a creative vibe,” said Jono. “Our mission statement is: ‘If there’s a place to have a creative conversation, it’s here’.”