Meet Cheryl Martin, new artistic director of Red Ladder Theatre Company – interview

Red Ladder AD, Cheryl Martin.

Leeds’ vibrant theatre scene spans large opera houses to small independent companies, but perhaps the best representatives of what Leeds does so well is Red Ladder Theatre Company. Synonymous with bold ideas and memorable intimate experiences, they’ve acquired a dedicated audience in the city and beyond, and been unwavering in their approach (as this TSOTA piece from 2018 proves).

2024 will be a big year for Red Ladder, with some significant differences. They have a new Artistic Director – Cheryl Martin. She joined in January 2024, taking over from Rod Dixon, who presided over the company for 17 years. Cheryl’s career has taken her from her home in the US to the North-West of England, where she’s led community theatre projects with Oldham Coliseum, Traverse Theatre Edinburgh & Contact Theatre. She co-founded LGBTQ+ Global-Majority performance arts company Black Gold Arts. Now, she brings her impressive experience to Leeds, in a role that perfectly matches company to candidate.

“It was just such a lucky happenstance that I was available and that the job was there and that they liked my ideas,” Cheryl explained in a conversation with TSOTA. “I really wanted this role and I was very honest in the interview. Because I want them to know who they’ve got and make sure that’s who they really want.”

So what ideas will Cheryl bring? New collaborations with other organisations, different ways of finding writers and actors, training opportunities for directors, original commissions for community plays – the planning is already in progress as the team have started “whittling down my blue sky thinking to a little patch of blue that we might actually be able to put into practice.”

Cheryl has been dedicated to the idea that theatre inspires change and raises awareness, something fundamental to the Red Ladder approach. She cites the example of a play about HIV she directed in the 80s, which taught people about the reality of the disease, and “moved the dial” to encourage more widespread understanding of its medication.

But hitting audiences over the head with overt political messages isn’t all you need to challenge perspectives. “For me, it’s always got to be a good piece of theatre first, because that’s how you reach people,” she says. “Red Ladder might specialise in ‘radical’, or ‘politically engaged’ theatre… but that doesn’t mean that it’s not entertaining.”

Advert for Red Ladder show with the legs of three women holding protest items

We’re Not Going Back advert. Source: Red Ladder

So how else do you bring out a work’s radical, impactful character? 

“You could take lots of different approaches to get there. I believe that when people see things, it’s that thing about empathy – the emotional through line, no matter how weird and wonderful the structure is,” Cheryl explains. “It can be completely unconventional. It can be nonlinear. It can be anything! But it’s the emotional through line that grabs people and makes them feel for others. When people feel for someone else, then it’s really difficult to demonise them.”

Cheryl has the exciting challenge of keeping continuity for the company, whilst identifying ways they can improve and guiding Red Ladder to further success. As always, they are seeking “bigger audiences”, but for Cheryl growth isn’t just a numbers game.

“There are still audiences that aren’t a part of Red Ladder yet. I didn’t see a lot of African-descent people, for instance, or global-majority audiences. And a lot of theatres could get a lot more into those communities. 

“But that’s the way to do it: go into the communities, you know, have some sort of long term project in that community so that they know you’re actually interested in them and you’re actually committed.”

Given Cheryl’s extensive understanding of theatre, how does she feel about the industry in general right now?

“It feels very precarious”, she says of the state of theatre nationally, referencing decisions by councils to cut arts funding, and recent scaling back in some of Manchester’s establishments. “But again, that’s what excites me about Leeds and what Red Ladder is doing – Leeds has its own ecology going and that’s how they’re able to do so much work and reach so many people.”

And as well as preparing Red Ladder for the year ahead, Cheryl has the joyful task of better getting to know the city she that she’ll soon be providing with Red Ladder’s disruptive brand of theatre: “I’m getting to learn more through our amazing board, and our partners… But for me, the main thing that I’m going to have to do is go out at night and just see stuff, of all the different arts that are going on. I love that it’s actually now part of my job – just to get to know who’s doing what and find the things that just make you jump.”


Red Ladder are reprising their all-female musical comedy ‘We’re Not Going Back’ to mark the 40th anniversary of the miners’ strike, which will show in March. More info is here. The Lighthouse is also touring until late March.

This year they will also be presenting Sanctuary, a play about how a community responds to the arrival of a young Iranian asylum seeker. For updates on new and current shows, follow Red Ladder on social media.