Interview: Amy Letman, creative director of Transform Festival

By April 22, 2016


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Transform Festival is a citywide event in Leeds that aims to get people involved in and excited by theatre and to re-examine what theatre can be. Jack Simpson talks to its creative director, Amy Letmam.

Hey Amy, how’s it going? Ready for Transform ’16?

Hey! It’s going good! And we are just about ready…

WANTED (our big community show with Chris Goode & Company) has just finished rehearsal, and we’re about to go into the theatre to tech. WANTED is a pretty epic show, four directors, one lead artist, design creatives and associates, 24 community participants and a company of performers, so its been a bit of a logistical feat to organise, but we’re feeling on track! Apart from that, we’re busy preparing for all the other performances and special events, and we have more artists arriving from around the country and internationally next week.

Why Transform (as a name)?

Transform started as a smaller-scale project at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (where I used to work), at a point when the organisation set out to rethink the kinds of theatre it was producing, and wanted to reimagine the way the theatre was engaging with both artists and audiences, so that’s where the name came from.

When we decided to establish Transform as an independent company last year, developing a citywide and international festival for Leeds, the title was one of the things we definitely wanted to keep, as it felt like it had become part of our identity. Our company is driven by the desire to reimagine theatre – who can see it, make it, get involved, where it happens, how long it lasts, and what kinds of contexts its created and presented within. We’re also interested in creating experiences and events which have a long lasting, change-making influence for those who see and take part. ‘Transform’ as an ethos feels part of everything we do.


WANTED looks interesting. What’s the motivation for inviting suggestions from the audience?

We’ve been working with Chris Goode, the lead artist of WANTED, since 2011, across a series of projects which have each involved making an invitation to audiences to come in and be part of making a piece of theatre. In 2011, our first experiment of this kind was called ‘Open House’, which involved Chris and a group of collaborators taking over a rehearsal space for a week, and offering anyone who wanted to come in and be part of making a small performance.

In 2012, we then created a show called ‘9’ where we invited nine local people from across Leeds, who had never stepped on a stage before, to be part of creating a major new show on stage at the Playhouse. WANTED is the next ambitious step in this journey of Transform, Chris Goode & Company, and West Yorkshire Playhouse collaborations, where we’ve now extended the invitation to 24 willing people and groups across Leeds and asked them the question ‘What do you most want to see on stage in three minutes’?

Theatre makers have been working with this diverse and beautiful bunch of people over the last three months to bring their ideas to life. Our youngest participant is three years old, and the eldest in their nineties, and we are working with a range of groups from across the city including Manston Primary School, Leeds Jamaica Society, and Leeds LGBT Network, so the responses to the question have been varied, exciting, and revealing, in terms of what people really want to see…

How would you describe the inspiration and continued drive to put on Transform?

Leeds is such an amazing and creative city. Personally, I feel really passionate about developing a citywide and international theatre festival for Leeds. Most other major European cities have an international theatre festival, and I’m kinda transfixed on the idea of Leeds having one too! One of the projects we’re presenting this year, Schönheitsabend (a beautiful evening) is by international artists Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek.

I saw their work in New York last year, and just felt we had to find a way to bring them to Leeds! Most of the programme is made up of ideas that one of our team or one of the brilliant artists we work with has come up with, which feels so special that we just have to go to any lengths to make it happen. In a way, Transform is simply a mechanism for making some extraordinary ideas happen in the city. Our team is driven by independent producers (me, Ric Watts, and Melanie Purdie) with a desire to make things happen, and there seems a real thirst from audiences and local artists for Transform, so we must keep going!


You’ve been around Leeds, and part of it’s changing state over the last few years. How have you experienced that change?

Thinking specifically about the arts, it has felt like a gradual but significant evolution. We have lots more artists deciding to stick around after graduating, make work and contribute to the scene, and there are new and exciting projects, companies and spaces popping up regularly. 

Its also an exciting time to be in Leeds because of the conversations around the city bidding for European Capital of Culture, the development of a new cultural strategy, and significant developments within theatre, dance, music, and the visual arts. I love being part of this vibrant landscape, and can’t wait to see how things shift further in the coming years.

You describe “…bringing different people and contexts together”. Can you elaborate on this? 

I want our programmes to be full of different experiences, people and perspectives – from those close to home to those across the world, the interesting thing is when you mix different ideas, people, and contexts together, and see what happens. This year, WANTED brings the ideas of 24 people from many different backgrounds and walks of life into one show. At our very first meeting for the project, it felt really special to see such a mix of people, who wouldn’t ordinarily all come together, talk about their ideas.

Before or after you’ve seen WANTED, you could catch a piece created by a new young company from Leeds (Stitch Theatre) or choreographers from Germany and Holland (Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek). At our Transform Party on the Saturday night, we’ll gather everyone who’s been part of making Transform ’16 happen and as many of our audiences as possible together at Live Art Bistro, for one big knees up!

Theatre is obviously thousands of years old. You describe pushing at what theatre can be. Do you feel there is still space for theatre to evolve, in any real sense? If so, how do you imagine that?

Sure! I used to worry that I didn’t like theatre. I felt a lot of the things I was seeing felt removed from my life and the things I liked to do, like seeing friends, going to the cinema, music, dancing. Then I started to see more work which felt closer to the world I understood, and explored things which felt relevant to the current world I knew.

For me the subject matter of the theatre I see must feel contemporary and relevant. I’m personally interested in theatre as a space where the various art forms can meet – be it performance, live art, cinemea, music, dance. I’m also really interested in questioning how theatre can be made, who can go, where it can happen. With Transform, we’ve created theatre shows outside of tower blocks, on busy shopping streets, we’ve asked people in the community to come and make the theatre with us. That way, the theatre reflects the world outside, it feels relevant and important.

We’re working with some amazing artists this year (such as Tim Etchells, Chris Goode, RashDash, Stitch Theatre and others) who each in different ways, I feel are pushing at the idea of what theatre can be. So long as there are artists in the world then I believe that artforms will continue to evolve with the changing times. 

People often talk about our attention spans being diminished by time spent using digital media. Do you think this is having or will have an effect on theatre?

Possibly. Sometimes I find myself in a show wanting to ‘pause it’ or wishing it would end (isn’t that terrible?!), but then again, I can sit through some longer pieces and am so engrossed that the time can fly by! As long as the work is surprising and imaginative, then hopefully there shouldn’t be a problem. I do think we certainly have a challenge though both in terms of theatres role in the digital world, and how we engage the youngest generation who are so acclimatised to constant communication and use of social media, but it’s an interesting challenge.

What’s next for you after this?

After Transform ’16 I will be wrapping up the full programme and tying up loose ends, then straight on to fundraising for our next festival! Transform ’16 is our first programme as a brand new company. We’re describing it as a teaser/ trailblazer programme before our first major festival next year. So there’s lots to do and organise!