National of the North seeks lottery rescue

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The Independent Culture
The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, one of the biggest theatrical success stories of the Nineties, is in financial crisis.

It will apply for lottery funding as "a financial lifeline", a spokesman said yesterday. He added that the board had at one point considered liquidation.

Interest charges and repayments on debts from the construction of the theatre some six years ago will amount to pounds 2.4m over the next eight years, requiring it to generate an additional pounds 200,000 each year.

A statement from the theatre yesterday said: "Without urgent alleviation of this financial millstone, the Playhouse is faced with the real prospect of not being able to sustain its current level of operation from the next financial year."

That the Playhouse should be in dire financial straits is a surprise. Its artistic director, the acclaimed Jude Kelly, has proved one of the most exciting and innovative theatre heads, and only yesterday the Playhouse was nominated as "Most Welcoming Theatre" in the British regional Theatre Awards. Critics have described it as the National Theatre of the North.

The crisis at the Playhousedates back to a unexpected building debt and ensuing legal fees following a dispute with Amec, the builders, in 1990.

That dispute over extra costs in addition to the original pounds 13.5m for the building went to arbitration and was settled out of court, with the Playhouse having to pay an extra pounds 1.1m.

Ms Kelly said that at one point she went "and sat on the doorstep" of the chairman of Amec to plead with him. He was sympathetic and helped to reach a settlement. "But," a theatre spokesman added, "we spent all our savings on arbitration and legal fees and had to take on additional loans."

Ben Elton, whose new play Popcorn is on at the Playhouse, said it was one of the foremost British theatres for introducing new writing. "It's an absolute disaster that the Playhouse should be starved of cash," he said. "London is over-funded and the regions are under-funded."

The new Arts Council stabilisation programme to which the West Yorkshire Playhouse is applying will use lottery money to help pay off long-term debts, provided the council is satisfied about the institution's long- term policy.

Ms Kelly said: "There is a huge irony in the fact that while lottery funds have provided pounds 70m for the Royal Opera House in London and pounds 30m for the refurbishment of the Royal Court, one of the great new theatres has faced regular crises."

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