Playhouse director makes exit to seek new roles

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The Independent Culture

Jude Kelly, the director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse who made the Leeds venue a rival for the West End's best, has become the latest long-serving theatre head to quit.

Ms Kelly, who lured the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart to the Playhouse during her 11 years in charge, denied that her resignation had anything to do with two other theatrical vacancies that have arisen. Sam Mendes, Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, is leaving the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden at the end of next year and the acclaimed duo of Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent will stand down at the Almeida in Islington even sooner.

She said she would have announced the move before but had waited because of the speculation surrounding her application to succeed Trevor Nunn as artistic director of the National Theatre. She was narrowly beaten to the post this autumn by Nicholas Hytner.

But Ms Kelly, who will leave next autumn, said: "I'm not talking to the Donmar or the Almeida. That's not the reason. It's just that I don't think anybody who talks about risk taking, creativity and innovation should stay in the same place for 25 years."

Ms Kelly became artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1988, two years before it opened, and created a thriving community centre producing acclaimed modern and classic drama. She said: "Having watched the bricks of the building being laid, it is hard for me now to leave this wonderful theatre. But I've got another set of ideas that I want to start developing. I'll be happy not to be mistress of all I survey for a while."

It was already known that she and her family were moving to London, her son having won a place at the Royal Ballet School. And in a sign that she had been considering her future for some time, she revealed yesterday that one of her first new projects will be to establish a new experimental arts studio, to be called Metal, in a space she discovered two years ago in West Hampstead, London. She is also considering has a couple of film scripts.

Although her critics claimed she was a better administrator than director, Ms Kelly won an Olivier award for her production of Singin' in the Rain that transferred to the National Theatre, and praise for seasons such as that headlined by McKellen in 1998.

Her passionate advocacy of the arts and energetic drive won her many admirers and a place on a number of government bodies dedicated to broadening cultural access.

She is vice-chairwoman of a Department of Education committee on creative education, represents Britain for Unesco on cultural matters and is a member of the Independent Television Commission.

But she insisted yesterday that she was not leaving theatre and intends to retain close links with Leeds. She told the Playhouse board of her decision at the annual general meeting on Wednesday night.

Bernard Atha, the Playhouse's chairman and the man who appointed Ms Kelly, said she had turned the two-auditoria theatre into an exciting organisation with a reputation for innovation and excellence.

"Jude is a woman of boundless energy and enormous artistic creativity," he said.

"Having her as artistic director has been like living on a theatrical roller-coaster.

"We shall be sad to see her go, but I hope West Yorkshire Playhouse and Jude Kelly can maintain a close future connection."

Jude Kelly's greatest hits

Sir Ian McKellen

While starring in The Seagull and The Tempest in 1998, he deserted London crowds in favour of working in rep with local audiences and an ensemble acting company

'Singin' in the Rain'

Kelly's Olivier award-winning production, adapted from the Hollywood movie, was a triumph although it was arguably Stephen Mear's choreography that stole the show

Patrick Stewart

The Yorkshire-born actor, of Star Trek fame, was lured to the British stage for the first time in decades for the first major revival in half a century of the JB Priestley play, Johnson over Jordan

'The Merchant of Venice'

Kelly's spectacular reinterpretation of this Shakespearian classic, with Nichola McAuliffe as Portia, won widespread praise for its depiction of a Venice blighted by racism