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A History of Jewish Theatre in Leeds

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library.

Milim 2017, the second Festival of Jewish Words for All in Leeds, is currently in full swing, and the diverse programme of events has so far included a Jewish History in Leeds workshop at Central Library last Tuesday.

Among the many materials we shared with our group were examples from the library’s huge collection of local theatre playbills. Within these, references to Jewish life and customs can be traced back to 1818, when a Mr. Mallinson performed a comic song called “Miss Levi, Miss Abrahams and Miss Moses, or: Jewish Courtship” at the Hunslet Lane theatre. Of course, performers on the city stage were often not local and would generally tour the country, so this and similar productions are unlikely to have reflected life in Leeds itself. Likewise, they almost certainly wouldn’t have been aimed at a Jewish audience. It’s not until the late 19th Century, when larger numbers of Jewish people had begun to live and work here, that the city saw the rise of a genuine Jewish theatrical movement.

This probably didn’t take the form you would expect. For years, I’ve come across references to a Jewish community theatre active around the late 1800s/early 1900s, centred on a place called Alexandra Hall – the location of which I’ve never been able to establish. Its purpose seemed to be to act as a ‘safe place’ (to use current lingo) where Jewish immigrants, facing poverty in their living conditions and hostility from other residents, could share and address their problems. If you think about it, this chosen medium – built as it is around coming together, collaboration, creativity and emotional release – was probably an apt and powerful one, and as familiar and traditional as communal worship.

In collecting resources for the workshop, I came across Edward Burgess’s 1925 series of articles for the Yorkshire Evening News, entitled The Soul of the Leeds Ghetto (shelfmark: LQ 296 B912). Here, finally, was a written description of the Alexandra Hall, including its location – Cookridge Street – and a picture:

Taken from “Part IX: The Drama”, 31 January 1925

Professional productions of Jewish theatre in Leeds go back to at least 1911, with the mounting of what would become known as Yiddish Repertoire Week. Its main star Fanny Waxman (1878-1958) was a well-known Jewish actress, who was active on the London stage for forty years until her retirement in 1930. The demanding programme involved a different play every night at 8pm, and our playbills collection includes examples from 1911 and 1916, some of which are written entirely in Yiddish.

The first Leeds Jewish Amateur Stage Group, the Proscenium Players, was founded in 1948. Its original remit was to mount four productions a year at the Albert Hall, which later became the Civic Theatre. After decades of diverse and successful shows – in the hands of several generations of ‘Pross’ players – the company took their final bow in the 1990s, and their venue was later transformed into the current City Museum on Millennium Square. For a complete history, read John Fisher’s book, An Audience of Curious People, available in the Local and Family History Library (L 792 FIS).

One of the Players’ most iconic pieces was the 1950 original play They Came to Leeds, co-written by well-known local historian Louis Saipe. The story, set in the Leylands area in the 1880s, deals with the early years of Jewish immigration to Leeds. In 1955, the group tackled a play called Two on an Island. Although the premise is a light romantic comedy, in which the central couple meet only at the end, the production required no less than eleven elaborate sets representing famous New York landmarks – including Broadway, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern art and, finally, the top of the Statue of Liberty. Thankfully, critics agreed that the society had pulled it off spectacularly.

The Players’ Jean Tordoff took the demanding lead in 1961’s Roots, made famous by Joan Plowright on the London stage. The story deals with the growing maturity of a young woman living in Norfolk and requires its cast to deliver lots of local dialect in an authentic accent.

The Proscenium Players’ 1962 production of Crime and Punishment cast a young Ronald Pickup (then a student at Leeds University) in the central role of Raskolnikoff, the murderer. The young actor was universally acclaimed by the local press and went on to a very successful career on stage and screen. He recently appeared with Judi Dench and Bill Nighy as one of the main characters in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel.

These and other playbills are currently on display in the Local and Family History Library throughout the rest of March. You can uncover more about our books and other materials on Jewish history in Leeds through our Research Guide. For more information about upcoming Milim 2017 events, see the online programme. And, finally, you can read more about very early Leeds theatre here at the Secret Library in Famous Last Words.

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