Penny Sanders, programme director at Seven Arts, chats to JLife’s Laura Sefton about swapping career paths, what makes Chapel Allerton special, and why she thinks poetry beats comedy every time.
Why is Chapel Allerton an important part of Leeds for you?
I’ve spent most of my professional life working as a landscape architect/ town planner and I’m passionate about good places and how to create them. I came from Lowestoft to study in Leeds and have lived in Chapel Allerton since my student days. I’ve raised a family here.
Around 20 years ago I got together with other like-minded friends and local residents to think of ways we could improve the environment and community feel of the area. A direct result was the Chapel Allerton Arts Festival, which we started in 1998, ran for eight years, and continues as a thriving annual event each September.
How did the arts space come about?
Around the time we began the festival, the old Chapeltown Police Station on Harrogate Road became vacant and there was a strong feeling that it should be retained for community use, sparking the idea of an arts centre. Although the building was subsequently sold, the idea persisted. A decade later in July 2007, following a long period of planning, fundraising and negotiation, we opened Seven, its name deriving from the concept of drawing together the various Leeds 7 communities.
I had never planned to change my career, but having got Seven off the ground, it was clear that someone steeped in the project needed to steer it and I was in a position to be able to do that.
As programme director, what does your role involve?
Seven as an arts centre is unusual in that we have chosen not to be dependent on public funding and the uncertainty of Arts Council funding. Rather, we have developed a business model and underpin the arts programme mainly with income from café/ bar sales.
Although I use the title of programme director, the role is pretty broad. I oversee the arts programme, in the sense of co-ordinating the events we put on at Seven, but spend an equal amount of time looking after business finances, company obligations, managing the website, and help practically with venue maintenance.
Do you have a target audience at Seven Arts?
When we opened Seven our ethos was to appeal to a broad spectrum of the local and wider community through an eclectic programme of events. I consider to a large extent we achieve this. It would be hard to pin down a typical audience member as each genre of the arts, be it film, theatre, music, comedy, South Asian arts, or one of the many café events, draws its own niche audience.
We also have many people who come into Seven’s café/ bar for its own sake as it is a relaxed place to be that has wide appeal to many sections of the community.
How far in advance do you have to plan?
In terms of planning the arts programme, we have more flexibility than most venues as we are not constrained by the deadlines of producing a seasonal brochure, preferring to focus on our internally produced programme, website and social media. We generally book six to nine months ahead, with events filling spare dates right up to a just a few weeks ahead.
What makes the artist the right fit?
Like all venues, we get many more requests to perform than we can accommodate, particularly when it comes to music and musicians. The main question is always, ‘Is there an audience for this?’ As far as possible we work with a small number of valued promoters that are passionate about a certain area, such as jazz or Americana, and who have built a following for what they put on here.
The same applies to comedy, the promoter of which, Silky, has been organising monthly Kill For A Seat comedy since we opened. While theatre is selected mainly from direct contact by theatre companies, Seven is a member of a network of 12 small venues across Yorkshire, and this means we can discuss between us what and what not to book.
It sounds like you have the dream job. Are there any pitfalls?
The biggest nightmare for a programmer is when we have double-booked the space. Thankfully this is very rare. Far more commonly we get date changes and cancellations, which is irritating, but mainly we grin and bear it as not being tied to a brochure means we have more flexibility in changing our programme.
What has been the most memorable act for you during your time at Seven Arts? Do you have any favourites?
Although Seven is small – just 100 seats – it is a fabulous place to perform as it is intimate and the acoustics are so good. There have been so many knock-out performances. I’m not a jazz fan, but Soweto Kinch, organised by Seven Jazz, blew me away, as did the production of ‘The Forbidden Door’ by theatre company, Devil’s Violin, which saw music and story working as one.
Last year Silky secured a gig with Sarah Millican, which was pretty exciting. I’m a big performance poetry fan; in my view the best stand-up poetry beats comedy hands down, for its shear wit and elegance of delivery. One of my favourite performers is Elvis McGonagall. He’s at Seven on 28th April – one not to miss.
Who would be your dream booking for the venue?
Corinne Bailey Rae. She’s been a customer in the bar, but it would be great to have this fabulous singer-songwriter/ guitarist, perform at Seven.