© Warren Orchard/National Theatre Wales
|National Theatre Wales (NTW) has launched on a new course in theater that has no theater facility to base its activities in but instead engages local communities in site-specific projects at such venues as libraries, military bases and coalmines. It has created an online community with its website to conduct activities as a “theatre without walls.” This interview with artistic director John E. McGrath explores this unique undertaking.
Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki (journalist)
Ten years ago there was only one National Theatre in Great Britain, but now there are four in total. Starting from the founding of the National Theatre Company by the actor Lawrence Olivier in 1963, and then the Royal National Theatre (NT) was established in London’s South Bank. Then, after 2000, three new theatres were established. First, the Theatre Genedlaethol Cymru in Wales for Welsh language theatre in 2003, then three years later the National Theatre of Scotland, and then another three years later the National Theatre Wales (NTW) was established in Wales for English language theatre. What was the reason for this sudden increase in national theatres after 2000?
It was a direct result of a policy change, actually. In 1997, when the labor government [of Tony Blaire] came into power, there was a policy change with a new commitment for something called the ‘devolution.’ Devolution was a radical change that meant handing back some powers of the UK to the respective countries. As you know the UK was formerly four separate nations. In 1997, the government made a decision that Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should each have their own government and power, and that the power should be devolved to the respective governments in the sectors including health, education and culture.
One of the areas that was changed immediately after those governments were formed was culture. Interestingly, there was until that time a form of National Opera company and National Dance company, but no national theatre companies in the other countries of the UK besides The National Theatre (NT) in the London. After this political shift, and the first place to get attention was the Welsh-speaking area with the Welsh National Theatre, because Welsh-language theatre was not present at all in the National Theatre in London. So, that was an obvious gap really, and a step to create a Welsh speaking national theatre was quite obvious. Then, secondly, in Scotland, which is where Blaire himself is from, there was a more political drive than in the other countries that we’ve described, so that was the next step. But, in Scotland very few people (approx. 1.2%) speak their original language, Gaelic, so at the National Theatre of Scotland the performances are almost entirely in English.
After the establishment of the National Theatre of Scotland, attention naturally turned to the establishment of a national theatre in Wales for plays performed in English. It is true that more people speak Welsh in Wales than the number who speak Gaelic in Scotland, but still only some 25% of the people speak Welsh. Of course 100% of the people, more or less, speak English. The Arts Council argued that there should be a national theatre in Wales for English-language theatre, which finally led to the founding of our National Theatre Wales (NTW) in 2009.
When you have two national theatres in one country – you have the Welsh speaking national theatre and then you have the English speaking national theatre - we might think, from an outsider’s point of view, that are these people would be competing against each other. What is the actual situation right now amongst the two organizations?
The situation is quite good right now. Two different companies but actually a lot of mutual support. And also, we are doing a co-production together soon. But, I think that we definitely both feel that actually it is better to have two companies. Because it means that each company could pursue their own work rigorously, rather than always looking for compromise, balancing things on this side and that side. It’s not a competition but, I think it is healthy to have two companies that can have their own identity. Ultimately, both theatres are run by great people who just love theatre. That’s the bottom line for developing new and interesting models and projects.
From the very beginning NTW drew attention as the world’s first “online national theatre.” You didn’t have a grand theatre building, instead you were creating an online community. How did this very adventurous initiative come about? Where did the idea come from?
When I was invited to get involved in this project in 2008, I started thinking of the world that we are in now, and what it means to launch a national company like NTW now. I began doing a lot of research and study in what the values are in Wales. One thing was quite obvious. Here people do not like things to be too much centralized, with everything in one place, and to be expected to come there. They don’t like hierarchy (laughs). Also, in terms of theatre, there are many big theatres throughout England, and still in Scotland, but in Wales there aren’t many big theatre buildings. Thirdly, there is a very strong tradition in Wales of working in unusual places. This traces back to the traditional Welsh language work of Eisteddfod, where each year it is located in a different field across Wales. Also, there was a theatre tradition that developed in the 1970s which was connected to experimental European theatre. So, Wales was the first place in Britain that Polish director Jerzy Grotowski came to. He did workshops here and influenced a lot of theatre practitioners. So, there were three things, political terms, hating decentralization and the institutional issues surrounding theatre, and an artistic aspect. These three all seemed to be things that could be made positive, giving us an identity when creating a national theatre in Wales in the 21st century.
This is where we came up with the idea of starting off with a “theatre map.” The first year, because we travelled to all different places, we called it the theatre map of Wales. Every month, we opened a new show in a different place in Wales. And this wasn’t only an exploration of place, it was also an exploration of theatre. It was mapping out theatre of Wales as well as mapping out Wales. Another thing that caught our attention was that 2008 was the point where Web 2.0 (web sites that use technology beyond the static pages of earlier web sites) had become generally adopted. The interactive web, not the passive web, was becoming really the key way of communicating. So suddenly, people everywhere in the world could create communities in a totally new manner.
So, in addition to our approach to 12 different communities around Wales, we adopted the idea of starting a virtual community, which gave birth to a new kind of national theatre. It wasn’t about us creating websites with a lot of information on it. It was us opening a space on line, where people could form a community. We created a website on a Bing platform, which means that you can create your own space and community, the National Theatre Wales Community, and that was the first thing we launched in May 2009. So, the National Theatre Wales was absolutely linked to the sense of community and to the sense of nation, but it was linked digitally and interactively. It was first time in the world that a theatre company was based totally digitally, and until today the online community remains the core of NTW.
In other words, the national identity NTW wants to express is one that not only different regional identities of the people but also a digital identity that is not rooted in any single particular region.
Yes. As I thought about Welsh-ness today, it seemed to me that it might be important to ask what it means to be here, who is here, not what is inside you, but what does it mean that we are in this place called Wales today. In other words it might be best to make an idea of nation through place. Not looking at history or ethnicity but at the places where we live. And that seemed to me that this might be the best way of looking at the Wales nation and its identity. And when we look at this place where we are, we find that in today’s world, we are both ‘here and now’ in physical space and digital space most of the time. Failing to look at both of these will deny some part of our identity. So I decided to establish NTW’s national identity by looking at both forms of ‘here and now.’
In all of the NTW projects you seem to have both the ‘here and now’ of each community and this other ‘here and now’ in the virtual reality.
That’s correct. An example of a show that was heavily digital-based was the Radicalization of Bradley Manning
. As you know, Manning is the young American who is now in prison in Kansas for leaking great volumes of highly classified U.S. military documents to Wikileaks. We made his life the subject of a show that you could only see online, when it was performing live, which we live-streamed every time we did it. It was set up so you could see things through surveillance cameras. We didn’t advise the audience to see it in an ordinary way, there were links provided with background information, about Manning, about Wikileaks, about Afghanistan, about Iraq, but also about the town of Penbricksher [in southwest Wales] were Manning went to school. There was a huge range of links to different resources. You were encouraged online not to watch like a good theatre audience, but to be like an online audience, opening a box over here, reading an article, two different ways of looking at it, with each experience running alongside each other, and equally valid. It’s about being ‘here and now’ in different ways.
Another work that is an example of the ‘here and now’ approach was The Passion
(2011) that we did in the harbor town of Port Talbot as the last work of our first year. We used a weekend in April and the performance ran for 72 hours straight in a street theatre style using the venues of the town to act out the Passion of Christ. It was designed as a work for a large-scale public audience, and I think it was both an extraordinary site-specific piece of theatre but also it was the first theatre piece that really existed on Twitter. Because so many people in the audience, who had just discovered Twitter, started tweeting photos and comments, etc. So there were quite a lot of people who kept in touch with our shows, through out the weekend through commenting on Twitter. And then, there were all sorts of people who were taking videos and putting it on our specially set-up blog. And so, some people watched that in real space and some of it online. They just had a different experience. If you put together the number of audience watching it online and offline, it came to about 12,000 people, and that is in a town with a population of just 35,000!
However, none of our experiences are only digital, so [not just the Net-savvy young audience but] anyone could experience them just as a theatre production. So you don’t have to be digitally savvy to embrace these performances, even the Bradley Manning
show [and the Passion at Port Talbot] could be appreciated only as a theatre experience. On the NTW season programme there are productions like A Provincial Life
(2012), which is an adaptation by Peter Gill of Chekhov play, in which there was no digital element in the show. I think for us, it has always been key and core to think of these two ways of being ‘here and now’ at the same time. That it’s not doing one, and then using the digital as only distribution. Because in today’s world, we are both ‘here and now’ in physical space and digital space most of the time. So, with each production we think about the right balance of the physical and digital.
I attended the launch party for the 2013/14 season yesterday, and in a giant shipping container there was a DJ and there were local street food stalls, and there were also several laptops placed around the facility from which NTW staff members were constantly sending out the latest information.
Actually, there was a whole room upstairs were people were logging in and sending out videos as well. There were loads of things happening online, all the videos going all over the place, people tweeting, and of course I was involved, too. It is very important. We are all really active in that community. If I write something [as an official statement from the Artistic Director] just once a month, that is nothing [in terms of a community function]. It only functions as a community if everyone can participate on an equal basis. So, sometimes a 17-year old might be there online, and—well I can’t read everything there are thousands of things uploaded there—but if I happen to read it, I am happy to correspond. Yesterday’s party may have looked unusual for a national theatre’s season kick-off event. It may feel very informal and laid-back, but underneath it all it has a contemporary and ambitious feel to it. It may have looked more like an IT company party. Because anyone could do a very formal launch party with a tie and a drink and a ‘Thank you’ speech, but nobody is interested. But, we still had young artists turning out, etc., [because it was informal]. And, because we had a quite a lot of success, the politicians have begun to trust us and realize that by doing something formal and hierarchical, you don’t reach a wider audience. I think that the politicians are now starting to understand that you have to do it like Wales, do it differently. (Smiles)
Next. I would like to ask you about your personal history. You started working in Liverpool in the 1980s, you’ve lived in NY for 10 years, and from when you returned in 1999 until 2008 you served as artistic director at Manchester’s Contact Theatre. Also, in 2005 you got a Cultural Leadership grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) that enabled you to travel to places around Europe and Africa to gain more experience. So, your career is quite unusual compared to most, who build their careers within the UK.
I personally have never felt close to that insular mentality of England. I didn’t travel as a child, and I didn’t leave the island until I was 21 years old. Although I was born in North Wales, my family is originally from Liverpool, and people in Liverpool are genetically from different places. I think in that city, there is the sense of looking out to the sea, and looking out to other places that is different to living inside the island. So, for me, even though until 21 I never thought of leaving the island and going on a journey, I think that kind of seafarer’s mind was embedded inside. I always like adventures, which are unpredictable for me. The reason why I went to NY was because I didn’t want to go through the usual [career] pathway in the UK, like getting an assistant theatre director job at Royal Shakespeare Company, and then go on to a directorship at some small company, etc. That might be great, but for me, what particularly interests me is to be in a place that I don’t particularly understand. I try to throw my self off balance. This [NTW position] seemed to me like an opportunity to throw myself off balance again. (Laughs)
I definitely think that these experiences were very important for me. I have confidence in working with international artists. It feels natural to me, because I’ve done it throughout my life, I also think that I want to work with different kinds of people, so both with people who are trained and people who aren’t, I think that international experience has given me the confidence to try out different things, and particularly for me, confidence to make strong international partnerships with organizations and artists. Still, the job of artistic director of NTW is challenging. But, to begin with I did become interested in it because I thought it would be an opportunity to throw myself off balance again.
When you went to become artistic director at Manchester’s Contact Theatre, it was a rather common regional theatre doing the usual traditional fare of straight plays. But after you took over there in 1999, it came to be known as a multi-genre theatre that supported and showed the work of younger artists.
I was always quite passionate about working with exciting young artists when I was in Manchester. And some of the connections and bonds I built with the artists back then are continuing in my work at NTW. For example, when I arrived here at NTW I wanted to work with one of the artists I personally worked with at Manchester was the playwright, Kate O’Riley, who had done translations of Greek tragedies of Aeschylus for me and she ended up doing a new translation for The Persians
(2010) for a production in my first season at NTW. Another is an American [stage] designer, Paul Crey, who I used to work with together in New York. I brought Kate and Paul together with director Mike Pearson, a person who is known for working site-specifically in unusual locations, and he came up with the idea of doing that Aeschylus piece at Brecon Beacons [an off-limits military training facility administered by the Ministry of Defense where it happens that a reproduction of a pseudo German city area was constructed in the 1980s for training purposes during the Cold War, when it was speculated that if war broke out between the Soviet Union and Great Britain, much of the fighting would be done in German cities. Now the facility is used for training military personnel going to Afghanistan, rather than Germany. That is the kind of interesting place we performed an Aeschylus tragedy in].
But, I’ll say again that, then and now, I have always loved working on exciting new projects with emerging artists, and even before I worked at the theatre in Manchester, I was working site-specifically with independent companies with new ideas. So my work now at NTW was in a way going back to that, which was interesting and exciting for me. But I will repeat again that our projects at NTW don’t just come from my personal connections, an equal number of them come from encounters in our online community.
You are the founder and chairman of the Performing Arts Network and Development Agency (PANDA), an NPO that supports emerging artists in the North West of England. Is that organization related to what you are saying, reaching out to other countries, connecting people. What was the purpose you had in starting the agency in 2004?
Actually, I ran the Performing Arts Network and Development when I was in Manchester. I was the chair of the board of it. I sort of selected people who had set it up, and then I appointed a director, and so I haven’t been involved in it since I have been in Wales. But the reason why I launched that in Manchester was to support emerging artists, and in Wales it also has been a very important thing for me. We’ve done it in a different way here, partly through NTW encouraging emerging artists as much as possible. We have a programme called WalesLab, and this gives support to artists, who can be all sorts of artists [writers, actors, choreographers, designers, performance artists, installation artists, multimedia artists, etc.], but often are early-stage artists, to try out new ideas and help them to create and perform their works. Another important factor in helping the emerging artists here has been the Online Community I have been talking about. Because we allow emerging artists to advertise their work throughout the online community. They can write about their shows they want to present at NTW, they can write their own blog that has nothing to do with us, to recruit artists all throughout Wales, and that is a very practical way to help them.
We also has this project called the ‘Go-and-See commitment,’ where the staff here, 18 of us, will make sure someone goes to see it if you let us know about your company’s performance at least a month before it happens. Usually it will be one of our staff team, but if we can’t do it we will ask one of the experienced artists we work with to go and see it. For me, since my Manchester days, one of the real things that I tried to bring here is a support for the new young artists. Even though we do lots of big experiences, working with big artists and international artists, we must also try to help out emerging artists in Wales, because those are the artists we want to be producing 10, 15, 20 years from now.
Can you just talk concretely about the artists you’ve worked with in Wales?
An artist I started working with since I arrived in Wales, and whom I really enjoy working is the writer Alan Harris. Alan wrote the very first play that we did here at NTW called the Goodnight into the Valleys
(2010), and then of course he is writing a play for the New National Theatre in Tokyo, Opportunity of an Efficiency
, which will be performed there in April 2013. Alan is a real storyteller. He is also very good at listening to people talk. So, for the Goodnight
we went to the southwest valley of Wales where all the mining towns used to exist, and then we went through spending months there asking all the people in the mining towns what kind of stories we should be telling for the NTW, and we put those stories together for mini performances he wrote from them. Then we took all the actors who did the mini performances back to the people whom we talked to, and asked them which they liked of the mini performances we did, which ones they thought we should develop into a play. And the response was that “we like them all!” So it shows that Alan did a very good job of listening and developing ideas and bringing the people’s stories together.
Another artist I want people to get to know is the director Mike Pearson. Mike is a person who had a really strong tradition in Wales of working site-specifically in unusual locations. Without him I don’t think we could have had such a successful outdoor theatre production as The Persians
, which I mentioned earlier. He was the one who came up with the strange idea of doing that Aeschylus piece at an off-limits British military facility.
So then, in year two at NTW he did another piece, and we suggested to him that maybe he could work with Shakespeare. The result was his production Coriolan
/US (2012). He never worked with Shakespeare and he never usually worked with English writers at all. He worked a lot with Welsh mythology and then, he also used Greek legends and stories, but he never worked with English theatre writers. So for me that was a very interesting combination. And his version of Coriolanus
was a great success. For the production we used an aircraft hanger that was used in World War II. We had a huge digital presence with that show. Using silent disco technology, the audience went into the hanger with headphones, where there were countless cars roaring around them as they listened to the play on the headphones. About this strange Shakespeare production, I think everybody, including Ruth McKenzie, who was the director Olympics’ festivals, considers Mike’s version of Coriolanus
as one of the outstanding productions of the year [among the more than 70 Shakespeare productions related to the Olympics programme]. And now, entering the third year, we are starting to work on the second or even the third production with these artists. Of course it is important to bring in new people as well, but it is important for some people to go on in the journey with us.
Unlike many theatres that shop for works for their programmes from among the popular works on the world’s festivals, you at NTW have been working with foreign artists to create works of the kind that could only happen in Wales. Could you tell us about some of the things you have done with foreign artists?
I like to work with international artists who are doing something extraordinary, but not necessarily well known in the UK. At the same time of course, it has to be an artist who enjoys working in our way. Of course the artist has complete freedom concerning their work. We don’t give them the way of working. You don’t say, you must work in this way, work with this community. No, we want them to work in their way. So often what happens is that if I feel that it might be a good connection, I invite them to come here and visit to see some of our work, and come explore with us. We want them to respond to the places creatively. And if they find a certain place in Wales where they want to do a work, that is when we commission them. Among the foreign artists that have come to work with us in this way are the German theatre group Rimini Protokoll and the Berlin-based Argentine choreographer Constanza Macaras, among others.
As you know, Rimini Protokoll makes most of their work for many big festivals. Often, it has to be works that tour to different festivals. The show they made for NTW in Aberistwyth, and it was only for Averistwyth. It was about the story of that town; it told the personal stories of the women of the town’s choir. For them, it was great that they had to make a piece that had to go everywhere. They’ve managed to developed new techniques; they worked the women’s stories into the script they made a performance using the music of the type the chorus practices every week to be heard in civic centers like theirs, and now they will use those techniques in shows and festivals, etc. But, the work in Aberistwyth can only be performed in Aberistwyth. By the way, the performances continued every week for one year beginning in the spring of 2011.
When we did a project with Constanza, we were talking about lots of long walks in Wales. She has never made a site-specific piece; she’s never made a piece outside a building. We were walking through a forest and she said, maybe I could do a show in the forest. That was how the idea was born. She got the unique idea of creating a dance by letting loose a bunch of party people from the entertainment district in the dark forest of Flintshire. She is now thinking of developing a new version of that piece in a forest in Berlin.
For NTW’s new season, 2013/2014, it has been announced that you will premiere a new work with the New National Theatre of Japan. It is the work Opportunity of an Efficiency by Alan Harris that you just told us about, and you yourself will be directing it. How did it come about that you chose Tokyo for the site of NTW’s first overseas production?
It was an invitation. The New National Theatre is very knowledgeable about what’s happening in theatre throughout the world. They get different feedback from different people on what’s going on, so they had feedback on what is going on in Wales and how we were set up. We were contacted that the artistic director of the theatre, Ms. Keiko Miyata was interested in inviting international artists. And, that they were particularly interested in commissioning new writers and writing about new subjects. They asked us if we would be interested in suggesting a writer that they could work with. So, I suggested a few, and they asked if I was interested in coming over, and I said we could come over and do something of collaboration between the companies. And so that grew and came this collaboration, and I am personally pleased that NTW’s first “international” production will be in Tokyo. For us, it was very positive and a very good sign that this invitation was from outside Europe. International isn’t just Europe, it’s the world. So, for me, I’ve traveled a lot, but I haven’t been to Japan. So one again, I am completely going out of my comfort zone. I think it is interesting for us to go to a place where most things are similar, but this time we are going to an institution which is most different [from our horizontally organized, democratic organization in Wales]. And say, what do we both learn from that?
For the subject of the play, Alan chose one that people living in cities in both the UK and Japan today can relate to. Because of course, efficiency and austerity are huge themes in the UK, but we always imagine that Japan does better than we do. So I think that by exploring what efficiency is, this is a play about how efficiency could be used, but also misused.
When we visit Japan in April it will not only be for the performance. I also want to hold sessions of the WalesLab I mentioned earlier for encouraging young artists and also out “Assembly” programme, which is an open discussion programme that quite directly relates to political dialogue. Assembly is an outreach programme that we started with the very first show of NTW’s first season. Each year, we made a different show in a different place around Wales; we also had an Assembly team working in the local area with the local people to explore a question. They would ask, what is the question that you think is important for your area, and what solutions are there. Sometimes people will come up with local political questions, sometimes with abstract ones like what theatre can do. Sometimes the discussions can lead directly to the creation of theatre, and sometimes they don’t. It isn’t the role of theatre to decide what the right answer to a question is and communicate it effectively. In theatre what is necessary is to bring out voices that are beyond understanding, to bring out unexpected voices and provide a place where they can live. That is why the Assembly programme exists. I would definitely like to do this kind of open discussion in Japan.
This is my last question. All in all, it seems to me that NTW is attempting to redefine the term ‘theatre’. What does the word theatre mean to you? What does theatre mean, from your point of view?
For me, theatre is the bringing together among the audience people who are open to and excited about an event but don’t know what it is. Performers and artists who make something unique for that audience. That coming together of the audience and the artists and performers is what makes the theatre event. Of course, that could happen in a dance show or a music show, but theatre seems to be all or many of those art forms, or all or many of those ways of communicating that has been considered. In a dance event you are really looking at the movement of the body. In music event you are really into music. In a theatre event, you are asking the question, what are the mediums, what are the languages, what are the ways of communicating this event. Often, that is about language and text, but we’ve also seen theatre without words, Beckett did a lot of them, and it was definitely theatre. But in theatre, we are looking at how or what are the different languages that we could bring in together to make this unique communication with the audience. In terms of space; in theatre, we are always thinking about space. Also we are always thinking about the configuration of space. Sometimes, when we are in a theatre building, particularly when it is a specifically designed building like the Globe for Shakespeare or traditional Kabuki theatre, the thought, many generations of thought has gone into that space. The thought creates the unique architecture of event, and that is fantastic and extraordinary. Equally, we could create unique theatre architecture completely from nothing. There are no rules that we can or cannot do this and that. The rule is that we should be thinking about it. We should be thinking about the relationship of audience, performer and space. I think when theatre becomes dead, is when we stop thinking about it. When we stop thinking about that meeting. And that is when theatre almost becomes something different, just a bunch of people watching something happen on stage.