To lead any theatre company is a huge privilege. To lead a national company like National Theatre Wales (NTW), which endeavours to reflect the aspirations and desires of its diverse peoples, is to take on a privilege that comes with added challenges and expectations. I certainly take my responsibilities as Artistic Director of NTW very seriously, not least because someone like me – a working class woman of colour – doesn’t get these opportunities very readily or very often. Some might say I’ve overstepped the mark but, like NTW, I’ve not always done what was expected. The company and I share a healthy desire to interrogate the nature of what we do and the ways in which we do it.
From the very beginning, NTW has sought to explore what theatre is and can be. We are a theatre company with no building, so we make work in all sorts of places, with all sorts of people for all sorts of audiences. I cherish that responsibility and understand the vital role we play in supporting and developing the ecology of theatre in Wales. We achieve this, not only through the major shows we make but also by acting as a catalyst for change, a place for conversation and a safe environment for theatre-makers to play with ideas and engage with communities.
Throughout my career I have fought for the artistic rights of the many, not just the few. I have created opportunities for artists to make the best work they can and I have made connections with audiences and communities who see theatre as something not for them. The impact of some of my decisions may not be visible to all, but there are many artists, in Wales and beyond, for whom the route into the arts hasn’t been straightforward. Often, there has been someone like me (or an organisation like NTW) opening a door that would otherwise have remained firmly shut. Perhaps we don’t shout about those things loudly enough but if we want to truly expand access to the arts we need to address and challenge some long held beliefs and assumptions. This is something for which I will continue to strive and which lies at the heart of the NTW’s core values, as demonstrated by the extraordinary members of TEAM.
The recent correspondence with our Chairman raises some deep rooted and historic questions about the role of a national theatre which, as we head towards the 10th anniversary of our artistic programme, are in the forefront of all of our minds. What is the role of a national theatre in the civic life of its nation? How do we play our part in this unique cultural landscape? And, as the world shifts on its axis, what is the role of the arts in our society? How do we try and connect? What stories do we want to tell and who should tell them?
New work has been at the heart of the company’s vision since its inception and that focus has not changed. New writing has been and is an important strand in our portfolio of artistic activity. However, a core part of our work has also been to nurture and support all artists. We remain committed to working with a diverse range of theatre practitioners – actors, singers, dancers, directors, designers, choreographers, writers, technicians and stage managers, who seek to explore, in different ways how theatre is made, where it is made, with and for whom it is made. Our desire is to strengthen the artistic voice of Wales and help create a more ambitious and dynamic independent arts sector across the country. We may not always get it right and we can’t do everything for everyone, but our task is to continue to push the boundaries of artistic expression, be responsive, adventurous and open to bold ideas, balancing risk with pragmatism.
Culture is an organic thing – it needs nurturing to multiply and grow, adapt and change. As artists we are curious, learning from each other, seeking out different experiences and navigating new thoughts, ideas and creative expression to leave a mark in some way. Theatre is no different. To follow one singular narrative about what theatre is, is to close down ideas and contain the imagination; to build walls around our diverse forms of expression. To assume theatre, as understood by some, can and does only occur in black boxes or behind closed doors for the select few is to limit its potency and reach.
The status quo is sometimes hard to shift. I have often been told that what I am trying to do is impossible, irrelevant or unacceptable. Interrogating and challenging existing models and approaches is neither easy nor without risk but it is crucial if our arts are to thrive. NTW exists to create radical and innovative theatre – we make no apology for that.
Theatre is made through collective experience, by artists in conversation with spectators, those who bear witness to the experience. It may be a play, with the writer being the primary creator of the work and the director its primary interpreter, but that is just one strand of how the rich tapestry of theatre is made, shaped and shared. The growth of site-located work, immersive theatre, verbatim theatre, gig theatre, devised practice and festivals suggest that there is a hunger for, and a desire to participate in, theatre in many different ways. These are not in opposition to more traditional forms but are part of a broader canvas through which we can tell the stories that need to be told and contribute to a thriving cultural landscape.
NTW has always been about questioning the role of theatre and its relationship to audiences in contemporary Wales. That model is not traditional and will inevitably be supported by some and rejected by others. That healthy tension provokes conversation which we are happy to have with as many people as possible. I believe passionately that our existence as a national theatre requires us to be bold and that the understandable urge to protect the rich and unique culture of Wales should not channel us towards becoming introspective and inward facing. I want the theatre we all create to be forged by a rich, complex and confident Wales; emboldened to engage with and foster new artistic partnerships.
In 2020 NTW reaches a milestone – its 10th birthday. As part of our planning process we are inevitably already asking: What next? Where next? Who are we now? What are the challenges and opportunities for artists and audiences alike?
Recent dialogue with some within the arts sector has already highlighted differing ideas of what NTW should be. I suspect there are as many versions of what NTW is or should be, as there are artists and audiences in Wales. We will be talking with many of you over the coming months to help us shape our thinking. In the meantime, what is already clear is that a bigger conversation, beyond NTW, is necessary about the needs, wants, and ambitions of the artistic sector in Wales. As austerity bites and political and social divisions grow, we must collectively navigate the best way forward and face the challenges ahead. I hope we can all engage with kindness and generosity at a time when rage and division appear to dominate so much of the world.
National Theatre Wales