We're Still Here: Working as an Emerging Director on NTW's new production

What experience did you have before applying for the Emerging Director role on We’re Still Here, and what drew you to this project?

 

I grew up in Cardiff and went to a Welsh medium school, before leaving aged eighteen to study at Warwick University.

 

There I became involved in student activism, and co-founded theatre company Earful which created devised political work inspired by the rich history of student protest at Warwick and beyond. We performed in Warwick Arts Centre, The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol and at a Human Rights Summit.

 

I won a bursary to stay on at Warwick to study for a masters degree, but I found myself increasingly returning to Wales and my identity as a Welsh speaker in my work. I wrote an extended essay about National Theatre Wales’ work in the community, focusing particularly on The Passion and its legacy in Port Talbot.

I was fortunate enough to interview Michael Sheen during the process who was very generous with his time- and who provided an incredibly uplifting and inspiring account of working with the people of his hometown- and spoke about his hopes for its continuing legacy.

 

After graduating, I moved back home to Cardiff. It had become increasingly clear to me that this was where I wanted to be, especially after discovering how much exciting theatre is currently being produced in Wales.

 

So when I saw this position advertised on the NTW Community and I was immediately excited about it. It seemed to line up with a lot of things I had been doing, and it was a great opportunity to work closely with experienced artists whose ethos and work I really admired.

 

On a personal level, my grandfather worked in the Llanwern steelworks for over thirty years of his life. It was an opportunity to learn a bit more about, and to honour, him and men and women like him who continue to fight for workers rights.

 

It seemed to line up with a lot of things I was doing, and the opportunity to be part of a project that had involvement with the community on this scale was incredibly exciting.

 

What does ‘Emerging Director’ mean exactly?

 

Good question! Personally I’ve found the title a freeing one – it carries fewer hang-ups than “assistant director”, which can, let’s face it, sometimes means just making the tea.

 

Perhaps its just the incredible generosity of spirit shown by the production team - particularly directors Evie Manning & Rhiannon White and movement director Vicki Manderson - or the nature of a collaborative devising process, but I’ve found that has Emerging Director I’ve had a lot more input into the creative process than in a more traditional AD role might have done.

 

I keep joking that I’m not sure what I’m “emerging” from exactly (a cocoon of some kind?) but as a friend pointed out to me the other day, it’s not what you’re emerging from, but what you’re emerging to.

Directors Rhiannon White & Evie Manning (Common Wealth) with movement director Vicki Manderson.

Photo by Jon Poutney.

 

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying for an Emerging Director role?

 

Although I was incredibly excited by the idea of working on this project, I thought I had about a snowball’s chance in hell. In fact, I wanted it so badly I almost convinced myself I wasn’t qualified enough to apply! But I forced myself to write the application and it’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My advice would be to go for it. Don’t be put off by thinking that you won’t be as qualified as other candidates, if you’re right for that production, and it’s a project you’re really passionate about, that will shine through.

 

I think it the freeing thing about the title is that you can make it mean what you want it to mean – when you get the job find your niche in the particular production you’re working on. With any production on this scale the director/s won’t have time to focus on everything – there may be a particular element they need you to keep an eye on for them. Find it and volunteer your services – don’t be afraid to raise your hand and say “I can do that!”  

Movement director Vicki Manderson

 

How has it been working with Common Wealth and National Theatre Wales? How has this project allowed you to develop as an artist?

 

Altogether so far I’ve had an incredibly rewarding experience. I remember walking into the first production meeting, there were what felt like fifty people surrounding the biggest set box I’d ever seen in my life – it covered three or four tables! That’s when it begun to sink in just what an ambitious endeavour this was, unlike anything I’d ever worked on before.

 

The team at National Theatre Wales were really helpful at every turn, they really put their money where their mouth is in terms of developing young artists with the Emerging Director bursary.

 

Working with Rhiannon and Evie has been really special. They create theatre that reaches out to people who don’t usually think it’s for them, in spaces that those people might otherwise go. They’re really passionate about experimenting with form and taking risks – which can be a little unnerving at times – but one of the main lessons I’ve learned as an artist from working with them has been to trust in the incredible creative minds around you, to trust in the process, in your instincts, and to take those leaps of faith. The risk is worth the reward.

How have you found the experience of working with both professional and community actors alike? 

 

I think the moment when both casts met and rehearsed together for the first time that I really felt we were on to something special. Both casts have been incredible to work with, but it was a brand new experience for me to create work in tandem with a community cast. Their insight into the script and contributions to the creation of the show have been invaluable- the show simply wouldn’t be what it is without them. All of the people I’ve met have had a real emotional investment in the future of the Steelworks and Port Talbot.

It’s been really special to work with Rhiannon and Evie who’ve both done some incredible work in building up their confidence to speak up about the issues that matter to them. There’s a speech in the play that I keep coming back to when I talk to the community cast: "I’ve seen people bloom like flowers right in front of my own eyes. The roots of the plants are hidden. But they’re there. A little bit of encouragement; a little bit of fortitude. You see them burst right into life… Caterpillars to butterflies." 

 

I’ve been conducting some interviews with the community cast about their personal connection to the steelworks, and what being from Port Talbot means to them. Their voices are loud and clear in the show, and I’d really love for people coming to see We’re Still Here to hear more of their stories, the stories that inspired us to make a play about these people.

 

The professional cast with movement director Vicki Manderson

How important is this story to Wales' history?

The play is very conscious of Wales’ history of working class leadership, political protest and community spirit, and there are touchstones that it keeps returning to that remind us of what’s come before, but I would say it’s most concerned with the present, with the ongoing events in Port Talbot today.

 

It depicts some of the events of the past few years with the Save Our Steel campaign, and it doesn’t flinch from exploring the very difficult and sensitive issues around the compromises that were made, and the uncertainty that continues to hang over the town.

 

At the same time, it celebrates the community spirit that the people have shown and continue to show each and every day. If there’s one thing I hope people take away from We’re Still Here, it’s that.

We're Still Here is running 15th-30th of September at the Old Byass Works in Port Talbot. Get tickets here.

Many thanks to Becca Lidstone and Julian Richards for providing the questions. 

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Now we hear from Prof Ian Hargreaves - should more public bodies follow approach, eschewing permanent iconic buildings and siting their work in the context of the communities they seek to work for?

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