Context of letter from the Chair 24th September

On 24th September the community site posted a letter from the Chairman. It has appeared without any publication of the context.

The context is in response to an open letter written by the playwrights Alan Harris, Alun Saunders, Branwen Davies, Carmen Medway-Stephens, Caryl Lewis, Daf James, Dic Edwards, Gary Owen, Gary Russell, Jacob Hodgkinson, Jon Berry, Kath Chandler, Keiron Self, Kelly Rees, Kit Lambert, Lisa Parry, Louise Osbourn, Lucy Rivers, Manon Eames, Mari Izzard, Matthew Bulgo, Melangell Dolma, Meredydd Barker, Mike Leitch, Myfanwy Alexander, Othniel Smith, Paul Jenkins, Phil Ralph, Rachel Trezise, Roger Williams, Sam Burns, Sharon Morgan, Sion Eirian, Siwan Jones, Tim Price, Tim Rhys, Tom Wentworth, Tracy Harris, Tracy Spottiswoode and William Roberts.

Their letter read:

"It is with extreme sadness that we wish to make known our discontent with National Theatre Wales.

We feel it is time for a public discussion about the very purpose of the organisation. The direction of NTW, coupled with a lack of scrutiny, transparency and openness has led to a worrying internal culture which, despite the organisation’s name, seems to take pride in ridding itself of a theatrical identity and even its nationality.

Our fears as an artistic community regarding NTW’s low theatrical production rate since the departure of John McGrath are an open secret. Despite NTW being in receipt of a regular annual income from ACW of roughly one and a half million pounds, just one project is listed on your website for the remainder of 2018 – an exhibition of photographs taken with disposable cameras in Haverfordwest. And in the company’s latest public report to its trustees, just one production is listed for the entirety of 2019.

But for many, it was this spring’s show ‘English’ which felt like a final straw, and which triggered a widespread discussion behind closed doors.

NTW described ‘English’ as ‘an investigation into language and identity’.  There is no version of the history of the English language in Wales which is not a history of its relationship with the Welsh language. How those two languages forge our identity is arguably the defining characteristic of our nation. And yet ‘English’ erased this crucial aspect of the story of English in Wales entirely and deliberately.

It was the open deliberateness of this act which made ‘English’ a turning point for so many artists in Wales. Its erasure of a distinctive Welsh context was not a mistake. It was not the result of hasty decisions made under the pressure of a limited rehearsal period. It was the result of decisions which NTW leadership had chance to reflect on and consider carefully. Specifically, the decision to employ a Mancunian company to make the show, and the decision to hire a director who admitted in interviews that, as an English-speaking English man, he did not feel equipped to speak about the Welsh language, or Welsh identity.

It is in this context that we wish to provoke a debate about what kind of national theatre we desire. We want it to be a theatre. We want it to be Welsh. These are two things we thought we could take for granted. And yet, despite the uproar over ‘English’, it is an English company which NTW has entrusted to deliver a flagship project in 2020 – the Liverpudlian 20 Stories.

We are therefore asking to the board to overhaul NTW’s aims and objectives so that –

All shows produced by National Theatre Wales have a Welsh or Wales-based artist as primary artist.This is to insure against the marginalisation of the Welsh experience. And to ensure Wales benefits from the investment of the national theatre with artists returning to their creative community and continuing their careers at home.

Non-Welsh and Wales based artists and companies need to be 1) world-class, and 2) engaged only to support a Welsh or Wales-based artist. The practice of engaging companies and artists outside of Wales to respond to Welsh stories has to end.

A National Theatre Wales show has to have theatre in it. If it’s a song then it’s a song. If it’s a comedy night, then it’s a comedy night. But if it’s not in some sense theatre, NTW should not be funding it.

We are not provoking this debate for provocation’s sake. We wish to work with you to deliver a sustainable, thriving theatre culture that can speak to Wales’ diverse communities, and at times to all of them. However in its current incarnation NTW is acting as a roadblock to this goal. It funnels what could be investment in Welsh theatre-makers to companies and artists beyond Wales. It sends out a consistent undermining message, via its work with non-Welsh artists, that Welsh theatre artists are not good enough to tell Welsh stories. Were it not for the success we achieve at home and internationally, without NTW’s support, it is something we could easily begin to believe about ourselves. And yet we are successful. Only think how much that success could be inflated with NTW’s support."

The letter was supplemented by an article by one of the signatories in the Guardian online 24th September. The article read:

"Last week, a group of playwrights sent a letter to the head of National Theatre Wales’s board, making public conversations that have been going on behind closed doors for many months. NTW’s low production rate (no performances for 346 days in 2017, despite an annual Arts Council grant of more than £1.5m), short runs and constant commissioning of non-dramatists caused us to take action.

Forty of us signed the letter. I’ve since been approached by more writers, directors and actors voicing support. We listed three points we hoped the bulk of the artistic community could rally around in a bid to effect change.

The first is that all shows produced by NTW should have a Welsh or Wales-based artist as the primary artist. This isn’t about parochialism but to prevent the marginalisation of the Welsh experience. The English company WildWorks did not lessen the Welshness of The Passion, which they co-created in 2011. The English director Katie Mitchell engaged by NTW would not lessen the Welshness of a Gary Owen play. But, as a fellow playwright said to me, it is as if NTW does not wish to promote our view of the outside world, but instead the outside world’s view of us.

Audiences crave Welsh plays and Welsh work. The emphasis placed on them at the Sherman in Cardiff by the outgoing artistic director Rachel O’Riordan has seen the theatre’s audiences increase by 35%. Meanwhile, a limited audience (one of whom was a reviewer) attended a performance of the NTW-commissioned play Cotton Fingers by Rachel Trezise in Aberaeron Memorial Hall in July as part of the company’s NHS70 series. This is in no way a reflection on the writer, director or actors involved in that show. Indeed, Rachel was one of the letter’s signatories. But how can our national company be satisfied with relatively high seat subsidy rates yet virtually empty village halls? How can they put artists who deeply care about their work in that position? Where are our big plays written by our playwrights starring actors such as Eve Myles and Matthew Rhys in NTW productions at Wales Millennium Centre? Where is the love of theatre? Where is the vision?

We genuinely want dialogue. We want a debate about what our national theatre should be. The immediate response from NTW – an accusation of “inaccurate facts” with no evidence – led many of us to despair. Clive Jones, the chair of NTW, has now offered to meet with us. We very much hope this is a turning point in terms of artistic engagement."

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Comment by alun howell on September 27, 2018 at 21:46

Correct.

Comment by Thomas Dillon on September 27, 2018 at 21:40
“The practice of engaging companies and artists outside of Wales to respond to Welsh stories has to end.”
Comment by alun howell on September 27, 2018 at 21:34

No-one is saying they are. Funded bodies are set up to do a job. This one isn't.

Comment by Thomas Dillon on September 27, 2018 at 21:03
The language of Wales for 80% of its people is the language they speak - which might be Urdu, Polish or English. Funded bodies are not some kind of job creation scheme.
Comment by alun howell on September 27, 2018 at 20:32

Have to agree. As there is so little money available for productions that involve more than monologues or the most basic 2/3 actors (no props, no sound or lighting effects) it is vital that all the money goes to theatre in Wales - at whatever level that is needed..

Comment by jo munton-vagabondi puppets on September 27, 2018 at 10:44

Thanks for the context.  I did, as I’m sure many people did, wonder what was going on.  Absolutely we need true dialogue and debate and need to hold our institutions to task.  They exist because of us and we have the responsibility to make sure they are using the publics money wisely.  Very often we know whats going on and how people are feeling in our communities better than they possibly can.  The intervention they offer is only for you named artsists And only in cardiff.  Can you push for a wider dialogue, geographically and amongst all Members.

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