Seven years ago, towards the end of December, I was getting ready to leave Manchester to step into a new life as Artistic Director of the as yet unformed National Theatre Wales. It was an emotional farewell to Manchester, where I’d re-opened Contact, a theatre that put young people and emerging artists at the core of everything it did, some years before, and where my friendships and artistic partnerships ran pretty deep. However, if you’d told me then that I’d be returning seven years later I wouldn’t have thought it likely. I’d guessed, when asked, that my tenure at NTW should be ‘around seven years’, but the role seemed such a step into the unknown that is was almost impossible to imagine where it would lead me next.
The big challenges of that transition for me were to take the best of the lessons I had learned in past contexts – and particularly at Contact – and apply them to a very different set of circumstances and demands. Instead of a rather specific constituency – culturally diverse young people – in a city that had quite a substantial theatre offering, I was being asked to respond to a whole nation-full of theatre-loving, and theatre-avoiding, folk, and to spread that work across the land.
National Theatre Wales is so well known now for it’s ‘located’ work (our wider term for what is sometimes referred to as ‘site-specific theatre’) that it’s easy even for me to forget that seven years ago, I was best known for helping to create a unique venue – one filled by a mix and age-range of people rarely seen in theatre buildings – a space where music played night and day and performance could burst out of any corner. How could I apply that knowledge to a ‘venue-free’ new company with such a wide-ranging remit?
Of course, we had two role models to refer to in our efforts. Best known outside Wales was National Theatre of Scotland, which had taken the idea of a ‘theatre without walls’ throughout the world, not least with it’s extraordinary production, ‘Blackwatch’, which had drawn on the best traditions of Scottish theatre to create something which felt blisteringly relevant and new. And closer to home, Wales’s own Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru was already a national theatre, touring Welsh-language work to venues throughout the country, and answering the brief to create Welsh language theatre on a dramatically new scale.
If NTW was to make its mark successfully, it would need to both learn from, and yet also be distinct from, these pioneering companies. Talking to people, researching and traveling, it seemed to me that there were a number of key opportunities that NTW could grasp. Firstly, though Wales had less large-scale theatres and repertory companies than England and Scotland, it had an amazing history of sited performance, ranging from companies such as Brith Gof to the ultimate itinerant arts festival – the Eisteddfod itself. And while audiences for professional theatre were low compared to other parts of the UK, the history of participation in the arts – through amateur theatre, choirs and poetry contests – was massive. Thirdly, NTW was being formed in 2009, the point at which what was then called Web 2.0 was finally bedding in. The internet was no longer just a place you went to look for information – it was a place where everyone was inventing the content. Three rather disparate observations, but together they helped to shape the identity of NTW – a national company which would be rooted in place, deeply participatory, and digitally cutting-edge.
The first year was a ride I’ll never forget – The Theatre Map of Wales: we decided to put NTW on the map quite explicitly, by creating a year of new productions – one a month, every month, each in a different place in Wales, and each using a different approach to theatre-making. We would map Wales through theatre, but we would also map theatre through Wales. In that year we invited such leading European artists as Berlin’s Rimini Protokoll to create their first UK commission specifically for the town of Aberystwyth, we worked with the communities of Cardiff’s Butetown to explore the stories of Tiger Bay – a very different kind Welsh imagery to the norm, and we invited some of the great figures of Welsh theatre to imagine new possibilities – such as Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes’ awe-inspiring staging of Aeschylus’s Persians on the Brecon Beacons army range. And at the end of the year we had our own ‘Blackwatch’ moment – Michael Sheen’s utterly extraordinary re-imagining of The Passion for his home town of Port Talbot, in collaboration with Cornish site-specific theatre experts Wildworks and Welsh poet Owen Sheers – a 72 hour theatre epic, spreading across the whole town, and involving every inhabitant in its story.
In each place we worked that year we created an ‘Assembly’ – an evening of performance and debate addressing a key local issue; we also set up a local branch of National Theatre Wales TEAM – our network of advocates and leaders from local communities, who we support to create their own initiatives. And through it all ran this online community – our own social network – a bustling hive of opinions and ideas which quickly became a home not just for discussion of NTW’s work, but for a host of new independent companies – many of whom found their collaborators, connected with potential audiences, and shared their inspirations and challenges through this site.
For me the NTW online community became a key place of contact and inspiration – from the lively, sometimes frustrating, usually invigorating, debates in the community’s Writers’ Group, to the inspiring news of a new project like the Prestatyn Video Team, set up by NTW TEAM member Jan, who regularly posts news of this group of young video makers’ achievements. I’d like to say I’ve read all the good stuff on this site, but it wouldn’t be possible for the most dedicated digital warrior – there’s too much going on!
Over subsequent years our understandings of location, of participation, and of digital have grown. Through projects like ‘The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning’ and ‘Bordergame’ we started to find new ways that digital could be part of live performance. The Assemblies grew into the ambitious Big Democracy Project. And TEAM increasingly impacted on every area of NTW – from board membership and strategic planning, to sourcing the next generation of artists. We found new ways, such as WalesLab to support up anc coming talent, while artists from our first year such as Pearson/Brooks and Marc Rees started to create bodies of work for NTW that had complex trajectories of their own – including questioning the very experience of place, as, in our fifth year’s programme Marc re-imagined Patagonia in a huge opera storage warehouse in the Welsh Valleys, while Pearson/Brooks hid us inside a theatre in Llanelli overnight – using the experience of time and duration to explore the Trojan Wars in an epic Welsh landscape now seen, not over the real Brecon horizon, but cinematically.
And yet these three key strategies – location, participation, digital – have also continued to inspire the company as we’ve moved and grown.
Sometimes it’s been assumed that these approaches might distract from the more usual prisms through which we see theatre – actors, writers, audiences. For me, however, the people who come together to make theatre happen – as creatives, as production teams, as the all-important audience – are at the centre of everything. I’m proud that NTW has often been described as a welcoming company, and I think that’s because we know how important the people who make and come to theatre are. However, I’ve always felt that people thrive most when focusing on an adventure, a horizon, beyond themselves, and that we would do best for artists and audiences if we all embarked on a journey that was clearly outside the usual, somewhat shop-soiled, terms in which theatre was habitually discussed.
I’m not arrogant, or daft, enough to imagine that we got it all right. There are productions I wish had been better, and others that succeeded in ways that surprised me. However, I’m immensely proud not only that NTW is healthy and thriving, but that there’s an increasingly vibrant, and mutually supportive, independent scene in Wales – exploring the possibilities of theatre in ways that go beyond anything NTW has done. More than anything I hope that the first years of NTW have contributed to a sense that Welsh theatre can have it’s own independent character - bold, communitarian, jumping with ideas; and that many folk now feel what I have come to believe – that there could be no more inspiring land than this one in which to make theatre.
And now, surprising myself, I’m heading back to Manchester. Where, while I was away, the city has acted like a gambler throwing half its chips on the square marked culture – with deep investment in all areas of the arts. And boy has it paid off – not least with the Manchester International Festival, where I’m privileged to be taking over as Artistic Director, and where an international reputation has been established remarkably quickly through bold, risky programming, and a resolute focus on artists’ ideas. I’ll be taking a lot of learning from Wales back to my new role in Manchester – about how a deep sense of place can inspire the most extraordinary international work, about how brilliant artists can be found in the most unexpected places, about how ideas and passion can inform theatre. I hope also that Wales, its institutions and leaders, will look at Manchester for a moment too and see how commitment to the arts can stimulate and re-position a city and, perhaps, a nation. Wales has done a lot to support the arts in recent years – not least through the establishment of NTW – now is a moment for pushing forward, not hedging bets.
This is my final blog as Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales. I’m very deliberately ending where I began – with the extraordinary online community that has helped define NTW since before it was even officially launched. You made NTW the first ‘digitally native’ National Theatre. You inspired me, you challenged me, you occasionally kept me awake all night when you wrote something disturbing but true at two in the morning. But more importantly you became NTW – a boundary-blurring, messy, opinionated, courageous, deeply creative community of people. Look after it – it’s in your hands!
With love, thanks and deep respect, John