Improvising a Tradition

John McGrath explains how newly launched National Theatre Wales is part of a nation-building project

At a Europe-wide gathering of National Theatres at Theatr Narodowy in Warsaw last September, National Theatre Wales was the youngest company in attendance, although not by much. Europe’s political geography has, of course, shifted hugely in the past 20 years, and, with those changes, the organisation of culture and its relationship to government and nation, have been open to many shifts too.

At first it might seem odd that Wales has national theatres in two languages, plus a stake of sorts in the building on the Thames – ‘The Royal National Theatre of Great Britain’. Yet Wales is not alone. At the European gathering there were a variety of such bespoke solutions to the question of how a theatre can represent a nation. Greece has a national theatre for the north and another for the south, Belgium has one for each language, Sweden has one for Stockholm and another touring to every town and village, while in the Balkans the whole situation is very complicated indeed.

Nonetheless, the meeting was heartening. In the midst of political complexity, the directors and producers who came together believed that theatre has a role in relation to the question of nationhood, not as a patriotic symbol, but as a forum where a country’s past, present and future can be explored, imagined, and debated.

Like all national theatres National Theatre Wales grows out of a political context. In our case the creation of the National Assembly provided the essential capacity and momentum. While there have been movements in the past to set up a national theatre, this time the presence of a democratically elected body to sanction the initiative means that National Theatre Wales, and its sister company Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, have a very different status and, it is to be hoped, a more secure long-term future.

Two of the other theatres in attendance at the Warsaw meeting were of particular relevance to Wales. The National Theatre of Scotland similarly grew out of the devolution process, and has pioneered the model of a national theatre without a building, with considerable success. The Scottish precedent helped Wales to imagine a national theatre that need not wait for vast capital investment, nor get lost in arguments about location. And while the theatre infrastructure in Wales is very different to that in Scotland, with far less of a producing theatre tradition, we have undoubtedly benefited from Scottish support and expertise in establishing National Theatre Wales.

An equally interesting contribution during the meeting came from the Abbey Theatre, based in Dublin. A theatre deeply embedded in the process of nation-building and decolonisation, but the child also of the very specific Anglo-Irish culture of Yeats’s circle. One very interesting comment made by the Abbey’s Literary Manager Aideen Howard was that the theatre, with its extraordinary literary tradition from Synge to O’Casey and beyond, today finds it hard to identify writers who will engage with direct political and social subject matter, the bread and butter of many English dramatists. She felt that the Abbey’s success in developing a particular dramatic writing tradition had also sometimes trapped writers within that tradition.

All in all the European Meeting of National Theatres, which was the first ever – again emphasising he renewed importance of the ‘national theatre question’ – provided a very interesting frame through which to see the questions which inevitably get asked of National Theatre Wales. How will the company address history? How can it represent a diverse and decentralised country? What is the cannon? The conference indicated that there are no magic answers to any of these questions, except to emphasise that the role of a national theatre is to engage with them in an open and imaginative way.

At National Theatre Wales we have decided to begin our exploration of nation and theatre through an opening year of productions in a series of different locations across the country. We will be performing one a month for a year, plus a bonus extra. We are emphasising that this whole year of work should be seen as our launch. In producing a variety of differing kinds of theatre in a range of different places we can explore the possibilities of theatre for the nation. Inevitably, some shows will work better than others, but overall the year will, we hope, give everyone involved a sense of possibilities for the future. Shows include:

  • A new production of Aeschylus’s Persians in the Sennybridge Military Range.
  • A journey through Swansea Old Library with a choir of librarians provided by Welsh National Opera.
  • A lost Welsh-set John Osbourne play.
  • A collaboration with No Fit State Circus.
  • A new play about Bridgend from leading Welsh playwright Gary Owen.
  • A physical theatre take on the stories of Gwyn Thomas.

By making each piece of work in this first year in a different location, and ensuring that a vibrant link from theatre to location, we will start to explore a nation in all of its many contemporary manifestations. Of course, thirteen locations don’t take us everywhere, and there is much of Wales still to reach. In our second year we will start taking work out on tour, allowing us to reach an ever wider number of communities.

Two other initiatives that run alongside our programme of productions will also help us engage with the nation. Our National Theatre Wales Assembly will be a cross between a debate, a public meeting, and a performance, taking place in each town, village or city where we put on a show, though usually not in the same space. For each Assembly we will work with local people to identify a key issue they would like to explore – perhaps something very specific to their location, perhaps something more universal – and create a night of performance, debate and dialogue around that subject. The Assemblies will also inform our ideas for future productions, and provide a forum where the role of the national theatre can be addressed.

The National Theatre Wales TEAM programme is another initiative engaging with local people.  The TEAMs will involve around 20 core individuals, from a wide range of backgrounds, in each of our chosen locations. Combining the best of marketing ambassador programmes, community arts and creative leadership development, we hope the TEAMs will give the company roots across Wales, and create an interesting network of advocates.

Our online network is also important. Starting a new national theatre in the age of blogs, Facebook and YouTube has allowed us to create a dynamic social network from the very inception of the company. From the earliest planning stages, everything from the choice of the programme to our new writing policies have been debated online. Now there is a constant flow of ideas and information at on everything from the progress of rehearsals to the future of criticism. Our online community has become a place where independent artists and companies can let people know about their work, find new collaborators, and share ideas. The Welsh theatre nation online is a dynamic, creative community which has gained considerable international attention for its vibrancy.

One thing that came across very clearly in the European National Theatres gathering was that the creation, and development, of a national theatre will always involve more improvisation than tradition. National Theatre Wales sits on the shoulders of the many artists, companies, and even politicians who have helped imagine it into being. It will fulfil it’s role if it remains a changing, dynamic and responsive organisation, embracing the process of constant re-invention that characterises the best of art, and, perhaps, nation-building.

This post first appeared in the spring volume of Agenda, the IWA’s quarterly journal.

John McGrath is Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales

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