Unusually for a theatre company, National Theatre Wales began its life in May 2009 online, presenting its first staged work the following year. It has a core company of 17, its staff expanding with each production as creative, technician and stage management teams are recruited. Turnover similarly fluctuates dependent on the staged work, but on average is £2.8m, of which the most significant source of funding is a core grant from Arts Council Wales of roughly £1.6m, with a further 6% of public funding that is project-specific. Partnership and co-producer contributions bring in roughly 22% of total income, trust and foundations another 7-10%. Kully Thiarai has been artistic director since May 2016, taking over from founding director John E McGrath.
Mission: a focus on people and place
Like any theatre company, NTW seeks “to make extraordinary theatre”. What makes it unusual is the way in which it actively works “across Wales and beyond”. Kully Thiarai unpacks this as: “a commitment to engaging with the broadest range of people, and trying to embed our relationships with community, so that we get to understand them and they understand us and there’s legacy after a piece of work has been and gone”.
All work is made collaboratively, “with artists, audiences and communities, sometimes through long processes and sometimes through interventions that are very quick but are very particular around a theme”. And the work always begins with a conversation. That dialogue was initiated online: “That the company set up a community online before it made its first show was a statement of intent in terms of what it is striving to do. You can make great theatre without dialogue, but it doesn’t have the same resonance if you don’t understand the context and the community that you’re trying to connect with or speaking for or collaborating with.”
It was this dialogue that attracted Thiarai to join the company: it reflected the values she brought to her previous role as artistic director of Cast in Doncaster, which also reflected her training as a social worker. “My time at Cast was really about how that building could be the cultural living room for the town: that takes effort and commitment and a dialogue. You end up thinking about, not what you as an artistic director might want to make, but what is necessary at this moment for this dynamic and this bunch of people? Because why would anyone want to connect with the theatre when you feel that your voice or your story isn’t present?”
A snapshot of activities
Three projects can give a flavour of how NTW operates:
1: The Big Democracy Project
This three-year programme started in 2014 and was “driven by a sense that we wanted to support active citizenship and make people feel that democracy was worth fighting for and being involved in. Communities raised questions about urgent issues that they wanted addressing, and we would find mechanisms by which to use the arts to explore those things.”
The project had a number of outcomes, including a day-long event at the Senedd (the National Assembly for Wales) looking at several of the issues that had emerged, “from disability to education and the austerity agenda”. Participants voted to select the most pressing issue – choosing austerity – and that generated a piece of work in Rhyl, pinpointed because: “We wanted to look at what austerity might mean in places like Rhyl which were once thriving towns. What happens when cuts, or government policy, mean that they feel ignored? There’s also the sense of austerity of the imagination when people are very impoverished or feel abandoned: what does that mean?”
NTW’s extensive online community has a number of focused groups, through which members of the public are invited into a closer relationship with the company. TEAM is “NTW’s community leadership model of engagement, where we rethink what a theatre’s civic responsibility is within the world we now find ourselves, and the role that NTW needs to play within that.” TEAM members – who include artists and community activists – apply to join TEAM panels, who meet every quarter to “look at strategic things they want to try and achieve, and we work together to look at how we can make that happen”. A member of the TEAM panel is also nominated to become a NTW board member. Additionally TEAM members support dialogue and workshops in new communities, and help sustain long-term relationships: for instance, TEAM members in Prestatyn contributed to the work in Rhyl, as facilitators and community associates, roles for which they were paid.
3: NHS: 70
This new project for 2018, “a love letter to the NHS”, will involve dialogue with the entire country, gathering stories of people’s interaction with the health service, but also looking at: “the notion of big ideas coming in times of difficult, and asking: where are the big ideas now? How do we have the big conversations?”
With all of this work, Thiarai is mindful of NTW’s responsibility to support the local economy, “ensuring that, in a country like Wales, where wages and levels of poverty are high, there is public benefit from any work that is being made”. Aside from TEAM members and the online community, NTW doesn’t ask people to volunteer, but instead pays local people to take part in, for instance, ushering.
Primarily, being nomadic presents the company with “a great opportunity: it means that we can be bespoke in our approach depending on where we go. We’re much more porous as an organisation, because we need to have relationships and partnerships in order to succeed.”
It does, however, create challenges in two ways:
1: Always beginning
“Every time we do something, it feels like we’re doing it for absolutely the first time,” says Thiarai. Even choosing where to focus attention is a challenge, and can be warped by simplistic questions of audience reach: “There is an inherent tension in our practice, which is on the one hand to reach as many people as possible, and on the other hand to reach the parts of Wales that other theatres don’t reach, which are quite often hard to get to and may have smaller numbers of people. If we made shows in Cardiff all the time we’d have access to much bigger numbers of people, whereas if we make it in the middle of a mountain, who will come and how do you make it possible for people to come who might have challenges getting there? We need to ask all the time where the work is, how we make it, who are we trying to make it for, why are we trying to make it in this place at this time.”
Working across Wales, it is difficult for NTW to maintain relationships – which is why the online community, and particularly TEAM, are so vital. One of the core values of the company is to be a catalyst, enabling others to develop and grow. NTW’s core staff is too small to stay on in an area once a work is finished, but Thiarai is encouraged by the way in which TEAM members supported a women’s centre in Rhyl in discussions about setting up its own drama group, following the show NTW made there. “If you’ve done your job well, you’ve empowered people to feel confident enough to make things happen for themselves and their community.”
To date, NTW has sought out new communities to visit, and this will continue. But it is also seeking to become embedded more deeply into communities. As part of this approach, the company is returning to communities, beginning with a revisit to Port Talbot, where it staged its early and spectacularly successful Passion in 2011. The aim, says Thiarai, is “ongoing dialogue. Having made some extraordinary theatre experiences, we have an opportunity now to interrogate a bit more rigorously our relationship to people and place, as theatre makers but also as a nation.” She worries about capacity to deliver: the NTW core team is small, and “we get a tiny amount of money in comparison to our national colleagues”. But she also feels supported by the fact that: “We have a Cabinet Secretary [Ken Skates] who is trying to embed culture in every aspect of government, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of educations, in terms of the social fabric. It enables a conversation to begin across all of the government agendas, around economy, around well-being and health, around social infrastructure and questions of isolation, and about having a national voice and an international focus.”