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Wildcard Theatre: ‘We want to empower the unknown and disenfranchised’

Electrolyte preview on the South Bank for Mental Health Awareness Week. Photo: Ali Wright Electrolyte preview on the South Bank for Mental Health Awareness Week. Photo: Ali Wright
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Fresh out of drama school, Joseph Dawson and James Meteyard decided to set up their own company and before long they were catapulted from student theatre to an associate company at Newbury’s Watermill. Now, they are producing two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Dave Hollander meets the team behind Wildcard Theatre

Looking for work after drama school with no representation is daunting for young performers, which is why so many set up their own companies. One such company, Wildcard Theatre – established three years ago, has found success embracing that outsider status and has sought to represent and empower those with no agents and no credits.

After meeting on the Oxford School of Drama’s three-year course, Joseph Dawson and James Meteyard were in a rehearsal room just before graduating. “We had people from all kinds of backgrounds,” recalls Meteyard. “So we said: ‘Let’s create something that empowers us’.”

Joseph Dawson. Photo: Wolf Marloh
Joseph Dawson. Photo: Wolf Marloh

Needing to establish their identity, they drew on sessions with casting directors. Meteyard says: “They kept being asked: ‘Will they ever bring in a wildcard?’ – someone with no agent or credits. Being unknown and unrepresented can be disenfranchising. We wanted to own that, and be a place of empowerment.”

Dawson adds: “We were inspired by one of our graduation shows at Soho Theatre, using Vicky Jones’ DryWrite technique. We wanted to set up a troupe of actors to replicate that.”

Read our interview with Vicky Jones

But soon their dream was foundering. “We started off as a real collective – we voted on storyboards for scenes,” Meteyard says. “It took six months to make our first show, but we ended up scrapping it. Every circle needs a centre – if everything’s done by committee nothing gets decided.”

James Meteyard. Photo: Chris Mann
James Meteyard. Photo: Chris Mann

Getting the company back on track was a steep learning curve, says Dawson. “At OSD, Curious Directive’s Jack Lowe had advised us not to be a flash-in-the pan company. After months of research, Wildcard Collective Ltd became incorporated on October 8, 2015. We could open a bank account and get insurance.”

Meteyard explains the company’s ethos: “Wildcard was founded on the principle that we wanted to be the change we wanted to see in the industry. So we signed the Equity fringe agreement in August 2016. Actors often get trodden on: their wages or living space are the first thing to go. Yet performers are fundamental – you don’t have a show if you don’t have actors.”

What characterises a Wildcard show? “Something that captures what’s going on in society,” says Dawson. “James’ 2017 play After Party looked at the world from the point of view of millennials, while The Cat’s Mother deals with another timely social issue: what do you do when your parents can’t look after themselves? That was Erica Murray’s first show in London, but through being reviewed in The Stage, she now has an agent and has been published.”

Eleanor Crosswell and Jamie Chandler in After Party at the Pleasance.
Eleanor Crosswell and Jamie Chandler in After Party at the Pleasance. Photo: Isaac Whittingham

Meteyard adds: “New writing is exciting, though we’ll look at revivals of classics down the line. We’re trying to make a transition from a fringe company to a national touring company – but unless you’re English Touring Theatre, reworking a classic probably isn’t the way to do that. We’re about creating bold new work that has something to say to people nationally.”

Unable to earn a living from producing, they juggle day jobs too, but Meteyard admits the pace is non-stop: “Sometimes we’re not just doing a job to pay the bills but just to pay for a rehearsal space. You might say our shows are on a shoestring budget – but so is my life.”

Yet Wildcard has continued to develop, going from a handful of modestly successful fringe productions to taking two shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Dawson says: “We didn’t plan it. I got to know Erica Murray while working in the Understudy bar at the National Theatre. I liked the sound of her play and applied for us to do it at Vault festival. It was only on for two nights, but Underbelly programme coordinator Aisling Galligan came to see it and offered us the slot.”

The Cat’s Mother review at Vaults, London – ‘wickedly funny’

Meteyard adds: “Electrolyte is an explosive piece of gig-theatre directed by the Olivier-winning Donnacadh O’Briain. But if it hadn’t won Les Enfants Terribles award, it might not have been accepted on the Pleasance programme, because it’s difficult to set it up in 15 minutes.”

The pair are sanguine about the financial pressures involved. Wildcard has been rejected for numerous funding applications, but Dawson remains persistent: “We’re diversifying income streams and avoiding relying on crowdfunding. Through the ETT Forge programme, we’re exploring the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme and the government’s social investment tax relief scheme.”

“Electrolyte’s the first show we’ll be working on with a potential commercial return,” Meteyard points out. “But as a charity, we couldn’t attract direct investment to return a profit, so we’d have to set the show up as a separate company. We’re approaching individuals for support in return for free tickets and hospitality – it’s a more exclusive way of running things.”

Dawson adds: “There’s something a bit impersonal about funding applications. We’d prefer to talk to potential investors face-to-face. As actors, we like to be personal.”

Meteyard and Dawson are inveterate networkers. Mentored by producer Richard Jordan, Meteyard doorstepped regional venues, asking to speak to the management. He secured meetings at Manchester Royal Exchange and Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, where the company was offered a week’s research and development for Electrolyte.

Dawson and Meteyard at a 2017 fundraising event at the Other Palace. Photo: Ali Wright
Dawson and Meteyard at a 2017 fundraising event at the Other Palace. Photo: Ali Wright

Earlier this summer, its artistic director Paul Hart invited Wildcard to become an associate company of the venue. The company secured further research and development time at Theatr Clwyd while Electrolyte composer Maimuna Memon was performing there in The Assassination of Katie Hopkins. Meteyard says: “At the end, we performed to the venue’s producers, who were particularly interested in its mental health angle.”

Wildcard’s remit is to reach diverse communities, Dawson says: “One of our trustees, actor Sara Houghton, is a big advocate for improving diversity in theatre. If we want to change theatre, we need to find a story that community associates with. It’s not enough to offer a black, Asian or minority ethnic actor a role. We need these stories to come from a diverse place to start with.”

After Edinburgh, Wildcard’s plans are no less ambitious. Meteyard says: “Our target is to become an Arts Council national portfolio organisation. In the meantime, we want to develop the three strands of Wildcard in a more concrete way: the creative strand of producing new work; the emerging artists strand – including a free youth programme for people from disadvantaged backgrounds – and the outreach strand, reaching people in local communities all over the UK.”

Profile: Wildcard

Co-artistic directors: Joseph Dawson, James Meteyard
Landmark productions:
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jack Studio Theatre, London (2016)

• After Party, Pleasance, London (2017)
• The Cat’s Mother, Vault Festival, London and Edinburgh Fringe (2018)
• Electrolyte, Edinburgh Fringe (2018)
Audience numbers: 2,000 (2016-17), 4,100 (2018, projected)
Funding: None
Website: wildcardtheatre.co.uk
Contact: joseph@wildcardtheatre.co.uk

The Cat’s Mother is at Underbelly Cowgate, until  August 26; Electrolyte is at Pleasance Dome, until August 27


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