Twelve months after an open letter protested at National Theatre Wales’ apparent disregard for Wales-based artists, Nicholas Davies looks at the progress the company has made in addressing their concerns
It is a year since 40 of Wales’ leading playwrights sent an open letter to National Theatre Wales demanding urgent change to the company’s artistic policy. Chiefly, they criticised NTW’s approach to regularly using visiting artists to best reflect the national experience, rather than trusting Wales-based talent to tell the country’s stories. The letter was swiftly followed by a similar protest from 200 actors and theatre artists declaring solidarity with the writers.
But were the two letters justified in their tone and, 12 months on, have relationships improved? The writers’ major concern was NTW’s perceived neglect of Wales-based writers and artists as lead creatives, with several shows in the preceding years led by brought-in writers and directors. The letter urged NTW to welcome artists from outside Wales only when they were world-class and to commit to working with native talent. It was a disturbing and critical moment for a national company that proudly states in its mission that Wales’ “incredible stories and wealth of talent (are) our inspiration”.
In the two years leading up to the open letter’s submission, less than half of NTW’s 20 productions were written by Wales-based writers. It is difficult to imagine a national company in any other country forsaking the talent on its doorstep to quite such an extent – although the Abbey, Ireland’s national theatre, also recently came under fire for the lack of opportunities afforded to theatremakers based in Ireland. An open letter from more than 300 Irish creatives cited the fact that roles at the theatre for actors living in the country had halved in recent years.
‘NTW’s letter of response misconstrued our point and the narrative became unconstructive and rather hostile’ – playwright Alun Saunders
A year on, Welsh playwright Alun Saunders, a signatory to the letter, says: “The letters to NTW represented just two of many increasingly concerned groups of creatives in Wales – people in highly precarious positions of employment – calling out to a powerful potential employer to reconsider its direction, to reconsider who was offered precious opportunities to create and develop in collaboration with one of our national theatre companies.”
There were two major concerns. First, the notion of who a national theatre should trust to best reflect its country’s diverse identity, and secondly, the dearth of employment opportunities for freelance practitioners in a cultural landscape already fraught with financial difficulties.
So, was the call heard by NTW? Kully Thiarai, the company’s outgoing artistic director, says: “It’s been a year of wide-ranging conversations at NTW, talking with the signatories of the open letter as well as many other writers and theatremakers from across Wales. A Creative Conversation brought together nearly 200 Welsh creatives to explore the question: ‘What is our dream for theatre in Wales over the next 10 years?’”
Playwright Katherine Chandler agrees: “We [the signatories] met National Theatre Wales a couple of weeks after the letter and it was a positive meeting. NTW really wanted to open up the discussions to the wider theatre community, which they’ve done, and I think they’ve felt that’s been a positive thing.”
But while conversations have taken place – 62 different sessions, according to the company – what is the result? “Love Letters to the NHS [a series of monologues premiered in 2018], touring again this year, has been a huge success and has supported four Welsh and Wales-based playwrights,” says Chandler, who scripted Peggy’s Song, which will travel around south Wales this autumn. “The monologues were something we raised in our first meeting with NTW, when we were told there were no further shows programmed until Ed Thomas’ On Bear Ridge in October 2019 – so the decision has been seen as really positive.”
But Saunders feels more could have been achieved since that meeting: “A letter of response was soon penned by NTW which misconstrued and misrepresented our discussions and points of suggestion. The narrative then became unconstructive and rather hostile.”
He continues: “What seemed to follow NTW’s willing engagement with the creatives did not correspond to our initial points of discussion: that all shows produced by NTW have a Welsh or Wales-based artist as primary artist, that visiting artists and companies need to be world-class, and engaged only to support a Welsh or Wales-based artist, and that any show has to have theatre in it.” The latter point is a reference to the gigs and comedy nights being included on the company’s production slate. “We’re yet to see or hear any true commitment to – or honest discussion of – these three points.”
Thiarai disagrees: “These diverse conversations were rich and complex. People talked, made new relationships, addressed thorny issues and looked to the future together. All of these meetings have been influencing and shaping our forthcoming strategic plan. Writers have been involved in all of these dialogues.”
Following those first meetings, the official response from NTW chair Clive Jones maintained the company’s commitment to a range of theatre in many forms, but mentioned little about how it will invest in new writing other than the revival of the NHS monologues. In fact, his indicator of NTW’s continuing success was a provocative choice, citing Tide Whisperer, a site-specific piece written by Louise Wallwein, a playwright from Manchester.
Is the frustration of much of the writing community solely due to NTW’s approach, though? “There is no literary department or equivalent in any theatre in Wales and I think that’s at the root of all sorts of unnecessary complications for writers,” laments Chandler. “The recent appointment of an associate director at NTW [with responsibility for meeting playwrights about work and seed commissions] is a really positive step.”
Thiarai points to this and other initiatives as evidence of NTW’s continuing commitment to new writing in Wales: “We have worked in partnership with the BBC to support the Welsh Voices initiative and to launch a new award, the Wales Writer in Residence, announcing the winner in October 2019.
“Commissions for original plays continue to be a vital strand of the company’s work. [NTW continues to] find new stories and encourage new writing talent.” She talks about several established and emerging Welsh writers who are currently busy drafting plays with the company, “plays that are a major feature of NTW’s forthcoming pipeline of work”.
Writer Tim Price acknowledges NTW’s willingness to engage, which, he believes, has led to relationships that may strengthen the company in all ways, especially against the current precarious financial backdrop. “Following the letters, the company started working closer with the artistic community [and] has begun to put things in place to secure its future. The company has worked tirelessly to turn things around. The staff of NTW is to be commended.”
Saunders is less optimistic: “There’s not always an acknowledgement that there’s something that needs fixing. Whether NTW was correct in its artistic direction and commitments or not, I think that to have lost a positive working relationship with any portion of Wales’ creative community is a loss and should be constructively rebuilt. This may take some time.”
With a new artistic director soon to be taking over from Thiarai, who is leaving to helm Leeds 2023’s year of culture, the next 12 months may prove to be as uncertain as the last.
Peggy’s Song is touring venues in south Wales from September 25 to October 11