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Kully Thiarai: ‘National Theatre Wales debate must extend to wider Welsh arts sector’

Kully Thiarai, artistic director of National Theatre Wales. Photo: Dan Green
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National Theatre Wales artistic director Kully Thiarai has spoken at length for the first time about the debate that has engulfed the company in recent weeks.

Thiarai said the discussions that have arisen about NTW’s direction and commitment to Welsh artists must not be focused only on NTW’s purpose as a company, but should shape part of a wider conversation about the future of theatre and the arts in Wales.

She said she had initially been shocked to read the open letter by 40 Welsh playwrights criticising NTW under her leadership and claiming the company’s recent work had ignored Welsh talent.

The playwrights’ comments were followed up by similar disapproval directed at NTW by more than 200 Welsh actors, who said many felt a “drastic disconnect” from a company they felt had previously championed Welsh work.

NTW chair Clive Jones disputed criticisms that its production rate had fallen until Thiarai’s two-year tenure. However, Thiarai has not commented in depth about the situation in a personal capacity until now.

Speaking on Chippy Lane’s Podcast – a series that interviews Welsh creatives hosted by theatre company Chippy Lane – Thiarai said she understood the frustration expressed by Welsh theatremakers about the challenges they face.

“What was clear from the letter was that there’s a real desire for a public debate about a whole lot of stuff, and some of that stuff is specific to NTW, but some of it is about the systemic issues of theatre in Wales, and about how we spend our resource and what step changes we can make in order to have a more cohesive ladder of opportunity [so] that people feel they can have their careers, make a living and have their work seen,” she said.

Thiarai argued that the debate surrounding NTW “has to be part of a bigger conversation with all the players”. When looking back at its first decade of existence – NTW was founded in 2010 – she said it was necessary to acknowledge “what has changed in that 10-year period, where are the gaps, where are things falling down, and what is happening in the bigger landscape”.

Meetings with the artists involved in the open letters are ongoing, and NTW has said it is open to “constructive debate” about its role, announcing plans to host meetings and creative exchanges as part of a three-year strategic review.

Thiarai said the company would begin this review earlier than expected as a result of recent developments and that its scope would cover programming decisions including the balance of new work among its productions, and how to respond to developing genres such as immersive and gig-theatre.

Thiarai also pointed to wider questions such as the funding climate and uncertainty around Brexit as challenges that must be faced.

“That is a conversation for the whole organisation but also all the players that play a role in that – artists, audiences, funders,” she said.

The playwrights’ open letter to NTW called on the organisation to ensure that all shows it produces have a Welsh or Wales-based artist at the heart, that all NTW shows have theatre in them, and that non-Welsh artists and companies are engaged only to support native talent.

When asked whether NTW’s plans for 2019 would address these issues, Thiarai said she believed the company would have “all those bases covered”, but stressed NTW would maintain a “wide-ranging approach to theatremaking”.

The first project announced for NTW’s 10th-anniversary season in 2020 is a new full-scale production by a female Welsh artist. The company has invited women to submit ideas for the production and shortlisted artists will be paired with mentors to develop their proposals.

National Theatre Wales opens public call for female theatremakers to create 10th-anniversary production

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