National Theatre Wales has been accused of “ridding itself of a theatrical identify and even its nationality” in a damning blow dealt by leading Welsh creatives.
A letter signed by 40 Welsh artists, including Killology and Iphigenia in Splott playwright Gary Owen, expresses concerns over the direction of National Theatre Wales, which is the English-language national theatre organisation.
NTW claims that some of the comments made in the open letter are “factually incorrect”, but has declined to expand further on this statement.
The letter, sent to NTW’s chair Clive Jones, says it is seeking to prompt a public discussion about the organisation’s purpose.
“The direction of NTW, coupled with a lack of scrutiny, transparency and openness has led to a worrying internal culture, which, despite the organisation’s name, seems to take pride in ridding itself of a theatrical identity and even its nationality,” it says.
NTW was founded in 2010 by John McGrath, who continued to lead it until 2016 when he handed over to its current artistic director Kully Thiarai.
The letter’s signatories argue that Wales’ community of artists are being neglected by the company, which it claims is funnelling “what could be investment in Welsh theatremakers to companies and artists beyond Wales”.
NTW currently receives £1.6 million per year from Arts Council of Wales. Figures supplied by the Arts Council show NTW attendance was a little over 3,000 in 2017/18, a significant decline on previous years. However, ACW said the year featured less programming because it fell between McGrath and Thiarai’s tenures.
The letter calls on NTW to put Welsh or Wales-based artists at the heart of all its shows, and that any company from outside the country should be world-class and engaged only to support a Welsh artist. It also calls on NTW to focus its programming more tightly on theatre.
“It sends out a consistent undermining message, via its work with non-Welsh artists, that Welsh theatre artists are not good enough to tell Welsh stories,” the letter says.
It singles out English, an NTW production staged earlier this year, which it says “felt like a final straw”.
The production ran at Wales Millennium Centre and was described as “an exuberant A to Z of language and identity – made in Wales, with a global perspective”.
However, the letter says: “How those two languages forge our identity is arguably the defining characteristic of our nation. And, yes, English erased this crucial aspect of the story of English in Wales entirely and deliberately.”
“We want it to be a theatre. We want it to be Welsh. These are two things we thought we could take for granted,” it adds.
Other signatories include playwrights Alun Saunders and Carmen Medway-Stephens, actor Sharon Morgan and composer Lucy Rivers, who co-founded theatre company Gagglebabble.
Responding to the letter, a statement from NTW said: “National Theatre Wales is aware of a letter addressed to the chair of our board. While much of the letter’s content is factually incorrect, our door is and always has been open to artists. Our artistic director had already made plans to meet many of the letter’s signatories in November, but if they would prefer to meet sooner, we are more than happy to do so.”
It comes after the Arts Council of Wales issued a plan for the next five years promising to make culture central to the health and well-being of the nation.
A spokesman for ACW said that it respected the views of those raising questions over NTW and welcomed a debate.
He said: “We are aware that since its creation, National Theatre Wales has existed to challenge everyday notions of what theatre could, and should be, in the 21st century and has done this boldly and imaginatively.
“We are sure that National Theatre Wales will respond confidently to the open letter and will want to engage in a debate about its future plans. While this is primarily a matter for NTW itself, as the body that created the company, the Arts Council will, of course, want to be part of this debate.”
It is with extreme sadness that we wish to make known our discontent with National Theatre Wales. We feel it is time for a public discussion about the very purpose of the organisation.
The direction of NTW, coupled with a lack of scrutiny, transparency and openness has led to a worrying internal culture, which, despite the organisation’s name, seems to take pride in ridding itself of a theatrical identity and even its nationality.
Our fears as an artistic community regarding NTW’s low theatrical production rate since the departure of John McGrath are an open secret. Despite NTW being in receipt of a regular annual income from ACW of roughly one and a half million pounds, just one project is listed on your website for the remainder of 2018 – an exhibition of photographs taken with disposable cameras in Haverfordwest. And in the company’s latest public report to its trustees, just one production is listed for the entirety of 2019.
But for many, it was this spring’s show English which felt like a final straw, and which triggered a widespread discussion behind closed doors.
NTW described English as “an investigation into language and identity”. There is no version of the history of the English language in Wales which is not a history of its relationship with the Welsh language. How those two languages forge our identity is arguably the defining characteristic of our nation. And yet English erased this crucial aspect of the story of English in Wales entirely and deliberately.
It was the open deliberateness of this act which made English a turning point for so many artists in Wales. Its erasure of a distinctive Welsh context was not a mistake. It was not the result of hasty decisions made under the pressure of a limited rehearsal period. It was the result of decisions which NTW leadership had chance to reflect on and consider carefully. Specifically, the decision to employ a Mancunian company to make the show, and the decision to hire a director who admitted in interviews that, as an English-speaking English man, he did not feel equipped to speak about the Welsh language, or Welsh identity.
It is in this context that we wish to provoke a debate about what kind of national theatre we desire. We want it to be a theatre. We want it to be Welsh. These are two things we thought we could take for granted. And yet, despite the uproar over [the production] English, it is an English company which NTW has entrusted to deliver a flagship project in 2020 – the Liverpudlian 20 Stories High.
We are therefore asking to the board to overhaul NTW’s aims and objectives so that:
1. All shows produced by National Theatre Wales have a Welsh or Wales-based artist as primary artist. This is to insure against the marginalisation of the Welsh experience. And to ensure Wales benefits from the investment of the national theatre with artists returning to their creative community and continuing their careers at home.
2. Non-Welsh and Wales based artists and companies need to be 1) world-class, and 2) engaged only to support a Welsh or Wales-based artist. The practice of engaging companies and artists outside of Wales to respond to Welsh stories has to end.
3. A National Theatre Wales show has to have theatre in it. If it’s a song then it’s a song. If it’s a comedy night, then it’s a comedy night. But if it’s not in some sense theatre, NTW should not be funding it.
We are not provoking this debate for provocation’s sake. We wish to work with you to deliver a sustainable, thriving theatre culture that can speak to Wales’ diverse communities, and at times to all of them. However in its current incarnation NTW is acting as a roadblock to this goal. It funnels what could be investment in Welsh theatremakers to companies and artists beyond Wales. It sends out a consistent undermining message, via its work with non-Welsh artists, that Welsh theatre artists are not good enough to tell Welsh stories. Were it not for the success we achieve at home and internationally, without NTW’s support, it is something we could easily begin to believe about ourselves. And yet we are successful. Only think how much that success could be inflated with NTW’s support.