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Matthew Xia: ‘Actors Touring Company should exist as a portable portal to the world’

Matthew Xia in rehearsals for Amsterdam. Photo: Helen Murray Matthew Xia in rehearsals for Amsterdam. Photo: Helen Murray
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Last November, I was appointed artistic director of Actors Touring Company. It’s been a long held ambition of mine to artistically lead a theatre company, and an absolute honour to be chosen to by such a well established one.

ATC is responsible for presenting some groundbreaking work over the last four decades, most recently The Suppliant Women, The Events, and of course introducing the exceptional work of Tarell Alvin McCraney to the UK with Bijan Sheibani’s premiere of The Brothers Size.

For any theatre company, and any artistic director, the canny curation and presentation of plays is, ultimately, what it all hinges on. Every choice is a risk, every artistic venture is a risk – critically, financially – underpinned by the fear: ‘What if nobody likes it?’.

When selecting the very first show in a season of work, as a new AD, the pressure is high. Often building-based companies will opt for a well-cast Shakespeare or a modern interpretation of a classic. For a mid-scale touring company with a focus on international voices this didn’t feel right (or affordable). With ATC it was important to, as ever, respond to the present, but also to indicate a slightly different direction of travel.

Matthew Xia announces first production for Actors Touring Company

In my initial application for the position, I had stated my intentions clearly: we should present work that gives voice to ‘the other’, that has a genuine commitment to ideas of global concern. It should be work that draws the world in tighter. For me this means work that explores inter-culturalism and internationalism; how tribes and nations interact, exist with and affect one another in a hyperconnected world.

Steeped in the ethos of Stratford East, the Liverpool Everyman, the Royal Exchange and the Young Vic, the work must be of substance, accessible and inclusive with popular appeal, and while intellectually stimulating it shouldn’t be intellectually inaccessible. In my mind, ATC should exist as a portable portal to the world.

There was a simple rule I gave myself early on in the quest to discover my first work for ATC, namely: I would start by exclusively reading work by under-represented women. Suzanne Bell, new work associate at the Royal Exchange, and Sissi Lichtenstein, who heads up the International Performance Rights agency, were crucial in helping locate the first batch of plays I read.

Amsterdam rehearsals. Photo: Helen Murray
Amsterdam rehearsals. Photo: Helen Murray

Maya Arad Yusur’s Amsterdam was arresting on the page, thrilling to read and formally inventive. A fragmented stream of consciousness, split among numerous voices clamouring to understand the devastating legacy of European xenophobia as it rears its head once more. It questions what it is to feel the history of the place you call home, to hear its destructive echoes shaking any previously held sense of security. And at its core it asks what it is to belong.

The work we present as artists must stretch us – it may require us to step outside of our comfort zones. Amsterdam does this, it’s inventive form is testing the many minds assembled to create the production.

As artistic director I can be insistent that the casting of the work and the curation of the creative teams should represent the industry I want to work in. With this in mind, artists and performers with heritage that stretches around the world, crossing intersections of identity, are prising open the themes of the play and enriching the making process in new ways.

Amsterdam by Maya Arad Yasur runs at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, until October 12 prior to a national tour in Spring 2020

Director Matthew Xia: ‘The moment you lose an audience member, you’ve failed’

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