March 20, 2012

My meetings with Devinda and John from the National Theatre Wales coincided with what forecasters call inclement weather.  Just before Christmas I visited the HQ of the National Theatre in central Cardiff.  My train delayed by a lightning strike, I arrived to be greeted by tea, mince pies and a wall of photos of smiling faces from a NTW party (a regular occurrence I was to discover).

NTW was set up in 2009.  Its aims are to produce bold, surprising, invigorating theatre in unexpected places and for me; this last point was one of the most interesting developments. Rather than being based in a central grand building – their work takes place throughout Wales, growing out of relationships with local communities.  They’re probably best known for their epic, award-winning, participatory production of The Passion featuring Michael Sheen    http://nationaltheatrewales.org/media/photo/passion/michael-sheen-credit-richard-hardcastle

When I met Devinda (who oversees TEAM activities – more of this later), he explained that there is no real education / participation department or role, as participation and engagement is integrated within all elements of the organisation and programmes.  Although this is often an ideal that is not typically carried through, my sense at NTW, with the clarity of a founding vision, is that place and community really are central to their work.  And excitingly, this philosophy is reflected in the work which grows from these community relationships.  Which is where TEAM come in.  These are local people who become ambassadors, advise the production, let the local area know what’s going on and act as a grassroots sounding board in every production.

This sense of community was further reinforced when I met artistic director John McGrath in the New Year, in a small café full of bright but unappetising cakes.  [Please note that John has asked that I clarify that this particular café is not in Wales].  John emphasised that a sense of place was the starting point of their work, which involved not just performing but rehearsing in the community in question.  This approach was summed up by him talking about mapping Wales through theatre and mapping theatre through Wales.  This mapping and discovery is something he is particularly proud of – he now has distinct memories from parts of the country.

Another area he emphasised was the importance of communication, especially social media in the growth and development of NTW.  This was established before anything else and enabled the organisation to grow a community of interest early on.  The online forums are thriving, developing organically with no centralised vetting.  All staff members are trained in social media and digital innovation is integrated within projects, for example online voting as part of the New Assembly performance and debate.

3 tips from Devinda:

  1. Avoid the usual suspects – look for people to involve that are not on the radar
  2. Take time and listen
  3. Be friendly

John was wary of offering wise anecdotes but the following stood out for me:

  1. Sense of place
  2. Holistic team – all involved and aware of the work – all the staff just get it
  3. Simplicity – 12 shows, one a month
  4. Don’t be afraid to be popular – hit shows and good PR within the wider theatre world

I’ve just scratched the surface of their work but to get a better idea, have a look at http://nationaltheatrewales.org/

Tom

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