John McGrath is the artistic director for National Theatre Wales. At the Crunch Festival he spoke about the history of the company and the work it has done so far.
National Theatre Wales was set up in 2009 and celebrated its first production in March 2010. From the beginning the company was inspired by two other theatre groups, National Theatre Scotland and Genedlaethol Cymru, the Welsh language national theatre.
It was National Theatre Scotland which developed the concept of a theatre without walls. Instead of building an actual theatre they performed everywhere and anywhere. This gave them flexibility, they were able to take their work to places that might have been neglected otherwise. It was the model which National Theatre Wales also opted for.
At the beginning McGrath and his team found it difficult to pinpoint what it meant to be a national theatre. In the end they decided the notion of place rather than nation was more appropriate. “We asked the question what does it mean to be here in this place together?” McGrath said. “That automatically opened up a different conversation. It didn’t assume who is or isn’t Welsh, it assumed that the people who gather in a place are of that place and maybe have something to share and learn from each other.”
The team was also inspired by the Welsh tradition of participatory performance and were keen to use this in some way. “There is a huge tradition in Wales of amateur performance, in the choirs, eisteddfords, in the Welsh language but also in places like the South Wales mining valleys where the miners learnt eveything from socialist theory to opera,” said John. “That tradition of art as something which you take place in is very deeply embedded in Wales”.
The end result of this discussion was a project called The Theatre Map of Wales. In one year through theatre McGrath and his team would map Wales. They put on 12 shows, a different show in a different place each month. And as a finale they produced a thirteenth performance, The Passion. This was staged in Port Talbot and starred Michael Sheen.
This 72 hour performance featured in the national press and helped to change the image of Port Talbot, seen by outsiders as heavily industrial and unattractive. The play began with a baptism scene in the sea and ended with more than 12,000 people standing round a roundabout watching the crucifixion. “They were watching partly because Michael Sheen is a famous Hollywood actor, partly because it was a fantastic performance and partly because over 1000 local people were characters in this show. People turned out to see people they knew perform, but as it continued they got caught up in the story,” said John.
During John’s talk he went through each project which National Theatre Wales undertook. Each show was fascinating in its own way. In Barmouth the company staged the story of a woman called June, who lost her husband in the second world war. In Bute Town, Cardiff, the audience was taken on a taxi ride and watched scenes from the play unravel on the street. And in Bridgend, a town with high rates of teenage suicides, the team worked with young people to perform a play staged in a local rock club.
On top of this National Theatre Wales has worked to create a community online, something which increases their outreach even further. “Getting to know communities is a challenge,” said John. “You need to spend time there, it was almost a year before some productions were produced. The online aspect was really important to us because it means that anyone can join in discussions.” Details of next year’s performances are also online.