Various Cities, Wales

By Taylor, Nicole Estvanik | American Theatre, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Various Cities, Wales


Taylor, Nicole Estvanik, American Theatre


NATIONAL THEATRE WALES INAUGURAL SEASON: Instead of a season announcement, National Theatre Wales has issued a season map. After more than two years of planning, the brand-new institution kicks off its ambitious first season, putting on a different production in a different Welsh city each month. By next April, Welsh citizens in the Valleys, Swansea, Cardiff, Barmouth, North Wales, the Brecon Beacons, Bridgend, Newport, Snowdonia, Aberystwyth, Milford Haven and Port Talbot will not only have attended NTW productions in their communities, but will have hosted the artists during a rehearsal process in which each piece has been crafted to fit the character and landscape of the region.

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The man captaining this adventuresome new ship is John McGrath, plucked from his position at Contact Theatre in Manchester, England, where he became known over the course of 9 years for staging new work and building connections with young audiences and emerging companies. He is also the co-founder of PANDA, Manchester's Performing Arts Network and Development Agency, which provides business support to theatres, and has experience with the New York City downtown theatre scene as well, earning his masters at Columbia University in the late 1980s and then logging time with such companies as Mabou Mines. When the search committee first approached him, it wasn't even aware that McGrath was born in Wales. "It was quite a nice surprise for them!" he remarks. In fact, McGrath's family moved back to its hometown of Liverpool when he was five, but he's returned to North Wales for many a holiday and well knows the country's extraordinary landscape ("the only place I've seen that has an equivalent richness in terms of physical landscape is Guatemala"); its legacy of poetic storytelling; and its deep tradition of amateur participation in the arts.

Yet it was the unknown, rather than those familiar contours, that convinced McGrath to take the artistic director job. "There was a sense that the rulebook didn't exist," he explains. The closest model for what the committee had in mind was Scotland's National Theatre, also established in the past decade thanks to a climate of greater independence from the central U.K. government. As in Scotland, the planners of Wales's new theatre felt strongly that a non-building-based institution was the way to go. McGrath took it a step further by suggesting that NTW's first season should custom-fit work to particular Welsh communities. In contrast with its Welsh-language counterpart (seven-year-old Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru), there is no specialized cultural mandate, except "a responsibility to writers and theatremakers." As McGrath puts it, "There isn't this body of knowledge called Wales that needs to be learnt by rote and then recited. It's actually a space of possibilities called Wales that needs to be engaged with."

The venture has attracted vibrant partners. Next year, Germany's Rimini Protokoll takes on its first U.K. commission to create a piece about sustainable energy, and No Fit State Circus Torch Theatre, a Welsh touring sensation, will bring its edgy circus work into a traditional theatre venue for the first time. …

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