NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 29th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 16 June 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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National Theatre Wales might sound like a grand old institution, but it is a very young company. We are Wales’ English language National Theatre. As you might know, Wales is a bilingual nation, Welsh and English. We have had a Welsh language National Theatre Company, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, in existence for some time. But there was a proposal put forward that Wales as a bilingual nation ought to have its own national theatre making work in English, although we do cross into Welsh. And that it should be as much a celebration of the landscape and the place and the people of Wales as the stories of Wales.
To set the scene for our conversation about “Proper Ordinary Miracles” with Naomi Chiffi, Anastacia Ackers, and Natasha Borton, François explained that “first of all, National Theatre Wales was only founded in 2010. And secondly, it doesn’t have a theater of its own. It’s got an office in an arcade in Cardiff, which is one of the nicest places to work, I always think. It’s an interesting organization and one of the most interesting things is that from the beginning, it has had this project called TEAM. TEAM has been a very imaginative way of connecting the National Theatre company with the community.”
Naomi is director of collaboration with National Theatre Wales. When we spoke, she was at home in Tenby, which is in Pembrokeshire, a county on the southwestern tip of Wales. Natasha is a community artist based in Wrexham in northeast Wales. (I’m not a sports fan, but everyone else seems to associate Wrexham with its football—soccer—club, with Hollywood celebrities making headlines by buying the team a little more than a year ago.) Anastacia is a community artist, theater maker, and writer who spoke to us from Sychdyn in Flintshire, at the northeast edge of Wales, close to Wrexham and to Liverpool in England.
Naomi explained that “TEAM is the engagement branch of the organization, set up right at the birth of the company by my predecessor, Devinda De Silva, who did amazing work across Wales going to all sorts of communities in valleys and council estates, trying to connect with people wherever they were. We talk about this quite a lot as an organization, this association with the word ‘national’ can be quite exclusive, it can put people off. So we do a lot of breaking down of barriers by providing opportunities for people to engage with our work in whatever way they want to engage with it. And that’s what’s key to TEAM. It’s about reversing that sort of structure where a theatre company or arts organization will try to work with communities on an idea that they’ve dreamed up back in the office behind closed doors. Instead of doing that, we would far rather go into communities and say to people, ‘we have no idea what we want to do or how we’re going to do it. You get to choose what we do and how we do it. Just come with us for the ride and enjoy the journey.’ And that’s what it’s all about.”
“The biggest project TEAM has undertaken to date,” Naomi explained, “is the work that we have done in both Pembrokeshire and Wrexham, which was funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and began as a four-year project in each place of deep community engagement leading to a full-scale National Theatre Wales production in each area. The projects were rich, diverse, complicated, joyful, sometimes tricky. The main aim of the game was to look at how we can change the structure of making work as an organization. So instead of having a production that’s been created by a director and a writer, and has been dragged up over here, outside of the realms of the community, the people, the community choose every aspect of it, from what is said to how it said, themes, locations, directors, cast, and in so doing influence the entire structure of the organization and the way in which National Theatre Wales makes shows. I think that it was very successful. And I think it will have an ongoing legacy that transforms the company going forward.”
Those projects, in two very different parts of Wales with different populations and concerns, were the focus of our conversations. They began in 2018, explained François, and then “both hit the COVID pandemic two years in and adapted in different ways. The four year projects became five year projects. So the culmination of the Pembrokeshire project was in 2021. And the culmination of the Wrexham project was in 2022.”
The podcast goes into fascinating detail about TEAM’s process. The following is a glimpse of the first step in Pembrokeshire from Naomi. On the podcast, you’ll hear much more about discovering the project’s environmental theme, and the wonderfully creative ways the team reached out to people during the pandemic, including a decentralized procession that was experienced online, artmaking kits that 500 families used to grow and share sunflowers, and a film comprising three layers: one scripted from interviews with local people who’d experienced an oil spill 25 years ago; a second layer of people connecting with nature and each other; and a third comprising clips people contributed of themselves performing one of seven simple acts, such as studying the stars.
“The first and most important thing that we did to begin both projects in each area, which were running simultaneously, was to host something that we call a performance party. This is something that National Theatre Wales has done historically as an organization since the beginning. It’s basically a consultation event dressed up as a party. It’s a way of gathering ideas from people and ascertaining what it is that they want and giving them an opportunity to be involved in something fun and interesting and new, without selling it to them in a very dry way. It’s based on forum theater, so it’s as old as time itself. And we just invite people into a space, they’re given a few provocations, and then they’re invited to debate discuss, participate.”
You’ll find an interactive timeline of the five-year Pembrokeshire project here, including video clips from the film, Go Tell The Bees.
The Wrexham project began with a performance party too. Natasha explained that it became “painfully evident that the biggest issue facing the entire county was around homelessness. And so artistically, what we decided we needed to do then was not just address the concerns around the point where it was becoming quite an epidemic in the county, but seeing how we could change people’s interactions and awareness around the subject matter. Very early on, that’s the direction that we started on and thus evolved the four years of ‘A Proper Ordinary Miracle’ that was to come.”
François asked how they won the trust of homeless people in Wrexham. Natasha pointed to engaging with “services and people who already were trusted members of the homeless community, people who were pillars of our community. And in a way what we asked was those champions to trust us. And so we gained the trust of those of those community champions and in return, they gifted us the trust of the community. I really believe that’s how we did it, by presenting ourselves authentically, by showing up to everything we said we’d be at, by providing food every event. We did really simple things. A member of the community who’s experiencing homelessness here could interact with us and they knew that they were going to have a cup of tea, they knew they were going to have something to eat that was warm, they knew that they were going to be asked to engage in something creative, which was actually, at that point quite a dramatic intervention with the homeless community because they weren’t being given opportunities to express themselves. And they knew that they were going to sit down with someone who’s genuinely interested in what they had to say about their experience.”
Anastacia first became involved through a residency with National Theatre Wales. “I’d chosen to explore my own experiences of homelessness, alongside other people’s as well. During that project I heard about TEAM and TEAM Panel and the incredible work that they were doing and then I joined TEAM Panel.” When COVID hit, it was immediately evident that people who are currently experiencing homelessness or who even just had lived experience of it, and who might now be in temporary accommodation, might not have access to internet or mobile phone or data, and were excluded from a lot of things that were happening. So whilst the world retreated, what actually happened was this incredible galvanization of services in Wrexham, in terms of supporting vulnerable people.” This led to a meal service, to postcards that community members created to accompany the meals. The local council teamed up with a hotel and a B&B to offer accomodation, and that created places for drop-in sessions where residents got art packs, then art workshops, which led to a mural.
From a U.S. perspective, I said, “I’m awestruck at this luxury of time and relationship that’s allowed to unfold here. Did the project get extended because of COVID? I’m hearing you describe the other great things that you did with the former B&B, with the former hotel, the food that was being provided. Was that your original developmental trajectory? You’re going to take like a year and a half to get to know people before you started making together?”
Anastacia explained that “it would have been held a year previously. It was scheduled for 2021, so everything sort of shifted a year. But we didn’t call it development, because it didn’t feel like that to us. And I think if we would have broached it in that manner, it might have looked very different. We always had an idea that something was going to be produced at the end of it, but the pandemic, the shifting of what the world looked like—at some points, it was like, gosh, this is really sort of seismic. It was just an ever-evolving conversation between National Theatre Wales TEAM, the practitioners on the ground, and the community.”
“A lot of it,” said Natasha, “held down to meeting people on the street and going to where you thought they would be and just having a chat. Building up to these little events as we’re going throughout the process.” For U.S.-based listeners, François noted that “the project was supported by a really big grant from a private foundation, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. TEAM had the resources to be able to say we will spend four years in this place without knowing what it would lead to.”
It did lead to a show, a production that moved through the streets of Wrexham, as Naomi explained. “As an audience member on a very cold and wet November evening in windy Wales, in the dark being bustled through the streets by this gaggle of performers who just didn’t just put on a show for you, they dragged you into the show, you were became part of it, you were part of the narrative of the production in a way that felt—for somebody who really runs away from anything audience participation—it just felt really joyful. I so felt a part of that community. It was embracing me with its open arms and bringing me into it. How anybody could have left there without feeling moved, spurred to action, inspired, it’s beyond me. It was an incredible achievement, and Natasha and Anastasia have reason to be very, very proud. And I know that Wrexham is so proud of them.”
You’ll find more information at this website. But first-person stories always tell a richer tale, so tune in to learn much more from the podcast about the processes and the productions.
“Feel Like Going Home,” Charlie Rich.