John McGrath, Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales (NTW) was recently in Melbourne on a whirlwind tour. His schedule included presenting the George Fairfax and Kenneth Myer lecture: Make Everything Risky: Theatre in the age of Google, Occupy and the Arab Spring as well as sharing insights at a site-specific workshop that was part of Deakin’s George Fairfax Lecture series. However, in between the flurry of different activities he did manage to have a chat with Australian Stage’s Dione Joseph where they discussed the work of NTW, the concept of participatory theatre and its ongoing relevance to theatre practice today.
The National Theatre of Wales (2009) is a relatively new company yet it is quickly developing a place of its own in the international theatre landscape. And the pun is intended because a sense of place is intrinsic to the aesthetic of the company’s work: Wales is the stage for the company’s work from steel towns to village halls, forests to nightclubs. This is a collective of individuals who are inspired to work with artists and audiences to create theatre that reverberates with a distinct understanding of local space and people.
“We didn’t start with identity and history,” says McGrath, “And that is because we deliberately are looking at sense of place. We want to know: what does it mean to be here together in this particular space and in this particular moment?”
The work produced by NTW has honoured this tenet by creating highly immersive and engaging works that respond to the current conversations taking place within local communities. The work ranges from a fascinating melding of tradition and contemporary practice, adaptation of classics to highly site-specific work with a huge number of audience participants.
“As part of a multicultural community there are a number of different traditions that make their way into our work. One of these is a project by a group of young Somali men who wanted the world to know them not as pirates… but as poets. There’s a whole history of poetry in Somalia as there is in Wales and these young men were able to explore their project within the context of oral traditions and their own desire to create an expansive work that was largely reflective of their engagement with previous work we had made.”
Often the company invites artists from across the world to work on new projects, especially to engage with the concept of ‘longing for home’. But equally, the invitation is also extended to local artists to explore what it means to be ‘from here’ and how do those different experiences and knowledges contribute towards making work that is transformative.
The impetus to take risks is at the forefront of NTW’s work and McGrath is enthusiastic about inviting artists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds to develop work. He says: “There are no set assumptions of what theatre should be and its up to us to take those risks.”
Although not widely known on the international touring circuit because of the nature of the work McGrath has no complaints and is keen on “maintaining that sense of place”.
“Our work has been quite located and that’s partly because we are quite a new company. And while we do work internationally and have with the likes of Rimini Protokoll and Constanza Macras/Dorky Park, I’m interested in developing future opportunities where both sides are in conversation to translate the context so that the story and meaning maintains its potency to specific sites.”
The term participatory theatre is far more frequent in the conversation than community arts and this reflects NTW’s conscious effort to not to allow the question of participation, interaction and immersion to simply be ossified into a singular concept known as ‘community arts’.
“There is plenty to embrace in the history of arts that gets swept into general arts practice and vice versa and that includes making a distinction between the arts and community arts. I believe that the theatre experience is about a group of people, audience and performers in a space together doing something that exists only in that moment and there are many ways that contract between that audience and performers can exist.”
He clarifies further by saying “Our work is about re-opening theatre to that spirit of possibility in terms of what the different contracts in the space could be… rather than isolating it into a particular silos and operating in exclusion” says McGrath.
And although the term may be increasingly bandied about the rise of participatory theatre certainly doesn’t appear to be a fad. As more and more theatre companies work towards creating theatre that is interactive McGrath points out that the reason seems to be an obvious one:
“There is a generation that has been brought up on interactive experience,” he explains, “The digital world is deeply interactive whereas television and cinema are incredibly passive. As an incredibly old art form theatre is used to shifting and changing according to different models of reception and theatre responds to that.”
But perhaps in its most fundamental and truthful state, the key successes of participatory theatre (or its occasional heteronyms of community theatre and interactive theatre) is marked not simply judging its effects on a particular group. The work, as McGrath points out, is most profound when people who have been involved in making the work have life changing experiences.
“It’s absolutely crucial that anybody who comes to the work is transformed and excited and that all of the artists involved are taking risks. Everybody, the community, the audiences and the artists need to be affected by the process of change.”
This particular emphasis on the acknowledging the need and significance of the lateral effects of engaging in participatory theatre is vital to ensuring that the binaries are disrupted and that as McGrath highlights, the work is transformative for all involved in the experience.
This is not uni-directional theatre with a premeditated product, this is theatre that speaks in the moment to both its creators and its audiences and welcomes the line betwixt the two to become blurred.
This is the theatre from the National Theatre of Wales. Lets hope they bring their work to Australia soon.