8 October 2013

Skype interview-chat with founding artistic director of National Theatre Wales, John E. McGrath

CHRISTINA PAPAGIANNOULI. On 2009 you started building an interactive online community for National Theatre Wales. How has this attempt been developed over time?

JOHN E. MCGRATH. Yes, we set up the online community as the very first thing we did. I sometimes describe NTW as the first national theatre created on a social network. It was the point at which web 2.0 was really gaining traction – the web had become a place of co-creation rather than just content publishing, so it felt like an ideal opportunity to build a community that could help imagine this new national theatre. We were idealistic, but at the same time very practical. We identified local social network experts – Native HQ – who could help us make this a reality, and all staff worked with them to get everything in place – to make sure we were all inhabiting this community and making others welcome. There have been quite a lot of developments over time, but the core has stayed the same. Most developments have been about opening the space up more and more – e.g. anyone can post their events now, not just NTW.

Has NTW community blog been used as a space for political discussion, participation and debate in relation to the local community issues or it is used mainly for arts discussions?

It’s quite focussed on theatre and arts, though there is certainly a political element to that. For example there was a big petition on there about the Freedom Theatre in Palestine, which was sent to the Israeli Embassy, and our Assembly events which debate local issues often have a strong presence on the community. I often describe the community as the equivalent of the cafe-bar area if we had a venue (which we don’t) – the place where people talk about what they’ve seen, where artists meet to discuss future projects, where there are notices from all sorts of people on the notice board, and where you sometimes go by yourself in the hope of running into someone interesting. Here is an article about the setting up of the community: http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/jan/18/social-network-arts-wales-theatre

Using one of your debate questions in NTW blog, “What is political theatre today?”

Well, in that blog I reported on a workshop I’d run where people had to vote on a political theatre manifesto – they came up with a good list. I think a lot of our work is political in terms of engaging people in asking questions and giving opinions on their society – local and wider; The Passion definitely had a political impact. And some shows have more overtly political themes – notably The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning – which came out of my challenge to Tim Price to write a contemporary Welsh political drama. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this ended up being such an online story – and that we then decided to live-stream every show – with links and chat area – so that there would be a debate at the heart of every performance. NTW works both hyper-locally and globally, and projects like TROBM allow us to develop the relationship between the two. It’s very much what I hoped would happen.

Would you suggest that the use of the Internet in performance making could democratise theatre?

I would, but I also think we have to be careful of making overly sweeping claims. Perhaps we could say that it is one of the tools we can use if we are committed to democratising theatre. Are you aware of the work we’ve done on our Assembly as a “democratically-selected” event? We are hoping to build on that project over the coming years, to a large-scale project based in a place and on a theme voted on by the public online. I think it’s a very interesting development. However, I don’t think we will ever go down the route of people just electing the repertoire on line – that feels too simplistic.

Do you think that theatre needs this democratisation? And if yes, why it needs it now?

I think there are a couple of different angles to this. Firstly theatre is, almost inevitably, becoming more interactive and immersive as it is increasingly made by a generation who grew up with interactivity, online collaboration etc. This is a formal shift in theatre which mirrors the opposite move a hundred years or so ago when theatre became more “flat”, more screen-like. On the other hand, there is the social make up of theatre, and the fact that, in the UK at least, it hasn’t really reflected the true mix of our society. Online can be part of addressing this, but it involves work on every level – from the artists that get supported, to who the staff and board of directors are, to the very question of what theatre feels like as an event

What are the political potentials of the use of the Internet in theatre?

I think a lot of the potential is still to be discovered, but we are starting to see the political power of online social networks, and we are starting to see real interactions between social networks and theatre, so the triangle linking political activity and theatre via online should become more and more significant. Meanwhile, online co-creation and collaboration is, I feel, sympathetic to how people want to work in theatre – most theatre-makers will describe their work as collaborative – so there is a likeness there that has huge potential.

Did you read Mark Ball’s article on networks in theatre? I think his conclusion is correct: “Hyper-connected theatre allows us to reimagine the very nature of a theatrical experience and of an audience by utilising networks to engage people as active participants with a real sense of agency.” 

Interviewed by Christina Papagiannouli on 8 October 2013