Interview: John E. McGrath

 

 

John E McGrath is the Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales and the director of The Opportunity of Efficiency, NTW’s first international collaboration, with New National Theatre Tokyo. Gary Raymond caught up with him the morning after the opening night.

GR: So, John; to begin at the beginning: how did this Tokyo project come about?

JM: A lot of Japanese directors and producers and designers get a bursary from the Japanese government to study abroad when young, and a lot of the theatre ones come to Britain and to Germany, so Mariko [Tasake, a producer at NNTT] came over as an emerging producer, and spent some time at Theatre Clwyd in North Wales and then some time at Contact in Manchester. She’d been keeping in touch with what was happening in Wales, and then Miss Miyata [Artistic Director of NNTT] decided to put together a season, after Fukushima, trying to take a global view of Japan and look at what themes Japan shared with other countries: an opportunity for Japan to look outside of itself.

So there was an early stage connection between this collaboration and Fukushima?

Well, she came up with the idea of this season and then they brainstormed the ideas for possible partners worldwide. And then they decided to get in touch with us in Wales. The other two countries ended up being Germany and South Korea. Diverse pallets. They were always interested in the model of NTW, so they were interested in the influences to bring in; different kinds of companies and artists. The collaboration with South Korea is with their big National Theatre, but the interesting thing there will be that Japan’s relationship with South Korea has always been very complicated. With Germany they’ve commissioned a leading German playwright to write a play that they will produce; so each collaboration is different in different ways.

So, I got that message, and originally the conversation was about finding a Welsh writer and we talked about a load of Welsh writers and we talked to a load of Welsh writers and as the conversation went along they asked me if I’d direct it and then things progressed from there and we ended up saying, look why don’t we just make this a full collaboration? It always came to the table with a full production budget; so it was never a question of that. Then for a while it was a question of whether we could bring the production over from Japan to Wales. There was part of me that thought it would hilarious to bring a Welsh play translated into Japanese over to Wales with the surtitles in English – something unintentionally the set design would have been perfect for; but we just couldn’t work it out financially. It was turning out to be more expensive for us to bring the show over than it would have been to do a new production.

So there are no plans to do this again back home?

At the moment, no. I do think it is a very good play and I’m proud of this production, but they’re not really geared up for touring at NNTT. But the other option is that it is a really good script so there are opportunities for a UK production of it. Either way round it could be a British-Japanese production hybrid, using aspects of design and visuals from this production, but that would be a long conversation with NNTT in the future. It’s the sort of thing you put on hold until you find out whether or not you’ve got a show that works in the first place.

So then it became more about the reasons for them wanting to talk to NTW. We are mobile, we don’t have a central building, and we’re very light on our feet and very new, so we talked about the other things we do like the Assembly and Wales Lab, and I really wanted to talk about the things we could bring with us. We then went to Wales Arts International to get Abdul Shayek and Matt Ball [NTW’s Creative Associates] over, and we found some money in the budget to do a Wales Lab thing over here, so then that side of things started to happen. The British Council then came on board to collaborate with setting all this up. We’ve ended up doing the Assembly project, and the Wales Lab will give two Japanese artists the opportunity to come and work on a project in Wales, so it feels much better coming here with that rather than just doing a show.

In terms of how we’ve always talked about NTW having an international presence, that’s sort of the thing that we do – we try and be in a place; and it’s felt much more like that, much more like what we do.

To that extent it’s been very much like a ‘normal’ NTW project, where you embed yourself in a community. What was the process of Alan Harris coming on board?

By looking at writers and talking to writers. I suggested writers that either NTW had worked with before or were quite well known to us, as we were going so into the unknown I felt it was best we used a writer we knew rather than somebody brand new. It was great that it was a writer who had already done a production with us before, as it gave him some freedom and relieved any pressure of him thinking ‘my god, this is my NTW show!’ So I really encouraged Alan to think what would be an international play, with themes which would sit as part of a global conversation, and I think he did. It was a different starting point for him to something such as A Good Night out in the Valleys, which was him exploring his home turf.

His script is a story about characters who seem to be involved in a scenario that is close to Japan’s national preoccupations, but it isn’t ‘Japanese’.

We were quite delicate about that. NNTW didn’t want a play about Japan. In fact the German play is about Fukushima. But as they’re directing and producing that it feels more appropriate that way. They really wanted something from us that had a Welsh spirit to it on the stage even though it was all Japanese actors. I think Alan’s voice is so very ‘South Wales’, that humour and that sense of slightly anarchic behaviour that underlines it all.

Nonetheless, I think Alan was pushed to write about his world in a global setting, so taking it into a corporate world as opposed to a domestic setting; taking on these big themes but doing it in an Alan, character-based way. The fact that the scientist has discovered a cure for radiation has huge resonance here in the wake of the disaster, and people are thinking, well, would that be hidden? Is that information that would be withheld by certain big businesses? So, Alan has taken on that challenge to write a piece that has resonances across the cultures.

It’s interesting from the page to the production how the central idea of the cover-up of that discovery, which could have been a McGuffin for the characters to dance round, becomes such a powerful metaphor. That must have been great to get into as a director?

That’s the challenge: to get that balance. It’s a matter of saying there is a story worth telling here, and it’s not just a way to bring out the characters. There is that scene between Iffy and Jenny when Iffy hands over the information and says; ‘I don’t know how to use this, but you’re a member of that generation who believes everything should be released on the internet, yet you now have to decide’ – well, you know, that’s very resonant, because actually, that’s the moment that we’re in; where that generation is going to have to decide ethically how to use these tools.

And it’s a running theme for NTW as well, after the success of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.

Yes.

The more you get into the meat of this collaboration the richer it becomes, for both parties. What do you see as the direct goals of this collaboration, culturally?

Because NNTT had made this huge leap of faith and they were funding the production – that really was a lesson, as many of the conversations you’d normally have to have before doing an international project, we didn’t have to have. And it’s one of the reasons why the show has worked. It’s not a show that’s trying to please five different agendas. It’s a theatre that has said we’re going to trust you and work with you, and sometimes that’s been a complicated ride as we are from very different cultures, and day to day you’re trying to make things work; but it’s very focused and from day one it’s been that theatre saying to us, come and make a piece of work with us and let’s figure out how to make it work. Which is different from the process of funding bids with five different partners, and all of that stuff. The directness has been important.

For us; the leap into the unknown was a huge incentive. What would it be to use what we’ve learned so far and take it into a context that couldn’t be more different: a city of thirty million people rather than a country of three million, a huge institutionally-funded building for a company that’s used to popping up in all sorts of odd places. An English-speaking culture collaborating with a Japanese-speaking culture, neither of whom is particularly good at learning the other’s languages. Different sensibilities.

And then, having made that leap into the unknown, it was a question of how can we be the best that we can be when we get here. That’s when we started talking to Wales Arts International about bringing over the Wales Lab and the Assembly and really embedding into the community. How can we make the most of this? And the fact that we made it part of our year of residencies; so we go from Butetown to Tokyo to Anglesey to Treorchy. I think it’s a great way for us and the people in Wales to think about what it is we do.

So, there was the challenge to ourselves and the challenge of what we can bring. This is the beginning of something, and then bringing over Japanese artists through Wales Lab will stimulate both what the company does, and also enhance that community of artists that we try and support.

NTW does have a responsibility now to Welsh theatre, to the community of writers and practitioners. I don’t think, although there were many excellent independent theatre companies, that Wales really had what you could call a theatrical tradition before the founding of NTW, no core tradition.

There were certain traditions. But I think we’ve been able to provide a sort of path. And then you pull in other things – one of my great joys with NTW has been, for example, being able to provide a space where Mike Pearson can make his later work. So I think we do have that responsibility, and it’s not just with the companies, the fact that there was the critics’ programme, and then without us having to do much other than be a bit supportive, there comes Wales Arts Review, and the Young Critics scheme which comes up with the Theatre Critics of Wales Awards – it’s not that we did that, but people were ready to do it and they needed some sense of connection to do it, and maybe we provided that. You start to add internationalism to that and there will be further ramifications.

It was actually the natural next step for NTW to venture out of Wales at this stage.

It was very much on our minds. The surprise was that we then received an email from Tokyo.

What have been the cultural advantages you’ve found to working in this scenario?

I think, as a director, it really makes you think about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You develop a great many short cuts and suddenly you can’t use any of them anymore. So you’ve really got to think about how you’re going to approach things. Also, things take longer because of the translation, so it’s also about thinking of a productive use of time. It makes you really watch – I always thought I watched closely in rehearsal but this made me think, do I really? You are using your ears but not in the same way, because you’re not processing language in the same way. Obviously I know the script really well and I know what they’re saying but it’s not being processed in the same way, so it makes you focus on the whole body and the whole actor differently. It makes it harder to judge the rhythms of the play both in terms of the work with the actors and in terms of constructing the work as a whole. You can’t use your fall-backs. I’ve spent a lot of time working out what kind of actors are these, individually, because I can’t say ten million things to them, so what is the most focused thing I can say to them at any one moment? I’m getting them to lead activities – I get them to direct scenes themselves; stuff that I might do with actors in the UK, but I’ve done it more here.

Were you aware more of the traditions of Japanese theatre? Or did you come to fresh to it?

They’ve actually developed a lot of the backstage stuff in their modern theatre in line with the way things are done in the west. So the actual practice isn’t that different. Also the UK way of working backstage is different to European and American. They’re probably closer to the European model here, in the sense that the lighting and sound operators, for example, spend a lot more time in the rehearsal room and take a lot of the responsibility that in the UK we give to the stage management team. But I knew that having worked with European practitioners before, so I was asking those questions – what are your models back stage? – but they weren’t specifically Japanese.

So you came to it well-informed.

Reasonably well-informed. It’s a well-resourced theatre, and there is a tradition of very open rehearsals here, so people can come in whenever they like. The actors’ agents come to rehearsals. They just turn up. Fortunately I’ve always favoured open rehearsals. A lot of directors don’t.

There is a clear distinction here between contemporary theatre and traditional theatre. Obviously, there are influences there, with the actors etc., who might be trained in traditional techniques.

Japan is a country very much in transition, and a country searching for an identity. Do you think its relationship with modern theatre, that there’s such a western influence on it, do you think it’s almost symbolic that Wales is coming in at this point?

It felt very much, particularly from Miss Miyata, that NNTT wanted to be open to different views. Not ‘We want to borrow things from somewhere else or show people how we do it’ – it was more, we want to create a season where we share themes. Have a look at the way the world sees us. See what we can make together. And that felt like a very confident move from them. The theatre scene here feels as though everybody wants to be knowledgeable of western theatre but not feel in awe of it in any way.

British theatre does have a strong reputation, along with German theatre, across the world, not just here. They are the touchstones. And at the same time there’s a real interest in what’s new and different. It does feel like Japan is thinking about its position in the world. They’re getting used to being a country between two big neighbours – China and America – which is a different dynamic to the one they’ve been used to with either of those countries. So things are shifting. And I think theatre is always good for not banging on about particular themes but to reflect on the world we are in.

And this isn’t issue-based theatre.

I think that’s a bit of red herring, actually. Good theatre is good theatre. Good theatre excites and stimulates you. Very occasionally and partly by chance there’s a piece that happens at the right time culturally and really shifts something in the way people see things. I don’t think people who do issue-based pieces go in thinking they are going to teach lessons, but they all go in looking at ways to explore something. I think the problem with issue-based theatre is it got tied up with a certain way of looking at education. And that’s when generations were subjected to shows about Say No to Drugs.

There’s dreary theatre of every type. I do tend to stick up for political theatre, as lots of it is rubbish but that’s the case with all types of theatre. So are lots of productions of Shakespeare, for instance.

What did you feel about the opening night of The Opportunity of Efficiency being the day after Thatcher died?

Very interesting. To be doing something about corporate downsizing and social responsibility at that time. I sent a tweet out that night quoting a line from the play: ‘You’re not making a better future, you’re dismantling it.’ Dismantling was a lot of what Thatcher was about. The bonds that get dismantled when structures get dismantled, and there were structures that were going to need changing, but the bonds that underpinned them weren’t valued. In its own delicate, funny way, that’s what this play is about.

I did think that, most likely for ninety minutes of Tuesday night, The Opportunity of Efficiency was the most relevant piece of art happening anywhere on the planet.

It’s a great thought, even if for most of the audience it’s not what was on their mind.

I saw the statement about Thatcher from the Japanese prime minister, and the factual inaccuracies in the tribute were astonishing.

Did you see Obama’s statement about ‘this great woman’? Somebody said he must have got her confused with Meryl Streep.

The Japanese prime minister praised Thatcher for putting international law above aggression in the Falklands and how international leaders should follow her example. Even though she gave the order to sink the Belgrano as it was retreating.

Thatcher’s big strength was how to present a message. She did that very well. She would completely change her policies, for example, but present it as the same thing. So monetarism lasted about a year. But she continued to talk about it for years after as if it was grocery store economics. Internationally she did that – she presented Britain in a different way to the world and the world was ready for that and liked that message and that’s what they’re still responding to now.

What lessons have NTW learned so far from this collaboration?

There have been some practical issues. Japan is an on-line country but not as much as people assume, so the fact that all NTW materials is on-line, and not on paper, has actually proved a bit of an issue at times. So, that sort of stuff.

The networks we have now are fantastic. If we came back here we’d hit the ground running with all sorts of things. You have to do it once to get those networks in place. It’s the same lessons we’ve learned from Port Talbot or Blackwood or Anglesey – you’ve got to go back, you’ve got to keep in touch. So we see this as the start.

It’s great that the bones of what you’re doing here and what you do in Wales are the same.

Yeah – so we now have to focus on that.

Personally, as a director, there’s now a time for me to reflect on what I do and how I do it. What are the most effective ways of communicating? Because I’ve had to use a different set of rules. It’s been a rigorous challenge to everything I do; which is what I hoped it would be.

And what do you hope you’ve given to NNTT?

Well, firstly I hope we’ve given them a really good show. I think that was the most important thing. And then there’s the day to day conversations. The Assembly has been quite hard to work on, in the sense that this is a big institution and they wanted to do things that didn’t fit with what the Assembly is normally about, but some of those conversations have been the most important. How, for us, do we do the work that we try and do with the Assembly when we’re dealing with an institution with this many bits to it? For them, how do they make shifts that mean this kind of work can happen?

I hope that sharing of practice has been a good two-way thing. I think there’s genuinely been some interesting things happen, and that’s clearly been the case from the response of other practitioners and the British Council who look at the work that NTW does in terms of working with communities and around digital networking etc. that are relatively rare. And certainly in the ways we do those things. Now we need to think about, in a non-arrogant way, in a way that assumes we always have as much to learn as we do to give, how we need to share those models. Not just by coming and doing things ourselves, but by working with people who want to pick up what we do and develop their own versions.

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