Recent initiatives, such as the National Theatre Wales ASSEMBLY and TEAM projects, and the Riverfront’s Pentalk Lab, have provided Newport-based artists with funding and support for exciting creative work that is being developed in Newport and then showcased in London, Edinburgh, the US and even North Africa.
The university in Newport, through its Performing Arts and Applied Drama programmes, has also played a significant role in training writers and performers in contemporary and experimental theatre-making.
Here, Wales Arts Review profiles local Newport artists who are dedicated to remaining in the city where their art can draw inspiration from the local community and then find an audience on national and international stages.
Pentalk Lab / Jamie Winchester
Understanding how integral popular music is to youth culture, the Riverfront Arts Centre has encouraged community involvement via its Pentalk Lab, their in-house recording studio. Pentalk has become a music-making hub for young people who would not necessarily gravitate towards the arts. It helps young musicians and performers to develop their skills and self-esteem, and reinforces the identity of Newport as a musical city. ‘When I have people visit Newport for events,’ says studio manager Jamie Winchester, ‘they can’t believe how much Newport actually does for its artists. They can’t believe what we do for people, whether they come here from Cardiff, London, Manchester, and I sense that a lot of people in Newport feel that as well.’
Winchester is an acclaimed hip hop DJ and producer, and he has run the studio since its opening, bringing with him vast industry experience and music business contacts, several of whom have come to Newport to co-host a variety of workshops.
The Lab opens most days from 11am and it’s common for every single studio hour to be utilised right up until closing time. Music produced at Pentalk Lab is often used as promotional materials by artists who then build local support and develop professional relationships.
There are several South Wales artists – currently getting attention from the national media – who have developed their craft at Pentalk Lab. ‘Astroid Boys are doing well,’ says Winchester, ‘they are set to make a certain announcement soon.’ The Cardiff hip-hop group were featured on the BBC Introducing Stage at Glasgow’s T in the Park in July. ‘But everyone for me is a success story,’ Winchester stresses; ‘everyone who comes in and performs and gets their song on tape is a result. So you’ve got the commercial results and the community results. We’ve had MCs Chew and Ripper, then there’s vocalist Khalid who’s working with award winning composers The Next Room and Dee Shae who is doing his thing… The last Legal & General gig we did, we had 400 people turn up for that to see 40-odd performers.’
Launched in January 2013, the Legal & General Academy is the latest initiative established by The Riverfront via Pentalk Lab aiming to nurture local talent through providing free music workshops to local community groups. ‘I love the community stuff,’ Winchester adds, ‘and then I’ve got the commercial aspect of it that I love doing as well.’
Winchester has been a long-time DJ for Akil, of the hip hop crew Jurassic 5, and also for leading grime artist MC Lady Leshurr. Winchester sees his expanding tour schedule as providing a further opportunity to help local talent, ‘If I’m out touring,’ he explains, ‘this opens the possibility of the likes of Fernquest and Eaton (whose EP is out soon) coming with us.’
Winchester recently posted an invitation on Facebook asking music producers and artists to get in touch with him regarding a new event that’s being planned. ‘I had so many messages in my inbox,’ Winchester enthuses, ‘a lot making contact for the first time. When we opened the studio, we always hoped that it would grow and eventually become an integral part of Newport’s community life. But it has gone way beyond my imagination, it’s nuts.’
Alex Reynolds (aka Miss A)
The greatest creative challenge facing Alex is avoiding being pigeon-holed in one of the many fields in which she has enjoyed initial success, and projecting an artistic identity that can encompass her many talents. She is a scriptwriter, outreach theatre facilitator, soul-singer, fashion photographer and recent graduate of the Applied Drama course at the University of Wales, Newport. She has participated in the Sherman Cymru new writing scheme, and has just written a script for a short film under the BBC Wales ‘It’s My Shout’ writer’s development programme. The script for I’m Here explores the plight of a young boy whose father is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s – it was filmed with guidance from BBC mentors, and will tour short-film festivals later this year.
Under the guise of ‘Miss A’ Alex has built a successful career as a soul singer with the support of Pentalk Lab, an urban music project based in the Riverfront Arts Centre, Newport. Her songs have received airplay on BBC Wales and Radio 1 Extra. Miss A is also a featured vocalist on the track ‘More than Music’ on forthcoming album Sound Check 101 from American alternative hip-hop group Jurassic 5. Alex will combine her music and drama interests in a new musical she is writing set against the backdrop of Jim Crow laws and civil rights protests in the American deep south of the 1950s.
As a photographer, Alex shot a cover for Cardiff arts and entertainment magazine City Life and has worked for Italian Vogue and several fashion catalogues. She also works as a facilitator with Project FIO, an initiative supported by Arts Council Wales and the Wales Millennium Centre that offers free performing arts workshops to youths aged 13-19 from deprived areas in Cardiff. Alex’s main passion, however, is scriptwriting, and plans are under way for her to set up a new writing scheme in partnership with two London-based theatre practitioners that will provide local writers with opportunities to develop new work for presentation in Newport and London Fringe venues. Alex Reynolds is clearly one of the busiest and most entrepreneurial young artists currently working in Newport.
Mr & Mrs Clark
Creative and life partners Gareth Clark and Marega Palser are one of the hardest working couples in showbusiness. This year sees them travel from Newport to New York and onto North Africa with innovative dynamic, and often interactive, theatre shows that combine music, dance, comedy and social anthropology.
The Clarks moved to Newport several years ago and have since become a catalyst for a range of new arts initiatives in and around the city. Marega is a dancer who trained at the London School of Contemporary Dance, whereas Gareth’s background is in song writing and rock music, although inevitably both have drawn inspiration from each other so their work is inherently interdisciplinary. In early 2013 they presented Sometimes We Look at Chapter Arts Centre. The show featured Marega’s intense movement work accompanied by a musical score and real-time live drawing.
Last July, with the support of Arts Council Wales, NTW and Newport City Council, Mr & Mrs Clark were instrumental in setting up Newport International Airspace, which is a new art collective designed as a meeting place for artists from various fields to share their creative process and practice.
Later this year, the Clarks will collaborate with Denni Dennis on a project called PORNO, a performance combining clowning and dance that will examine the possibilities of love in the sex industry. This work, supported by Arts Council Wales, No Fit State and Wales Arts International, will begin in Cardiff before heading off to New York for five weeks of development with an international cast.
Marega has been invited to present Sometimes We Look at the Fez International Dance Festival in Morocco in October. Mr & Mrs Clark will be performing in North Africa and delivering workshops with the local community, supported by Wales Arts International. In 2004 they will resume work on Ladies and Gentlemen with Lea Anderson, which will open at Chapter Arts in February 2014 – it will be the first performance by The Cholmondeleys in Wales for three years.
It’s hard to believe that Mr & Mrs Clark have any spare time, given their busy work schedule, but somehow they are able to moonlight in two bands – The Newport City Picnic Society and The Shelley Duvalls – that have performed around Newport this summer.
The Clarks have become a vital part of the Newport arts scene, the interdisciplinarity of their creative work has compelled them to reach out to a range of local artists. In doing so, Mr & Mrs Clark have stimulated many interesting and fruitful conversations between artists across South East Wales.
Tin Shed Theatre Co.
Welsh theatre is enjoying something of a golden age, with NTW, Theatr Genedlaethol, Dirty Protest and Sherman Cymru producing innovative and challenging new work. So it is heartening to find a new crop of smaller companies, such as Newport-based Tin Shed Theatre, emerging with their own distinctive and ambitious approach to dramatic storytelling. Founded by three graduates of the University of Wales, Newport, Tin Shed devises innovative retellings of classic tales and new plays.
After graduating with BAs in Performing Arts, company members Justin Cliffe, Georgina Harris and Antonio Rimola initially funded themselves by running primary school outreach programmes. This money went straight back into the company in support of projects such as a site-specific Halloween-themed show about a disastrous chemical spill. As the company won acclaim they were urged to apply for funding. The Arts Council of Wales now supports the vibrant and exciting work produced by this fantastic company. National Theatre Wales are also supportive and offer Tin Shed opportunities to expand their skills. The company will be collaborating with Wales Lab in the near future.
Tin Shed is also involved in a not-for-profit project called Molecule – a disused warehouse space in Newport where Welsh artists are invited to use the space creatively. This is a project they hope to develop further by securing a new space that will inspire artists to create pieces of live performance in the Newport area. The company have strong links with Newport and are keen to remain rooted in the area. Despite the temptations of places like London or Cardiff, the company are adamant that they will continue to produce theatre from a Newport base.
Tin Shed has been going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a number of years. This year they returned with their show Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show, a gruesome retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel played out by a group of travelling Victorian freaks. Forced against their will to re-enact the classic tale by their cruel proprietor Julius M. Barker, Bethilda the Bearded Lady and Sangieve the Lobster Mind Reader perform an utterly hilarious and, at times, beautifully poignant show.
After a successful run at Edinburgh, the company are heading to the Reading festival and will be at Comedy Port, Newport’s comedy festival, from October 7-12.
Dino first acted with the Dolman Youth Theatre with little ambition of becoming a performer, but collaboration with Mr & Mrs Clark on the NTW’s 2011 Newport Assembly project inspired him to consider a future career as a performance artist. After subsequent creative projects with The Clarks, Dino enrolled on the BA in Theatre programme at Falmouth University. The course is rooted in experimental and contemporary theatre practice. The work produced at Falmouth is research in practice, which Dino finds particularly attractive, ‘I don’t want to study in the academic sense,’ he points out; ‘I just want to make something new.’
His current work-in-progress, The Missing Bear, is being developed in Newport and is both an exploration of the effects of trauma upon memory and an attempt to reclaim a lost childhood. Between the ages of two and six, Dino underwent many operations at Great Ormond Street Hospital. When away from home he began to project his treatment onto his teddy bear, even reproducing his scars in felt-tip marking on the body of the bear, which he nicknamed Super Ted. The bear went missing after Dino’s final operation and his performance will centre on an ostensible search for Super Ted that is an allegory for the artist coming to terms with childhood trauma.
The Missing Bear project will feature Dino trawling through his medical history, revisiting Great Ormond Street, using social media to seek help with locating Super Ted and exploring how his teddy bear served as a ‘stand in’ that enabled him, as a little boy, to cope with a very painful condition. Blackwood-based website designers Rockabye will be helping Dino create a digital platform for his performance. The Missing Bear will not be a conventional theatrical representation or entertainment, it will be a means of Dino discovering his past and healing himself through his work. Others will observe and even participate in the piece, but the end result will be of the greatest significance to its creator. Opening up his personal life in this manner poses clear risks for Dino, but he is undeterred, ‘You’ve got to be a bit cheeky and really brave for this type of work,’ he explains, ‘and sometimes lie… even to yourself.’
Profiles by Jane Oriel, Elin Williams and Phil Morris
Illustration by Dean Lewis