Emily Garside marks ten years of fringe theatre company Dirty Protest by catching up with Matthew Bulgo about what’s changed.
It seems astonishing that Dirty Protest have been making theatre in Cardiff for ten years. To mark this anniversary, we caught up with Matthew Bulgo (who has been with the company since 2011) about what has changed in the last 10 years, and what the next 10 may bring. Firstly, we talked tenth birthday celebrations, which Bulgo admitted ‘snuck up’ on them. This has allowed Dirty Protest the opportunity to reflect on the company’s past achievements, but not content with just a one-off celebration Dirty Protest have decided to turn the whole tenth year into a celebration. This doesn’t mean that the company will be looking back for too long, though ‘[w]e decided to mark it by doing ‘more stuff’ rather than any kind of ‘Greatest Hits’ as that seems to fit with our ethos better’, Bulgo stated.
It’s true. Dirty Protest are a company that don’t sit still for long. They kicked off this ten year celebration whilst up in Edinburgh performing Alan Harris’ Sugar Baby, the team, not content with just running one show, decided to hosted the first of their celebratory events; a shorts night featuring six writers from over the previous ten years. Similarly, November saw the next two instalments; a shorts night hosted at The Other Room in Cardiff, and another in Volcano Theatre, Swansea. The theme of ‘It’s the end of the world’ luckily doesn’t apply to the company who have both lots more planned for the tenth year, and will no doubt grow from strength to strength beyond their first decade (perhaps even beyond the end of the world). In the meantime, the tenth year continues with some more exciting full-length projects; Cut and Run by Branwen Davies and a landmark production, Lightspeed from Pembroke Dock.
The shift towards the full-length plays, according to Bulgo, was a move to stretch the company, and surprise the audiences; never wanting to stay doing just one thing for too long is the ethos Bulgo alluded to. These progressions have been a natural evolution for Dirty Protest; starting with Plays in a Bag, a 2013 collaboration with the Royal Court, which consisted of a set of monologues whose props/costumes could be only contained in a bag. This innovative production helped form relationships with other theatres, and over the years Dirty Protest have worked with the Almeida theatre, Traverse Edinburgh, Soho Theatre, Sherman, Theatr Clwyd, National Theatre Wales, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, Latitude Festival, Festival No.6, Troyfest and many more. This is without naming every bar, back room and even bus stop in Cardiff they’ve performed in. Now with four full length productions under their belt, and two more coming in the next year, Dirty Protest, a company without core funding or even a physical base, have proved they can create work on a par with any company that has.
Although bigger projects are now a part of Dirty Protest’s work, it is working with and for the community that is at the heart of their work. Bulgo’s favourite description of the company’s work is from a performer who described their experience as that of being at an ‘actor’s gym’ and he thinks the same could apply to both the writers and directors. The challenge of working fast, respond to stimuli and the limitations of non-traditional spaces challenge everyone involved to think differently about their craft. It’s also what brings many actors back time and again; especially, Bulgo has noticed, TV actors who are keen to ‘stretch’ their theatrical muscles when they’re unable to be in a full-length production.
Writers for Dirty Protest are set a ‘theme’ to respond to, a word or phrase, and they interpret theme with absolute freedom. This is always one of the joys of shorts night for Bulgo, since he never knows until the scripts come in quite what he’s going to get. However, for writers it’s a real chance to test out new styles, push themselves and to really experiment with form; a rarity in a competitive world where the emphasis is so often on ‘the best’ script rather than artistic experimentation. The style of Dirty Protest means they can work fast (their writers love the challenge), and the ability to be able to work in such a reactionary way is something Bulgo thinks is a strength of what they do. In the most recent anniversary celebration a new piece was written in two days as a response to the ongoing sexual allegations scandals by Helen Raynor and this sort of expression is, ‘exactly the sort of work we should be doing’. The model the company have created allows for this; a ‘rough and ready’ approach that allows for experimentation but also has come to also be synonymous with high-calibre work.
The emphasis originally was on supporting new writers, but there has been a shift over the last 6 years towards nurturing directors and actors as well. So now the 50/50 rules apply to them as well; in every show half will be new directors and actors and half ones who have worked with the company before. It’s also noteworthy that Dirty Protest have always striven for a 50/50 split in female writers, performers and directors and it remains a ‘rule’ of the shorts nights along with the new/old split. Something that many other companies could learn from. Furthermore, Bulgo goes on to reflect on the higher number of working-class actors Dirty Protest attracts – this combination he feels is to do with the nature of the work, and that Dirty Protest feels ‘accessible’ in a way bigger theatre with formal literary departments might not.
Dirty Protest were also ‘ahead of the game’ in their use on non-theatre venues. Long before Cardiff got a permanent pub theatre, Dirty Protest were producing plays in pubs, cafes and even kebab shops. Long before ‘site specific’ became trendy, Dirty Protest were making work at bus stops and in Conservative Clubs. Putting theatre in non-theatre spaces was always important to Dirty Protest because it was ‘significant in bringing in new audiences and making those intimidated by the world of theatre feel welcome.’ He goes on to say, ‘it’s far easier to bring a crowd to the Yurt in Milgi’s or upstairs in 10 Feet Tall, where there’s a bar nearby and it doesn’t feel like a formal evening of art.’ For Bulgo the importance of ‘breaking down barriers’ to both the audience and those involved as artists, and having non-intimidating venues, was important to what they do then and now. He also talks about how welcoming venues in Cardiff have been over the years, and the support of venues like Milgi in the early days offering space to perform for free was integral to being able to get going as a company.
As Dirty Protest reaches ten, some of Cardiff’s theatre community may for a moment feel old, remembering where they were when it began. But for other, newer members (be they fresh graduates or artistic transplants to Cardiff, Swansea and beyond) won’t remember a time when Dirty Protest popping up in a coffee shop with a set of new plays wasn’t a part of the theatrical community here. For many, watching Dirty Protest has formed a part of their theatrical ‘upbringing’ and performing or writing or directing with them a ‘coming of age’ as part of the community here. Dirty Protest has without doubt seen some of the best and brightest of Welsh theatre-making talent through it’s ‘doors’ over the years, and the opportunities the company has given allowed many writers, directors and actors to push their work forward. However more important than that, and the thing Bulgo keeps coming back to is the idea of the community created. The company itself runs entirely on the generosity of time and community spirit, and in return the artistic community has gained a company that allows artists to experiment, collaborate and most importantly come together. In ten years Dirty Protest have had a huge impact on the theatrical landscape of Wales, in both their own work and the beautiful ‘ripple effect’ their work as a company creates. And in hard times for artists, that’s a ray of hope for us all.
Emily Garside is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.