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Fireworks nights

“There feels like a massive push towards ‘diversifying’ the arts. It makes me feel uncomfortable when at the centre of that push we find mainly white, middle class people.”

lead Art is just a word. Common Wealth. Jon Poutney. All rights reserved. Rosemary Bechler (R): Rhiannon, we are catching up with participants in our Team Syntegrity ‘non-hierarchical conference’ in Barcelona last June, to see what impact it had. It's great to be back in touch. Could we start with some background on your work and what kind of process of change most interests you? 

Rhiannon White (Rhiannon): I grew up on a housing estate in Cardiff and we didn’t have a theatre near where I lived. When I was a kid I loved making theatre, telling stories and bringing people together. When I did eventually go into the theatre, it felt pretty alien, judgmental and a bit bourgeois! Not a place where kids from a council estate should be! I made it my mission in life to shake it up a bit, and create theatre where people could feel like it belonged to them. Along with Evie Manning I set up Common Wealth. There were loads of empty buildings in Bristol where we lived and we would squat those empty buildings and make massive shows in them. We took theatre outside of ‘the theatre’.

We made a show about domestic abuse and we made it on a street full of people, inside a house. The house where we held the performance had neighbours either side. That show showed us that people have a real appetite for theatre regardless of where they come from. One woman in her fifties came to our show four times, and she had never previously been to the theatre. When we heard about that, we realised that was what we felt like when we came together because we wanted to make theatre. We wanted to share that experience, but on a massive scale.

So basically we set ourselves up as a theatre company and decided that we wanted to make works for people who might think theatre is not for them. Our work isn’t just theatre: it includes visual arts, and music and is multidisciplinary.

We started by thinking about the buildings that people might go to at the heart of any community. Places where you have that infrastructure around you, your audiences around you, and people can pop in and see what rehearsals are going on. Being close to people means that they can help inform the piece, which is essential, because our work is all about people and place and you have to get that context right otherwise it doesn’t mean anything. It has to be rooted in the truth of that place.

Screenshot: Rhiannon debriefing on a Team Syntegrity session on Safe Spaces. Cameron Thibos, videographer.So far, we have worked in houses; warehouses; we have worked in hospitals; boxing gyms; City Hall. The last show, ‘We’re still here’, was inside an old industrial warehouse over a hundred metres long that used to be an old tinworks, so we had that industrial history already implicit in the production.

We started work on ‘We’re Still Here’ two years ago in Merthyr Tydfil in the south Wales valleys. We began with the idea of working class leaders. Who are they? Where have they gone? Why aren’t they here? When are they coming back? Merthyr was the first place not just in the UK but apparently in the world where the red flag was raised! And it has this incredible socialist history of working class martyrs and uprisings. Keir Hardy was MP there. Down the road, Aneurin Bevan who created the NHS. The Chartists were really close by. So it has this whole public radical history that all the kids know about, it’s in their bones.

The process was really important. We started there but it felt like something of the past, not something for the future, and our work is always situated in the present and about how we can push the present forward. So at the time we were working on it in Merthyr, the Port Talbot steelworks kicked off and we both thought, ”Wow, that’s where we should be. Because that’s where our working class leaders are and if Hardy was alive today I’m sure he’d be standing with them! “

So we went down there and met the branch chair of the Community Union, Gary Keogh, and I’ve never met anyone like him in my life, someone who is a true, selfless socialist. The way he speaks about the world! We were talking about the gap between rich and poor and he said, “ I wouldn’t want to live like them and they couldn’t live like us.” So he is a poet and a political poet at that.

He was massively involved in the campaign and when we met him he was exhausted. He’d been to Mumbai, and watched the pensions disappear. He was so generous with his time and told us from a very personal perspective what impact it had on him and his family and how he felt, and how he wanted it to be different for the boys and all the complexities of that came through from Gary. We didn’t just meet Gary: we met loads of steelworkers, people who worked for Tata Steel, workers’ wives, I met Gary’s son, we talked to children, all the people involved in the campaign or on the fringes of the campaign. So we built up a picture of Port Talbot, and the playwright took all the material away and devised a play based on this real-life testimony.

The way we always operate is that through our initial process we invite people to visit us. Our doors are open: so steelworkers would come in in their break, or Gary would bring a group of union guys, and they would sit there and we’d show them a little bit and they’d say, “No it didn’t happen like that. That’s a little bit wrong” or point out that someone who didn’t come from Port Talbot would have to have that explained. So we’d rewrite.

We had a community cast of around 14 people who had never performed before. A lot of them had worked directly for Tata Steel, and some had lost their jobs through all the upheaval that was going on. They would come in in the evening and we would just give them a couple of scenes. They would say, “Someone from Port Talbot wouldn’t say that: they’d say this…” and rewrite it for us. So they all became script consultants. There was one hunting scene for example, called ‘To Kill an Animal’, a symbolic scene asking the question, who is being hunted and who is the hunter? When one steel worker who went hunting came in, he criticised that piece of the text, “No, that’s not how you kill an animal.” So he worked with the actor, step by step, explaining how you gut and skin an animal. The play becomes more and more precise.

R: That’s very Brechtian, if I may say so!

Rhiannon: I hope so, I hope he’s watching over me! The main thing about this kind of theatre is how many local people came. I met someone the other day whose dad came along to see it, but was very dubious beforehand and ended up coming three times. That’s who we are doing it for, because in Port Talbot there isn’t really a theatre – apart from the odd panto – so for the people involved this is a moment in time where they come together and feel really powerful, because they are sharing their experience directly and people are listening. That’s powerful in itself, because when does that ever happen!?

For the audience, it is cathartic. I always feel that theatre should be like those fireworks nights when you are all together in a big crowd and you don’t know anyone but you are all from different places and watching something beautiful. It should be like that coming together, and I think there is a lot of power when people are together experiencing something, especially something political, that is full of complexity and that somehow disrupts things. I think art should be disruptive.

R: Is it also, as you say, obliged to be beautiful in its own way?

Rhiannon: Not always beautiful. But I do want it to be visually stunning. Something that stays with you. So in ‘We’re still here’, we created a world that was a little bit like the film set in Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ – do you know it? – there is a lot of water and plants growing in industrial ground like they do. So we created a set with a tree inside our warehouse, water in the background, and a rock where the real steelworker sat to talk about losing his job. We wanted that to be a longlasting image.

Artisforboris. Common Wealth/Jon Poutney. All rights reserved.R: Has that run now finished? Don’t you want to do it in other places?

Rhiannon: It finished at the end of October. Yes – the problem is that it was a really massive show, with an overall cast of 30 and a stage management team of around 20, so it’s a massive undertaking to get it up again. But interestingly, what has happened since is that we had a film made by Film Cymru, about the involvement of the local people.  So we had a screening of that and we all came together, even the thirteen year olds who were involved – everyone is still in touch! Whenever something happens, especially if it is a political development, like the leak in the steel factory that happened yesterday, I’m in the loop and know immediately what is going on on the ground. Also we had quite a lot of high profile people attending the show, from Michael Sheen, who wanted to chat to us afterwards about Port Talbot and the future of art there, to Stephen Kinnock and Leanne Wood who cried for half an hour afterwards! That was brilliant – it felt like there was a bit of a momentum kicking off. You can catch a glimpse here on the audience feedback link.

R: Did you talk about this experience at The World Transformed session on The Role of the Political Artist you were involved in, in the series organised by Ash Ghadiali? I tried to get in, but it was packed out!

Rhiannon: Yes, it was an intense time for me, because I came to the Labour Party conference in Brighton by train straight from Port Talbot, and the day after was our press night. It was crazy being on the stage next to Low Key and Ken Loach – Ken Loach has been a mega inspiration for me, so to be on stage with him was so surreal and an absolute privilege. My absolute hero!

Lowkey and Barby Asante talked about Grenfell – Lowkey talked about ‘the grenfellisation of people’ and how after they died, we need to remember more about them than the last minutes of their lives. I think you can apply that to all situations and all lives. Me and Ken brought an outside London perspective into the room: it worked well. The room felt quite charged: it was a powerful panel. That’s what we need. We need to get the kind of people I’m working with into these rooms, and the sorts of energies that are there when they get together.

Rhiannon in the 'difficult discussion.' Cameron Thibos. All rights reserved.R: That reminds me of what you said last June after an entire day when you and Emma didn’t really say anything in the ‘Transforming the Left’ discussion in the Team Syntegrity in Barcelona. Joe Truss was facilitating and I think he had the good idea of going round the table to ask people what they were really invested in, in that discussion…

Rhiannon: I felt out of my depth in that group, particularly the type of language being used: I couldn’t communicate. The reason why I have always been attracted to the left is because I have always imagined it to be an inclusive space where people can open up freely and talk about their own experiences. In that group, that wasn’t the case for the first two days. But when the power relations going on around that table were identified, and someone noticed that and said what they felt – we were freed up. It made me feel like it wasn’t just me.

And then instead of trying to join in the very academic debate going on between the three guys at the level of what seemed to me to be an abstract overview, Emma and I were able to talk from a more personal perspective. I learned a lot from Emma.

R: So Rhiannon – what happens next for Common Wealth?

Rhiannon: I have been writing a report on art and social class for the Arts, Humanities and Research Council, with a video.

Being working class and working within the arts has always been a bit of a tension for me. I see few people who share my background and that’s problematic when you think of the stories that artists are sharing and who gets to tell them. I wanted to write something that captured the feeling in the arts world amongst other working class artists, the struggle, the frustration and the anger that can come from mis-representation or to be honest no representation at all.

At present there feels like a massive push towards ‘diversifying’ the arts. It makes me feel uncomfortable when at the centre of that push we find mainly white, middle class people. I’m interested in art as a form of expression – and how we continue to encourage working class voices into it is a minefield especially as the pathways are limited.

As part of the report we created a show that we staged at Chapter as part of Cardiff University’s social science festival. It was called ‘Class, the elephant in the room.’

I worked with four very talented working class actors. We used the research as a starting point and created a performance that shared experience of how working class people feel within the arts world. Hassan Mahamdallie hosted a debate after the show.

It was provocative: we had a good debate with Hassan Mahamdallie.  The question of representation in the arts and who gets to make art is a big debate at the moment – we should all be talking about it.

R: Any last thoughts on the Team Syntegrity?

Rhiannon: I was writing this morning before we spoke, and actually that time we spent in Barcelona was genuinely one of the best things that happened in 2017. Just thinking on that level opened my mind so much to those bigger questions and conversations. Meeting so many brilliant people who I am still in touch with, like Ash and Aya, made it a really special time.

So thank you for that. That’s the first thing.

I just want to be involved in any way I can be to support you guys and the ongoing conversation. Whatever you need from me. I really enjoyed the learning. That hard time I had around that discussion table was probably my deepest learning. And it’s great that I recognise that and can take that with me. It was like a year’s worth of development in three bloody days! More of that would be great!

Market place of ideas, Team Syntegrity 2017. Cameron Thibos. All rights reserved.

About the authors

Rhiannon is co-founder/ co-director of Common Wealth an award winning theatre company that makes site specific performance. Her mission is steeped in her values of being working class and creating a space where people are reminded that the arts are for them. She has worked extensively with National Theatre Wales, she has also collaborated and made work for National Theatre, Sherman Cymru, Chapter Arts Centre, BBC, Southbank Centre, Bread and Goose. A Clore fellow and Creative Wales Award Winner; Rhiannon recently joined the panel for the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.

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