Theatre Uncut Cardiff: Mike Leitch
On May 1st, I learnt about Theatre Uncut for the first time when they announced their latest project, The Power Plays, a collection of newly commissioned short plays by female playwrights on the theme of Women and Power that could be performed royalty free up to the 30th of June. I started to download and read the plays by 7th May and after much umming and ahhing, on the 14th I put a message out on Facebook and the NTW Community page asking for directors, with another for actors almost two weeks later. Cast, directors and scripts were all allocated by 2nd June and The Other Room was officially confirmed as the venue by 7th June for performances on 29th and 30th June. I emphasise the dates to try and convey (as well as remind myself) how fast this all went. So now I’ve taken a few days to recover from it all, let’s go through what happened at a slower pace.
Theatre Uncut began in 2011 when director Hannah Price brought together a group of playwrights to create a number of short plays in response to public spending cuts. Since then, with the hiring of Emma Callender as co-artistic director, Theatre Uncut has continued this project every year, with writers such as Caryl Churchill, Jack Thorne, Dennis Kelly and Lucy Kirkwood addressing the pressing political issues of the time which included censorship, boycotting art, and the question, "Do we all get more right-wing in hard times?" They are not specific to Britain either; they held performances in Copenhagen and Istanbul with local theatre companies and invited playwrights from Spain, Syria, Greece, the US, Iceland and Egypt to respond to the political climates of their respective countries in 2012. This year’s theme of Women and Power is perhaps not a surprising one given the seismic impact of #MeToo and Time’s Up, to which Theatre Uncut requested all proceeds from tickets should be donated, as well as the company itself having two female artistic directors and an all-female board, which as far as I know is a rarity in British theatre.
Along with the striking urgencies of its political intentions, Theatre Uncut excited me with its encouragement of spontaneity and getting these scripts in front of an audience imminently. The stories and messages of these scripts were ones that were needed to be told now, and not left to be casually discussed once the moment has passed and we are left with the comfort of complacent retrospections. Reading the scripts really instilled this urgency in me and not just in their timeliness – indeed, the staggered release of the scripts further emphasised the feeling that these were up-to-the-minute reflections of current society. The scripts themselves contain this urgency and presented a wide range of styles and themes, from Sabrina Mahfouz’s poetic depiction of The Power of Plumbing to Cordelia Lynn’s stark and confrontational two-hander Confessions.
The journey from reading these scripts to finding actors, directors and a venue to perform them is one that I find hard to describe. My instinct to compare it to a hurricane or whirlwind doesn’t feel right – it never felt chaotic though I never felt entirely in control either. It was truly a project of collaboration - these were not my stories to tell and I was determined to have all female directors. In particular, Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan’s monologue on the difficulties in being asked to write about being a British Muslim woman, A Coin in Someone Else’s Pocket, was so evocatively written that I made a concerted effort to find a performer and director of the same background in order to do the piece justice. With help from Fio and Siobhan (who directed Who Runs the World by Atiha Sen Gupta, a Freaky Friday story centered around the Foreign Secretary), Umulkhayr Mohamed enthusiastically made the piece her own with help from her co-director Radha Patel.
The support I received in putting on this event embodied the thing I most love about the Cardiff theatre scene: the feeling of community. As someone very much on the margins of theatre-making, with no professional theatre credits to my name, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find enough people willing to take time out of their schedule to put on these pieces unpaid. Imagine my relief, then, at receiving such an enthusiastic response from directors and performers, many of whom I had never worked with or even met before. It was initially overwhelming having to deal with several emails every day, juggling various schedules and logistical problems, but I was incredibly lucky to have such excellent people as collaborators. There was a mutual trust and respect throughout that made my first go at producing considerably less stressful than I feared it would be, though not everything went smoothly. Due to the time constraints of only having a few weeks to find rehearsal time with little notice, we unfortunately had to drop one of the pieces and have some last minute casting changes. There were other various areas that showed my lack of experience which some very helpful and gracious feedback from the participants helped to identify and hopefully avoid in future projects.
By the time of Friday 29th June, the day of the first performance, everything was in order as each piece got time in The Other Room to get used to the space. Seeing a script onstage for the first time is always an exciting experience but getting to see it six times over was a real thrill. Even the pieces I had initially mixed feelings towards on first read felt fresh and dynamic in performance. To cap off the day, we had a full house and a lively talkback session after the performances. While not a direct request from Theatre Uncut, I felt it was important to allow space for the issues of the pieces to be discussed with the audience and ensuring a continued discussion in keeping with Theatre Uncut’s aims. Across both days, there was a keen engagement from the audience and the directors (who made up the onstage panel) in looking forward and thinking about ways the theatrical ecology of Cardiff can become more diverse and inclusive.
Amongst everything else discussed, this was the thing I most took away from the experience; to quote Florence and the Machine, ‘We never found the answer but we knew one thing. We all have a hunger.’ Many of the participants expressed a keen desire, both when initially expressing their interest and during the event itself, for more events like these that create a space for female-led theatre to shine. I’ll admit that this took me aback slightly and revealed to me my complacency in how neglected this hunger has been in Cardiff. In an Art Scene in Wales article about her production of ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie’ at The Other Room last year, Chelsey Gillard describes being one of the ‘Angry Young Woman,’ in a reconceptualising of the Angry Young Men that defined 50s British theatre, who ’are done with waiting for permission to speak [and] invite you to come and hear what we have to say.’ Working with these brilliant female directors and performers, it is clear that Chelsey is not alone and that their voices creates thrillingly exciting theatre and it’s a testament to Theatre Uncut to allow such a diverse group of voices to make their voices loud and clear in this way.
Working on this event has helped me realise that if this sort of event can happen on a relatively small-scale, there is no reason there shouldn’t be more of a demand for such events to become more common and widespread. With two recent high profile productions of political theatre this year - ‘Tremor’ at the Sherman and ‘The Assassination of Katie Hopkins’ at Theatr Clywd – and National Theatre Wales’ upcoming celebration of the NHS throughout this month, Welsh theatre is showing exciting signs of taking the lead on addressing the political state of the world through theatre. The Sherman’s all-female production of ‘Lord of the Flies’ later this year may be the next high-profile production to rise to this challenge, but such productions must not exist in isolation and should aim to encourage theatres across Wales to open its doors wider to new, exciting voices. It will only be better for it.