An Interview with playwright Tom Wentworth

Get the Chance values the role playwrights living and working in Wales bring to the cultural life of our nation. Here is our fourth interview in this series with playwright Tom Wentworth.

Hi Tom great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?

Hello! Great to be here. Thanks for asking me. I’m a playwright for theatre, radio and television who identifies as disabled. I am also  the inaugural Chair of National Theatre Wales TEAM Panel and previously have been a script editor and produced radio for the BBC. As a writer, I am currently under commission to and developing projects with Graeae Theatre Company, Pentabus Theatre Company, National Theatre Wales and BBC radio. My latest play BEE HAPPY was performed at The Old Red Lion Theatre in London. Much of my work is concerned both directly and indirectly with diversity and inclusivity but mostly I am interesting in simply telling a good story and spending time with fascinating characters.

The Old Red Lion Theatre

Link to the Old Red Lion season announcement featuring Toms play

http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/old-red-lion-announce-autumn-season_41231.html

Link to Toms online biography

https://app.hiive.co.uk/profile/b213475a-2880-4923-90a9-185e324da489/#/

So what got you interested in the arts ?

It’s in my blood. My mum was a professional dancer touring in summer season and the much missed weekly rep and I was brought up on exciting stories of backstage antics. Our main family activity was going to the theatre (and still is!) I never considered that I wouldn’t write and studied radio at university because it is my favourite medium and I wanted to have extra skills but I have always written and occasionally performed which I hope to be doing in a new solo show later in the year if we get funding.

A great deal of your professional practice seeks to increase diversity across the sector. Is this something important to you?

It is greatly important and is both a blessing and a curse. I find it a very complex issue as an artist. For audiences on the one hand it is very simple – I firmly believe that we should all have equal access to theatre and live performance of all kinds. That’s why I believe so strongly in the work of Sherman 5 at Sherman Theatre.

http://www.shermantheatre.co.uk/sherman5/

However, as a writer it is very complex – on one hand my disability shouldn’t matter but on the other it drives my view of the world and therefore infuses my work (although not all of my work is about the disabled experience). It’s also incredibly useful for funding pots and being part of initiatives! I hope that doesn’t sound too mercenary but I think it’s important that artists acknowledge the things that commissioners and artistic directors are looking for which might give them an edge or be part of their USP. That’s not something that I’m totally comfortable with but I want to work!

In a wider context I am working all the time to increase diversity on our stages and screens with a particular interest in backstage roles right across the sector. Things are improving but we’ve still a very long way to go.

Get the Chance works to support a diverse range of members of the public to access cultural provision Are you aware of any barriers to equality and diversity for either Welsh or Wales based artists or specifically writers?
I think there are still several barriers – not all of which relate simply to equality or diversity. However the main one is the lack of accessible work. While most producing houses in Wales are doing well with providing performances for diverse audiences. For example I know the Sherman works really hard to put on captioned  or relaxed performances but I would like to see more work done to make shows fully accessible throughout following in the footsteps of Graeae and Birds of Paradise (the latter of which toured Wendy Hoose to the Sherman Theatre and wowed audiences.) Their work builds access (captioning, BSL and audio description) into their work so that it’s fully integrated meaning that a disabled audience member can attend any performance rather than just the designated captioned show for example. I must acknowledge of course the great work that companies such as Hijinx, UCAN and Taking Flight do but we need to see this work on larger stages and in main houses.

Birds of Paradise and Random Accomplice, Wendy Hoose

The main problem is of course funding. Being disabled is a kind of ‘economic chaos’, we are at a point now where it is more expensive than ever to be disabled and access costs. This has to change, the culture has to change and there are lots of wonderful theatre makers such as Jonny Cotsen and Chloe Phillips who are striving to make a difference – and in a small way I hope that I am contributing too.

Chloe Phillips in a production by Taking Flight

Jonny Cotsen will be performing at this years Experimentica at Chapter Arts Centre.

Also, in Wales it increasingly feels that if you want your work performed then you must self produce. I know many brilliant practitioners who do this wonderfully and have made it a positive and rewarding part of their practice. However it is a time consuming and exhausting business and as a disabled person I have to be very aware of my small energy reserves so this not an option. I have tried my hand at producing and found it to be enjoyable but totally and utterly exhausting experience. I had to make a decision at that point that it would not be something that I could do if I didn’t want to spend a month in bed afterwards. So I prefer to work with brilliant people who do this much better than me. However this does mean that my work is currently very rarely produced in Wales and I spend most of my time on trains! I really hope that this will change. I’m not sure that any of these are specific to writers but to all theatre practitioners.

There are a range of organisations supporting Welsh and Wales based writers, I wonder if you feel the current support network and career opportunities feel ‘healthy’ to you?

I feel very lucky to have a healthy personal support network as a playwright in Wales but I am not sure that this is the case in the wider context. I share a co-working space with another playwright and have lots of friends who also write or make theatre so there is a great culture of supporting each other but in terms of formal support I don’t feel that that exists. I am lucky to be so involved with National Theatre Wales who continue to champion both me and my work. However most of my career opportunities have come from outside of Wales simply because there are more opportunities for production – and being brutal – bigger pots of money to fund this. It makes me sad that this is the case as I love living in Cardiff and after 8 and a half years of being here it feels like I am just beginning to find my feet.

If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?
More productions of new writing and money to fund script development departments who can nurture writers. It’s very simple. We are fantastic in Wales at scratch nights, shorts nights, R&D but productions of new plays still feel comparatively thin on the ground. I must acknowledge of course that much good work is being done by companies like Dirty Protest but they have very limited resources. Also, NTW (and in particular Head of Development Simon Coates) is doing a marvellous job of helping him artists from all disciplines to develop their work and themselves as artists. Also Theatr Clywd are running residences for writers which is a fantastic resource. We need our producing houses and companies to be funded to be able to commission more work which will increase the diversity of writers on our stages. We also need to be training the next generation of Literary Managers who can support emerging talent and script development and build up a relationship with a writer over a long career, working collaboratively on several projects. This cannot happen without money – and development is expensive but it is vital if we want to keep writers working in Wales.

Writer In Residence

Simon Coates, Head of Creative Development, NTW

What excites you about the arts in Wales? What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?

The amazing community of working, angry, hungry artists we have in this country who are prepared to put themselves and their work on the line to say the things that need to be said. That is a great reason for living here.

Meet Fred Hijinx Theatre

I loved Meet Fred and have seen it several times. It is such a powerful piece of work which really speaks about what it means to be disabled in 2017 and more importantly what it means to be human. Outside of Wales I recently saw Lost Without Words at the National Theatre in London which was produced by the marvellous Improbable Theatre Company who have been working with older actors (all highly experienced) teaching them to improvise. It is one of the most engaging, beautiful and laugh out loud pieces that I have seen for a very long time. I am really looking forward to Love Cardiff at the Sherman too.

Love Cardiff Sherman Theatre

http://www.shermantheatre.co.uk/performance/theatre/love-cardiff/

Also, the BBC Radio Drama department in Wales continues to produce over 50 hours a year of brilliant drama using writers and actors living and working in Wales from the most experienced hands to new voices. Daf James beautiful autobiographical play My Mother Taught Me How To Sing was one of the most moving and exciting pieces I’ve heard for a long time. Diverse, Welsh, political and yet intensely personal, which shows a bravery in this medium that I truly hope to see as an audience member commissioned for the stages of Wales.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08csqy4

Thanks for your time Tom

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