I’ve come to understand that talking about Kully Thiarai today is talking a year too late. Privately, we all discussed the ‘debate’ and our position on it, but other than some notable exceptions, we didn’t make those discussions public. My job as a critical commentator was to make them public and I failed to do that. It was a failure that had harmful repercussions, and it’s on me – on us – to learn from those mistakes. Because in truth, Thiarai’s decision to leave National Theatre Wales isn’t just the story of one artist or one organisation (or one open letter). Her decision to leave one of the biggest theatre jobs in the country is a sad reminder that, despite our successes, Wales is still steeped in privilege and inequality.
We only need to turn the clock back three years to see it. In 2016, three of the six leading producing venues in Wales were run by women. Rachel O’Riordan had already made history at Sherman Theatre. Tamara Harvey was only a couple of years away from creating her own history with Theatr Clwyd. Kate Wasserberg was pioneering today’s Cardiff fringe scene at The Other Room. Thiarai’s appointment as Artistic Director was the coup de grace. It was affirmation of Wales’ commitment to a progressive theatre community. Here was a woman of colour from a working class background, given a chance that someone in her position rarely is. A chance given to her because she earned it. Only three years later, Theatr Clwyd is now the only one of those six venues currently not run by a white man. In fact, a fun game to play on a long road trip is counting up how many of Wales’ leading arts organisations aren’t run by able-bodied white men. Are you Somalian? Female? Trans? In a wheelchair? You won’t enjoy this game.
Don’t get me wrong, some very positive things have happened in the last twelve months. Taking Flight Theatre’s production of peeling was produced with an all-female crew. Humanequin was arguably the first high-profile piece of theatre in Wales about the trans community. Tamara Harvey brought another Olivier Award back to Wales with Home, I’m Darling. Artists like Mathilde Lopez and Be Aware Productions are creating innovative, avant-garde work. The fringe theatre scene has never been so active and so full of quality as it is right now.
Yet all of these accomplishments (and many more) continue to take a back seat. Wales spends its time dissecting each individual word of it’s national theatre’s mission statement. No artist or organisation is exempt from criticism, of course, but this is no longer constructive. In its place, we have biased (and often unnecessary) analysis plastered across social media of seemingly every NTW statement or tweet. We have finger-pointing and passive-aggressive quips, all in a quest to discover The Mystery Of The NTW Vision.
And while this is going on, our performers from BAME, trans, autistic, queer, D/deaf, visually impaired, Muslim, wheelchair-using, neurodivergent and all other minority communities have to wait until they’re told where they fit in this paradigm. Has anyone asked them what they want the NTW vision to be? After all, doesn’t a national theatre belong to everyone? Are artists and audiences from minority communities allowed to have a say in what their national theatre should be, or is that privilege only afforded to a select group of people? Right now, it definitely seems like the latter.
I personally don’t believe there was a deliberate agenda against Thiarai, but I also fully understand, and will not argue against, those people who think there was. This isn’t just about how other countries view us, but our own communities. If you cannot comprehend the idea that recent events could be interpreted as coming from a place of racism, nationalism, sexism or classism, then you’re either very naive or very stubborn. Luckily, we won’t have to worry about it anymore because the uncouth narrative of a woman of colour being discriminated against is gone. We’ll go back to seeing a lot of predominantly Welsh able-bodied white men arguing against a lot of other predominantly Welsh able-bodied white men. The rest of us will wait for a turn that, history tells us, we know we won’t get.
Today, I feel sad and guilty because I didn’t do enough when it mattered, and maybe you feel the same. Maybe you feel angry, disgusted, regretful or offended. Every artist in Wales should have that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach over what the theatre community has become – it’s embarrassing and we should all be ashamed. Let’s stop blaming the open letter for this mess and start asking why all but one person on that list was white. Let’s stop theorising why Kully Thiarai resigned and start asking why nearly every other major arts venue is run by a man. Let’s stop asking who deserves to run a national theatre and start asking why experienced and talented Welsh artists from minority communities still aren’t being given important, senior positions. Let’s admit that we are turning a blind eye to white privilege, male privilege and institutional prejudice.
It’s time for us to wake up.