The following is the edited transcript of a conversation with one half of Common Wealth Theatre, Rhiannon White, at her house in Cardiff. On the day this podcast episode was released, we were five days away from one of the most historic General Elections in British history. So much of what Rhiannon and I talked about fed into the chaos that consumed Wales and the UK in that election – austerity, the class divide, and the importance of honesty and the importance of community. Social justice sits at the heart of all the work that Rhiannon does, and it sat at the heart of the enlightening conversation you’re about to read.
If you’d like to listen to the episode, click here.
Welcome to Episode Two of Critically Speaking.
Jafar Iqbal: How does a working class girl from St Mellons become a shit-hot director?
Rhiannon White: (laughs) Thanks mate! Shit-hot. Okay, so firstly, I probably struggle a little bit with the word ‘director’, but that’s alright. I’m gonna own it, I’m gonna own it…
JI: What word do you use?
RW: I don’t even know! I use the word ‘director’, but it even still feels weird to hear someone say that. I got into theatre when I was a kid, and I guess before I ever really knew what theatre was. So I grew up on an estate that was built in the eighties. It was perfectly laid out because it’s a really green part the city, St Mellons, for anyone who’s been there. It’s got lots of woods and lots of places to hide and play, and what we did when we were younger was, we just played outside the entire time. Played and played and played, created games and, y’know, went and hid in the trees and just…the environment was perfect for us. On the flipside of that, the environment was quite hostile and quite violent. I was living in a house where there was a lot of violence, and a lot of aggression. That was replicated throughout the streets, so it was quite familiar to see people running up the street with machetes or, y’know, for violence to spill out into the street, or for the police to be called. Things like that were quite present. And, in a response to that, I think the playing and creating things using our imagination really was like an anecdote for us. Anecdote? Antidote for us at that time. So what I used to do is, I used to dress kids up in my mum’s clothes and I used to put plays on in my back garden and…
JI: What plays?
RW: Well, we just used to make them up. And they might be like fairy tales, or just silly things we used to do, but we always used to pull in an audience! We’d invite all the mums and they’d all come and watch the show.
JI: How old were you?
RW: Maybe like, y’know, from the age of seven onwards. So I did that for a while and that was wicked. My mum was really amazing, ‘cos she used to take us to the library. I remember the day the library got built, I remember going there for the first time.
JI: Which library?
RW: St Mellons Library. And I remember how important that felt. It was a place of sanctuary out of the chaos that we lived in and just, like, going there and getting lost in books felt really amazing! It was where my curiosity for telling stories came from, I think, and my love of reading and wanting to learn more about the world was kinda borne from there. And then, I remember my grandad died when I was about twelve, and we went to my grandfather’s funeral. This sounds mad, but a long lost cousin of my mum’s basically turned up, and turned out he was an actor, and he was working in Cardiff as an actor at the Sherman Theatre. And amazingly, he managed to help me get into the youth theatre at the Sherman which…I’d never been there, I didn’t know what it was. And I remember going, and I was about thirteen, and I used to have to get a bus and then walk quite far away, it was a right mission to get there! And when I got there, I loved it! But the thing that I struggled with was the kids definitely weren’t the same as me. I felt very different, wore different clothes, I sounded different, and the thing that was the hardest was that I had different experiences to them.
JI: Did that change at any point?
RW: No, I think for the first time in my life, that’s when I really felt class, was in the theatre. Which breaks my heart, because it’s something that I love and that I think is incredible to be part of and, you know, for me, bringing people together for the first time in a show and watching every night it be different, and that energy that gets created and that catalyst that gets created – all of those things I love but…yeah, it was then that I noticed that there was a problem, and that became a little bit of a battle with me, because how could something I love not love me back? That’s what I felt like.
JI: Do you still have that?
RW: I think I give less of a fuck about it…
RW: …which is good, but it’s taken me a bit of time to get there. And I think I’m more pragmatic about it. Like, I wanna take action about it, I wanna speak about it, or I wanna shift things in a different way. So I think I just look at it in a bit of a different way because, obviously, things have changed a lot since then. And actually, what showed me, what helped me know that things could be different, I guess, was leaving Wales, leaving Cardiff, and going out and seeking what I wanted to find. So I moved to Bristol, and I got involved in…I just got involved in a group of people that were really active, making theatre, making art, loads of artists together, and it was a really great energy to be part of. We weren’t asking for permission, we weren’t waiting for anybody, we were just…every week we would meet and rehearse and think of new ideas, and then pool all of our resources that we had in each other to make a show. Without funding, without anything, without support from any theatre, really. At that time I was, like, twenty…four? Just left university, went to a really experimental university, I was super blessed to go there.
JI: Experimental in what way?
RW: I was probably in the most radical drama arts school in the country, for its years. Radical in the way that it taught you, in the way that it gave you space and time to be an artist, to think about the world. It was where, I think, definitely where my practise was encouraged and born, was in Dartington. The style of theatre that I make definitely comes from those times.
JI: What was the class issue like there? Was there a class issue there?
RW: I felt more accepted in that place. And I guess it’s different when you go somewhere like that, because there’s people from all over the world, y’know, at university. It was such a special place and a special time. I mean, I remember the first day I went to university…so my teacher actually recommended that I apply to Dartington, and so did Chapter [Arts Centre], I was working at Chapter. That was amazing because I was, like, fifteen when I started working in Chapter, and I worked there until I was about twenty. And all of a sudden, I had this whole insight into the arts in Wales and what that meant, and who was doing what. And y’know, the Mike Pearsons and the Eddie Ladds of the world were existing and making work there, and they were my friends, and I had access to them just on a very personal level. That taught me quite a big lesson in terms of…in terms of, if you wanna be an artist, that it’s possible! It taught me that it was possible and, actually, people like me could have access into that world. So that was a big lesson in terms of class, in terms of how important it is that people can even just get jobs like that, in places. If you work in a coffee shop and you just serve coffee, you still feel part of it, it’s still something that belongs to you. So that was quite important. The thing that was difficult, I think, was the first time I went to university. I got dropped off by my friend who worked at Chapter, because no-one in my family had the means to drop me off at university. And I remember going there with him, and everyone thinking that he was my dad, and that was quite a difficult thing because my dad wasn’t there to take me, or my mum wasn’t there to take me, but I had to go with my friend. And that, again, was part of my history. So I think, in terms of things like that, experiences, supported by my family or not supported by my family, or not even being made possible by them, that made me feel difficult. But when I was there, it was amazing.
JI: Going back to when you were a kid – why was making plays the outlet? Where did that come from?
RW: I think…kids love playing. It was just the notion of play and creating and dreaming and…I dunno, like, from my experience of working with kids, I think kids just like creating worlds, they get a buzz off it. It was kind of, like, fertile: the location, the time, the energy, the need, all of those things kinda lined up.
JI: How do you create worlds now?
RW: How do I create worlds now?
RW: Most of the time, it begins with meeting someone, or having a conversation about something we care about. So…I’ll talk about a play that I made in 2015 called Our Glass House, and how that began was, I got a phonecall from Evie [Manning], who I founded Common Wealth with. She’d moved back home to Bradford to have a baby and a woman, her next door neighbour, an ambulance got called for her in the middle of the day. Her husband had beaten her so badly that she nearly died. And Evie called me and said, ‘I’ve got an idea for a play, I want to do a play about domestic violence, I want to stage it in a house, what do you think, should we do it, does this make sense?’ I’d known Evie for, like, seven years – we set up a theatre company together! – and when we met up in person and talked about it, I told her for the first time that I’d grown up with domestic violence and I’d also experienced it as an adult myself. And I’d never told her before and I was like, fucking hell, that’s something in itself, that it’s so hard to talk about these things. Even with your friends, you know, like, even with yourself, it’s really hard to admit to these things. So we had a conversation, and then we decided that we had to do it, on so many different levels, on a personal level and a political level, and we thought the idea would work, that we could do a show in a house. Get houses from councils and we could maybe base the show on interviews with people. And the process was really interesting for me because the first person we interviewed was my mum, which was quite…something to do, and quite an emotional thing for me, that was actually a really good starting point in terms of how ethically and responsibly and carefully we talk about people’s lives and what we do with that information, and how we take care of them. What does it mean to interview people about this stuff? Working with my mum really helped us shape the process that I think is supportive and generous and careful with how it manages people’s stories.
JI: Why is that the approach you took, rather than putting it in a theatre?
RW: I think it comes back down to the honesty that I was talking about in the beginning. It’s really easy for us to have our assumptions about what it might be like. Y’know, I have an experience, I have a direct experience, that’s something. But someone else’s experience might not be the same.
JI: Do you think you could ever make a show that didn’t have a social conscience attached to it?
JI: Or is that just ingrained in you?
RW: I don’t think so, no! (Rhiannon chuckles) I think everything is political. I mean it’s political that I work in theatre, that’s political. I like theatre that’s relevant and I like theatre that speaks to people of our times. I like working with people who are new to theatre. I like working with people who are really well-trained actors and dancers and mixing them together with people who are new to theatre. And I guess that I just…I’ve seen what energy gets created when you do that, and that’s what I love. I just see so much potential in those things, I think that’s my most favourite way of working. I think I would never say no to stuff – like, I would always want to think about it, because maybe one day I do want to make a Shakespeare. But at this time, in the present, in the state of where we’re at with things, I wanna make work that speaks to people and speaks to our time, and that has to be political, and it has to be engaged.
JI: It’s funny because, with Common Wealth, you have one foot in Wales and one foot in England. You’re a multi-national company, I guess…
RW: We’re venture capitalists.
JI: Basically, yeah, that’s exactly what you are!
RW: We’re multi-national!
JI: I’m intrigued by what you meant about working with people who are new to theatre. How do you compare how England approaches that and how Wales approaches it? Do you think Wales is good at working with people who are new to theatre?
RW: I think both places are notoriously fucking bad at it, to be honest, and I think there are some people who are doing things super well and super interesting. And I think there’s…how I see it is that we have to be very, very careful of the way we make work and approach things. I’m deeply troubled by people who pop along to a place that they have no connection with, who start to seek out stories, who then use those stories without working with people who own those stories. Often those people might not have any agency but, equally, have lots of agency but its being taken away by someone who has more than them at that point. D’you know what I mean?
RW: And I think sometimes it’s pushed by both Arts Councils to kinda do this, like, ‘go beyond what you’re doing as artists and then reach this community, this community’ – you know, the tickboxes to reach and achieve those things. But if we just send any old person into places to do that kind of work without knowledge, without respect, without any of those things, what kind of work do we make? Sorry, that sounds really cryptic!
JI: No, but then, arguably, aren’t you somebody, at first, going into a place without knowing it?
RW: Absolutely! Yeah, absolutely, I am that person. But I think it’s the way people approach things that’s different. And Common Wealth are renowned for our process and our way of working with people. So I don’t think it’s just about class, it’s not just about me connecting with my people or my tribe, y’know, I think actually, it’s about being human and it’s about noticing and respecting what’s there and seeing people as assets and seeing places as assets, and also giving people an invitation to make the work with you. And time isn’t…I hate it when people talk about time because, you know, you could do a show in six weeks, six months, a year, two years, three years, there’s never enough time to really understand where people come from and what that means. You’ll never get there. You won’t. Unless you come from there. Like, I don’t believe that.
JI: It seems like a lot of your work is about what comes after, about the legacy that it leaves behind. Is that fair to say?
RW: I think it’s all important. I think it starts before the show. I see it as, like…this is such a wafty thing to say, but it’s circular, like, the process is circular, so it’s never-ending. And it’s about how it starts, I think starting something is really important. I think the connections that you make, and you truly want to…y’know, you truly have to want to be in that place with people and wanna tell that story with them. It’s about co-creation. And that circular process goes, it goes from a point of working with the people who are best set to tell that story; to bringing in artists who are the best ones to make it look amazing and create the world that you wanna see; to working with writers; to working with the actors; to then working on how the audience engage it; to working on how the press engage with it, because what we’re trying to create is movements, y’know? We’re trying to bring that into the consciousness of people, and that’s not, like, I want to bring the play into the consciousness but I wanna bring whatever we’re talking about into the public sphere, and then back again. Because then you’re making the show, you’re meeting the audience, and then what happens in that place then is just as important. It’s not the most important thing, but that continues because, ultimately, Common Wealth, me, I wanna see more people like me working in the industry.
JI: Do you think there aren’t enough people like you in the industry?
RW: Yeah. Yeah, because art is…it’s always been…in this country, the arts is quite an elite thing.
JI: How do we get rid of elitism in theatre, Rhiannon?
RW: Sack ‘em all.
JI: Sack ‘em all!
JI: Across the UK?
RW: Yeah. (Rhiannon snorts) Nah, I’m joking!
JI: You’re not though, are you?
RW: No, I think it’s this thing, y’know, I think the arts is fundamentally run by the middle classes, and I think power, when people have power, it’s really hard to shift them. For me, like, I’ve been in rooms where I’ve felt instrumental to their vision. Like, I’m the token person who grew up on benefits or here’s the girl who works in estates, whatever. I think it would be different if someone from that background might be in a higher position, I think it would. But maybe I’m wrong, I dunno. A very good friend of mine, Hassan Mahamdallie, he talks about it quite well, and he talks about the middle classes occupying those jobs and how difficult it is for them to give those things up. And he talks about the arts being colonised by the middle classes. I think it’s always been colonised, in terms of…the subsidised arts – so we’re talking about the Arts Councils, the foundations, the trusts, the people who have the money, like, we need money. We need money. To do the work we need to do, we need money. So that’s a thing, that’s a real thing, and that’s a really palpable thing between Wales and England. I feel the difference between the two countries and what that means, I feel that border is a hard funding border. I feel it. What I do know for sure is that the incredible Raymond Williams – who’s a bit of a hero to me – he said ‘all culture is ordinary’. And I truly, with all my being, believe in that statement. Because I’ve experienced it, d’you know what I mean? I believe that the making of art isn’t elitist, the making of art happens everywhere. I was doing it when I was a kid in my street without even realising what that meant, or what that was. But I knew how to do it. We know how to storytell, it’s in our DNA. So I think, in a way, it’s how do you hold on to that, and go deep with it, explore it and own it, and make what you wanna make without being answerable to anybody? I don’t ever wanna be with a begging bowl outside the National Theatre in London, begging for money to make a show, like, I’m just gonna do it. I think it’s remembering that we don’t have to ask for permission and, actually, if they’re not gonna let us in to these roles in the future, then fuck ‘em, we’ll do it anyway, and we’ll do it in our way. The reality is that they need us. They need us.
JI: Do you think everything that you’ve done in your career, and you are doing and will be doing, is just you still doing what you were doing as a six year old?
RW: D’you know what I think it is? Of course, I think it was borne from those times, and one thing that I’m quite fierce about is narrative and the way we tell stories, and I think that’s been inherited to me from the years gone by. I think it’s more built on injustice and witnessing injustice. I think where it comes from is…John Redwood, who was a politician in the nineties, he was Welsh Secretary of State, an English man. He came to my estate and he said, ‘all the single mothers who live here should have their children taken off them and put into care, St Mellons is a den of female vice and women are just getting pregnant to have children’.
JI:He said that?
RW: Yeah, he said that, he released this statement about the place that I lived in, in an area where Cardiff Council were putting single mothers, they were doing that. There were a lot of single mums living there, but the single mums I knew were super strong and, you know, bringing up three, four kids by themselves and doing it really well! And then this guy who had no idea released this statement, and it kicks off. It went everywhere, it went viral – viral in the nineties! JK Rowling basically wrote a letter of support for the mums of St Mellons. And I always say this, we have to be careful about what narrative we put on people. He put that narrative on to my community, and I feel it. I feel the shockwaves of what he said that last in a place like St Mellons, because I have lost count of the number of times that I walk into a place and I say where I’m from and then I get, like, numerous words back to me that me and that place don’t deserve. It’s just a place, you know? I got it the other day, where I was in a training course and an old teacher was running it. And in a room of twenty people she said, ‘what school did you go to?’. I said, ‘oh, Rumney High’, and she went, ‘that school made me give up teaching.’ In front of everybody! And you’re just like, well, it’s a bit of a shit thing to say. D’you know what I mean? I’m fed up of, ‘that’s rough, that’s a shithole, that’s this, that’s Beirut’, you know, like…I guess it’s understanding context of why a place might turn into that, or why an opinion of a place might turn into that. Because, actually, my opinion is very different.
JI: You’ve not done a show about St Mellons, have you?
JI: It’s funny, because you talk a lot about how everything comes out of your own experiences, and that is the experience, and you’ve talked about St Mellons so much…
RW: I just moved office, and I just moved to Llanrumney, which is next to St Mellons, so I feel like the journey is heading there. But…
JI: Is there a fear?
RW: Yeah, there is fear. And I think it’s…like, I left St Mellons when I was eighteen years old, and I left and I didn’t ever want to go back. And that was a mixture of both emotions and ghosts and all kinds of things, people there that I never want to see again in my life, you know what I mean? There’s the very personal things that exist there. My family still live there, and every time I go there after being away and working with people in places similar, I realise more and more that I wanna make work there and that’s where it’s heading, I think. And I think there’s stories to be told there, there’s absolute gold there. It was amazing because I programmed Women of the World Festival last year, and I started to bring some voices in from St Mellons, and that felt really interesting and really good. And I think it’s just brewing, and things take time. And I’m really excited that I get to develop a new project in a new place that’s my place, with the stories that are going to relate to me so much.
JI: Have you seen kids in St Mellons, or in other working class places that you’ve worked in, doing what you did?
JI: Are you seeing that?
RW: Yeah, course! I see it all the time. I see it all the time. And I see bright kids, you know, and…I wrote a paper and made a show about class and spent some time in St Mellons with some young people. I asked them to write down what they think art was on a whiteboard and they wrote, ‘art is for Boris Johnson’, and I thought, ‘fucking hell!’ That’s it, isn’t it? They know.
JI: That’s a sad answer.
RW: It is a sad answer, but it’s so true in this time. That’s how they see it, and these kids were, like, eleven years old. Let’s just own up to things, because kids are, y’know…they tell the truth! And I don’t think all kids would be like that but, in this area, they meant it. If you look at the facts and figures, there’s no arts going on in East Cardiff. Doesn’t mean we should all run out and make work in East Cardiff, just to say that! People don’t need that, don’t need you knocking on their door and being like, ‘I’ve got an art project!’ And if you do go there, you’ve gotta pay people proper. People want jobs.
JI: So if you’re not overly comfortable with being called a director…
RW: No, I am a director. I am a director, but…you know, like, at the moment, it’s…I am a director, but not in a traditional sense, I guess. I’m more of a curator or facilita- I dunno, I don’t give a shit about labels, I just like working with Common Wealth.
JI: You’re a Common Wealther!
RW: Yeah! I just like making things happen, and I think a lot of the time, what I’m doing is holding a space for people to facilitate a conversation around what they might wanna do, and guiding them into making it happen, and sharing. Common Wealth – this is really cheesy, but it’s in our name, like, what we believe in. We believe in the wealth of people and I guess, in a way, how our process works is that we share each other’s wealth. So if my wealth is all the connections that I’ve made, the networks that I have, the access to funds that I have, the ability to fundraise, the ability to create theatre in the way that I do, then that’s what I’m bringing to the table. And the people that I work with have got a whole host of other things, so it’s a mega collaboration of sharing each other’s treasures. (Rhiannon laughs) D’you know what I mean?
JI: I do, I do!
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