RICHARD BURTON COMPANY NEW WRITING FESTIVAL: JONATHAN MUNBY | INTERVIEW
For the first of two interviews with people who make the Royal Welsh College’s annual showcase of new plays happen, Noel Gardner speaks to Jonathan Munby, who in overseeing the whole thing has had to adapt to new ways of working.
A reliable fixture of the annual events programme at Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College Of Music & Drama, the Richard Burton Company New Writing Festival – often shortened to the NEW by those involved, presumably for time-saving purposes – debuted in 2014 and has maintained the same basic format since then. Each year, four plays are premiered in the RWCMD’s Richard Burton Theatre, with previous editions then being transferred to the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London for a short run there.
Sadly, the London jaunt isn’t an option for 2021’s NEW, which begins on Fri 21 May and continues until Sun 20 June – that is to say, the performances will be available to watch online for a month, having been recorded in advance with social distancing restrictions duly observed. Needless to say, this setup is far from ideal for the Richard Burton Company, although easier to take on board than was the case in 2020. Scheduled to debut in late March of that year, the short notice of lockdown left them with little option but to shelve three of the four plays, although one was later given a script-held performance, as Jonathan Munby relates.
Munby is Director Of Performance at the RWCMD, and having taken up the position in July 2020, this is his first New Writing Festival. For it, as he explains to Buzz, he’s created a Writer In Residence role for Chinonyerem Odimba, who’s scripted one of the plays, The Toll. That will be available to view alongside The Ache by Rob Evans [pictured, top], The Electric by Vickie Donoghue and Terroir by Jennifer Lunn – who Buzz will be publishing an interview with tomorrow.
Can you explain a little about what your responsibilities are for the New Writing Festival – each play has its own director, of course, so do you have any further input?
Jonathan Munby: My job is to select the writers for the season and support the process of bringing these new plays to the stage, from their conception to the final performance. With new writing, the process of development is crucial, especially with our new writing festival, when time is short.
I chose to bring on board for the season a brilliant dramaturg, Raphael Martin, who worked alongside me and the directors, in helping the writers achieve the potential of their pieces. After the initial workshop, where the writers met the student actors they’d be writing for, we read early drafts of the scrips and fed notes back to the playwrights. This process then continued right the way through, until the plays were in performance.
Do you see yourself more as carrying on the work of your predecessors in that role, or doing something different?
I’ve certainly inherited a gift from my predecessor, Dave Bond. NEW was Dave’s idea and I’m going to continue to develop the project from year to year. The focus, in terms of the kind of writers we commission, might change, but the fundamental principle of the season will stay the same: four new plays, commissioned and developed by RWCMD in tandem with producing partners the Sherman, Paine’s Plough and the Royal Court.
Shortly before you came on board, last year’s NEW also had four plays scheduled for March – and cancelled at very short notice. Did they get performed, via livestream or similar?
Ripples – by Tracy Harris, directed by Matthew Holmquist and originally created with the Sherman Theatre – had a new life in lockdown. In May last year it was the first play in the new National Theatre Wales and Sherman Theatre Network Play Readings initiative, in collaboration with BBC Cymru Wales and BBC Arts.
Do you see livestreamed or otherwise onscreen theatre being valuable in its own right, as opposed to being a necessary stand-in while people can’t attend plays, and do you expect it to continue to thrive once we can?
Yes, I can see us holding onto the idea of livestreaming our work in the future, especially new writing and perhaps classical work as well. What we’ve noticed is that the work can reach a far wider audience through digital platforms. It makes access easier, cheaper and far more democratic. Of course, we will never get rid of the live event – live theatre is essential, and the sooner we can open our doors and invite audiences back into our theatres the better.
However, what this last year of streaming our work has taught us is that the theatre we produce can now be accessed and enjoyed from all over the world. Theatre is and should be for everyone, so we’re looking at new ways in the future of making our digital work even more accessible than it currently is, whilst making sure we continue to produce the very best theatre we can in-house.
Of the four productions in 2021’s NEW, one has come from the residence of Chinonyerem Odimba. What was the process that led to her taking on this role, and what influence did her residency have on the development of The Toll?
Chinonyerem and I have known each other for a while. Before I got the job at RWCMD, Chino and I were working on a piece for the National Theatre: a story about a real-life UN worker, who wanted to tell his story about corruption and cover-up within the organisation. It was a thrilling process of development, but with lockdown and my move to Cardiff, we’ve had to put the project on hold.
When I was offered the role at RWCMD, one of the first ideas I had was to create a new role of Writer In Residence. As I was working with Chino at the time, it felt like a great opportunity to continue our relationship within this new context. Chino also offers the College a huge amount as well, not just in terms of her writing, but also as an activist, artist and brilliant human being. She has fed the College in a number of ways, from mentoring students in terms of new writing, to helping guide the conversation within the College on matters concerning racism and diversity, and also feeding the cultural life of the institution as a whole. We are very grateful to have had her with us.
The Toll is pure her. It taps directly into the politics of the present and stimulates debate about important issues of identity and race in a post-Brexit Europe.
All four plays have an angle that references or calls to mind recent events, either directly (Brexit) or implicitly (technology’s impact on loneliness; pubs and clubs as places of community). Do you consider writers and directors to have a responsibility to address social issues, in general?
Not necessarily, but writers write what they know and what their lived experience teaches them. It’s been the same from the very first playwrights through to the present day. Given the enormously challenging and politically charged year we’ve been through, it doesn’t surprise me that we’ve ended up with four plays that speak so directly of the present.
Are you already planning the 2022 New Writing Festival, and is the expectation that most of it can be put together with no restrictions on movement, human contact etc?
Yes, we are… and we are looking forward to creating a season of work that, hopefully, is not compromised in any way. Fingers crossed!
Richard Burton Company New Writing Festival, online, Fri 21 May-Sun 20 June. Tickets: £6.50 per performance. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER photos KIRSTEN MCTERNAN