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ON THE BLOG: Q&A with National Theatre Wales on project 'Open Access'

We hear from some the artists and practitioners of National Theatre Wales (NTW) Creative Europe-supported Cooperation Project Open Access / Experimenting with performance and transmedia creation. The 2 year project, lead by a French theatre company, also features partners in Portgual and Romania. 

Giving us an in-depth insight into the rewards of cross-border, international working are Simon Coates, Head of Creative Development at National Theatre Wales [at the time of writing] and artist & scenographer Alison Neighbour who took part in Open Access recent artists lab in Lisbon.


Tell us about your project; what is Open Access?


The full name of the project is “Open Access – Experimenting with performing arts and transmedia creation”. There is quite a lot going on in that title isn’t there?! Basically, the whole project started from an observation: the ever-growing shift to include technological (digital) developments in the process of making and sharing performance work asks fundamental questions about how the work is made, the ideas that can be shared, the mechanisms for sharing them and the role of the audience member. It’s a really exciting time to be making performance work because so much is up to debate and change (if we want to go there that is…!). This project definitely wants to go there.

Open Access is a transnational Cooperation Project, supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union (project runs 2018-20). It will involve professionals from all kinds of fields including the performing arts, academia (research), cultural mediation, digital development and production, and the wider cultural industries (gaming, film etc) as well as ‘audiences’. The main organising partner is Le Granit (a French scene national theatre in Belfort in the east of France). NTW is a lead partner as well as Colectiv A (based in Cluj-Napoca, Romania) and DuplaCena - Festival d’Temps Images (Lisbon, Portugal).

What is your role at National Theatre Wales and on the project?


I am Head of Creative Development at National Theatre Wales. This means I work across the different schemes, initiatives and programmes of work to support artists to carry out research and develop outstanding ideas for performance. Sometimes this takes quite conventional routes – commissions for writers, for plays to be staged in theatre buildings. Other times, we are talking about more radical approaches. This year we’ve been working with an artist (Hefin Jones) who has been researching with a group of school children about what the future of a rural post-Brexit Wales holds for them. The responses and ideas have had an enormous impact on how we think about this work and have shaped the eventual outcome. I also developed a residency in north Wales (#NTWEgin) which placed a community at the centre of the process – we were all involved in the process of discussing climate crisis impacts and made responses (artistic and otherwise) from local and international perspectives. I love to work on projects where none of us know what we are going to find by the end. That’s very much how we are thinking about Open Access too. 

For Open AcceSs, as well as representing NTW as one of the organising partners, I have a technical role as ‘Creative Development Mentor’, which means I support the creative journey of each of the artists, helping them to make decisions about the story world they are looking to create and how.

What is transmedia?


Transmedia isn’t that new. It came about in the early 90’s with its origins in popular culture – film, TV, games etc – where creators were seeking out ways to bring greater narrative integration to media franchises. Essentially, it’s a story world that exists across different platforms (media) where each one tells a distinct but connected story where the user (audience) is free to move between any them (or not). Interaction is often key. One of the reasons I became interested in transmedia is because it has the capacity to be open (hence open access) and democratic, even inviting users to contribute to the development of the storytelling in some way. It felt like an interesting step for NTW to consider this further and what the implications of this might be on the artists, on the company and users, which in our case are audience members.

Where has the project been recently?


So far, we have had a workshop for 20 artists, hosted by Le Granit (France) where we talked about transmedia in a lot of detail – what it is and isn’t examples of transmedia project that have used the performing arts as key to delivering the experience. 

We then started a series of four labs with eight artists who will be a part of the process until its end. The first lab was in Bucharest where we were looking at storytelling and different digital tools such as motion capture, photogrammetry, VR and AR etc. Followed by a lab in Lisbon where the focus was on ‘place’ and its role in storytelling.  Next, we move to Cardiff to discuss democratic authorship (including fan fiction) and its implications on artists, organisations and the artworks themselves. The final lab will be in Belfort again before we head into a series of three prototyping showcases to audiences in France, Portugal and Romania.

Can you tell us a bit about you and your work?


I am a scenographer working across performance, installation, and social engagement - I’m most interested in how scenography and performance can support an audience in taking ownership of the story and the place in which it is performed, which at the moment feels very political too. I’m especially interested in tactile and multi-sensory connection between people, between people and place, and between people and story, and I think I’d describe my work as experiential rather than narrative-led, so that is an interesting challenge in the context of transmedia work.

Why were you interested in being involved in the Open Access project?


I wanted to explore new ways of connecting with audiences and creating story, especially thinking about how genuine co-creation can be part of a process- I’ve been edging towards working in transmedia way for a while without realising it, and this is an opportunity to go deeper and spend some time thinking about what that process looks like and what the possibilities are. I was also really excited by the chance to experience making work in other countries, and connect with and learn from other artists on the programme.

What have you been looking at through Open Access so far?


I started with a very open premise, exploring disappearing landscapes. This idea has been bubbling for a while, as I became aware of communities and habitats being lost to sea level rise and coastal erosion close to home in Wales, and all around the globe where the situation is much worse, and I wanted to think about how we say goodbye to places, how stories turn to myths, and the warning signs in our landscape and existing mythologies. It’s a huge subject, and a transmedia approach gives license to create many story strands and explore multiple ways in, which is exciting in the context of reaching new audiences. My research has extended to trees and forests, both buried below tide lines and those still standing on the land, and the different way a tree, or a rock, experiences time, compared to human time. Each lab has provided further stimulate that pulls apart the idea, injects new thoughts, and requires a period of refocusing and self-questioning to understand where I am going and how to get there. 

In Bucharest, we only just scratched the surface of the idea, but had an opportunity to explore a lot of new technology that offers possibilities for media platforms and portals, and some really interesting discussions in the neuroscience lab around how our brains remember, and decoding electrical impulses in the brain, which I am hoping to use to listen to some trees! 

In Lisbon the lab focus was on public space, and we began by walking, exploring parts of the city not typically visited by tourists, guided by artist and architect Joanna Braga. I followed with my own solitary wanderings, and this led to an interest in the disappearance of ways of living and, with the (re) construction works, of parts of the city itself. Most present in Lisbon, right now, is the transformation of homes into temporary habitations for visitors; community squares and outdoor living rooms become places passed through by tour groups- although Lisbon too is threatened by sea level rise in the not too distant future, this wasn’t an obvious concern: each new place we visit on this residency brings its own stories it wants to be told, so I am working through that and trying to find a way that my site specific approach to work can sit within a residency that happens across multiple sites.

How important is it to you to be making work internationally and with other European organisations/ artists?


International collaboration has always been important to us and the artists we work with. In the past few years alone, we have worked with artists from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Japan, Uganda, South Korea, and all over Europe and all over the UK. It’s vital to be able to do this to build our understanding of the work we do and the world we live in. In particular, our relationships with our European partners need care and attention right now. Regardless of how we might feel as individuals we have to find a way to move past Brexit and cement new foundations. And professionally we have a lot to learn from each other. Our cultural sectors are all so different, the tastes, needs and demands of audiences and the ways the work is funded or not funded as basic examples. There is a strength in difference, when we concentrate on what unifies us. 


I think this is vital - it’s only by connecting with people from other cultures that we can really grow and understand the world.  In an increasingly connected yet polarised society, it’s so important to be meeting, talking, and sharing, and making work that facilitates this, and I hope we’ll be able to continue the connections and friendships beyond this residency. 

What’s next?


At the end of the week in Lisbon I tested a walk that sought to reframe sections of the city, to offer it the chance to tell its story, and to weave in with mine - we began under an ancient tree in the centre of the city, letting sand run through our fingers, reflecting on a building in decay and a square highly polished for the tourists, and we ended looking out to sea, standing on that same sand with which we started the journey. How is this transmedia? I’m not sure yet, but I am learning not to force it - each residency allows for the creation and testing of fragments, which might yet come together as components of a global transmedia experience. The important thing is the story; how it interweaves and the platforms it appears on will happen, I believe, in a more organic way, influenced and filtered by each place we go, each conversation we have. Perhaps even, we will discover that between us eight artists we are making one transmedia piece in which our themes overlap and interweave: our stories and concerns are similar, our discussions offer each other vital provocation, but the outcomes are vastly different, and all the more fascinating for that. 

A poster I found on a construction site on the last day in Lisbon reads “What Is Going to Happen Here?” - we are nearly halfway through the project now and this question remains, but I think that’s ok.


Open Access comes to Wales. NTW will host the project in April working with our partners, Chapter Arts Centre. Together we will be looking at how transmedia has the potential to open up art works to input form new audiences, how they can be crafted to be open ended allowing agency and a democratic experience and what the implications of this are on everybody involved. As a company, NTW has a lot of experience in making work that is participatory but this will take our thinking to new places too. It promises to be a really interesting week. After that we have one more Lab in Belfort (France) and then we start a process of prototyping experiences for audiences. The artists will have the opportunity to demo their work in three festivals across Europe this year.

We will also be finalising our webdoc which will allow anyone to the opportunity to get a deeper insight into the process online. That should be up and running this spring.

Discover more about this Creative Europe-funded project on the Open Access website.


Images: Courtesy of Simon Coates from the Lisbon lab 2019, bottom right image National Theatre of Wales production Tide Whisperer. Credit Jennie Caldwell