It’s always like this; isn’t it? You’re asked to write something – anything – about your time with a company, or a project, and you leave it to the last minute and then you’re sat in a cafe in Waterloo trying to figure out how to sum up an entire year. And you can’t. Not properly. Because how can you put into words a life affirming and career changing learning experience with a company where you have nothing bad to say. It feels like such a cop out of a thing to say, “Oh it was sooooo amazing” / “oh the company was soooo good” / “oh the people were sooooo nice” – but really, it was.
I started with ATC as part of the Weston Jerwood Bursary scheme in April 2020 – during a period of extreme uncertainty within our sector. Was theatre going to survive the panini? What would be the fate of freelancers? What would happen to smaller companies? Should we be like Fatima and make our next job be in cyber? These were the big issues facing all of us who’d (perhaps foolishly) chosen to pursue the arts as our careers; especially those of us who couldn’t nepotize (not a real word, but I’m doing a Shakespeare here folks) our way into big jobs and bigger commissions. This program offered me not only financial stability in a time of uncertainty, but allowed me to learn at the side of two of the most generous teachers that a young theatre maker with ambitions for artistic leadership could possibly ask for – Messers Andrew Smaje and Matthew Xia. Both men lifted the veil for me to be able to learn about how companies work, how touring works, what it means to recover and rebuild projects, how to find partnerships with venues, all of this while maintaining a charm and humour that only the two of them can. I can’t be more complimentary about them and the kind of company they run. Don’t even get me started on the incredible team around them! From the Board to the freelance creatives they choose to collaborate with, every person who is working with or for ATC is pushing solidly towards the same goal; telling global stories on local stages.
The first major project that I got to work on with them was Family Tree by Mojisola Adebayo for the Greenwich Docklands International Festival – my first project as Associate Director for Matthew Xia, and ATC’s first in-person project since the Big P. We had two weeks to stage a full-length outdoor promenade spectacle with fire, singing, baths full of water, four incredible performers, one writer zooming in from Berlin, an all Black all powerful creative team, and the indomitable leadership of Matthew Xia. This is where I learnt what it means to be in his rehearsal room. I’ve said it once before somewhere else, but he’s a true archaeologist when it comes to text; no matter the project, his directorial style is all in service to the story, there’s no ego, there is only story and collaboration. I’ve heard him describe his leadership style in a rehearsal room as IKEA flat pack – it gets assembled when needed, but mostly is able to be in an easy box in the corner relatively unnoticed until it’s needed. No matter the difficulty, Matthew tries to come from a position of we’re all in this together – I call it the Troy Bolton methodology.
This ideology was present in Rice by Michele Lee – our first indoor show at the Orange Tree as part of their Recovery Season, and the subsequent national tour of the same show. Every challenge is met by the team at ATC with love and care, even the challenges that they can’t solve. Getting my first opportunity to learn what goes into a national tour with a company where everyone is right there – there are no corridors or different offices or closed doors, any question you have you can ask without fear of feeling silly and the person with the answer is always on the weekly team meeting.
ATC is one of those rare companies where the focus is on new writing, but there’s actually no literary department. If you were wondering, the literary department was me and a spreadsheet. In order to make our writers searches more democratised and accessible, we’ve developed a Readers Group of 4 ever changing theatre creatives who read a total of 8 plays among them that we’re considering for development. For the past year, the Readers Group has been my baby – it’s been such a joy to read new works from around the world and to share them with a wide range of deeply interesting creatives to hear their thoughts on the texts and on what ATC should be making.
This whole thing will sound like it’s a big fluff piece for ATC. Propaganda even. But I really just had a fantastic time, and have developed my skills as an artist as well as my understanding of the nuts and bolts of artistic leadership. I also hope I’ve developed relationships that will blossom into lifelong friendships.
We’re thrilled to announce that the winner of the 25th Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play of the Year is Mojisola Adebayo for her play Family Tree, produced by ATC and commissioned by ATC and Young Vic.
Mojisola was presented with her award by the Patron of the Alfred Fagon Award, Baroness Floella Benjamin.
The Alfred Fagon Award is supported by the Peggy Ramsay Foundation.
FAMILY TREE was showcased as a work-in-development for a limited number of performances at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival 2021, directed by ATC Artistic Director Matthew Xia and presented by ATC, GDIF and Young Vic.
Background to the commissioning of Family Tree
FAMILY TREE is a joint commission by Actors Touring Company and its long-term partner the Young Vic and was one of several commissions ATC made during the period of lockdown.
Commissioning Mojisola Adebayo’s play was borne out of ATC’s commitment to commissioning new plays from female writers of colour for the first three years of Matthew Xia’s tenure (2019-21). This was alongside ATC’s mission during the same period to produce UK premieres of contemporary international plays, all of which were exclusively by female writers of colour.
The strategy aimed to pro-actively improve and elevate the representation and diversity of playwriting voices in ATC’s work and in the wider sector.
Matthew Xia says:
“Mojisola Adebayo is an exceptional writer and I’m thrilled that her outstanding new play has won the award. There’s a beauty in her work that responds so well to the present moment whilst holding historical malpractice to account. It’s fearless, brutally honest, at turns hilarious, and ultimately transformative. The ritualistic celebratory nature of this play, is our way of uplifting, remembering, and learning from these women who were used in the name of medical advancement. I hope that audiences far and wide will have the opportunity to see this vital work brought to life again on stage.”
“The first few weeks of a rehearsal are always a wild blur of excitement and confusion – meeting company members, venue staff, and in some instances, meeting the play! The first two weeks of RICE have been nothing short of a whirlwind; zoom meetings with staff and collaborators sprawled across the Orange Tree Theatre, costume fittings, design showings, text work, zoom calls across the globe connecting the rehearsal room in Richmond, London, with the writer in Melbourne, Australia – you can either get blown away by the whirlwind, or you can whip out your most brightly coloured kites and catch the breeze.
For the first week in Matthew Xia’s rehearsal room, we sit around the table and meet the play in earnest. Sure, everyone in the room has read it and can see the painting as a whole, but Matthew hands the company a magnifying glass, and asks us all to look closely at every piece of information; every fact, every description, every punctuation mark is significant in a Xia room. He asks the cast to look, without judgment, and see without conjecture, so that we can understand the play in a deeper more clearer way than we would if we were just diving into it and hoping for the best. A true Virgo king. And of course the indomitable Zainab Hassan and Sarah Lam are totally up to the challenge. Both performers are incredibly deft at pairing intellect and play, using the information that we’ve excavated together, to create real life people who live and breathe and who feel joy and pain and love and fear.
People who eat rice.
People who share their lives,
who hide from one another,
who are desperate to be needed.
These are the people who fill the hour and a half that audiences will see. These are the people that Zainab, Sarah, and Matthew (along with the expertise of movement director Asha Jennings-Grant, and the slick costume design from Hyemi Shin) have spent the first two weeks meeting, and sculpting. We’ll spend the next two weeks really getting to know them on a deeper level – developing their worlds and their lives. And on the 9th of October, we’ll have the immense pleasure of introducing them to all of you. We can’t wait for you to share a Tupperware of rice with us.”
Photos of the RICE company in rehearsals at the Orange Tree Theatre.
All photos by Helen Murray