Rhiannon White is a Cardiff-based theatre maker working in the UK and internationally. She is co-founder and co-artistic director of Common Wealth - an award winning site specific theatre company who are currently part of Peilot, Chapter Arts Associate Artist Scheme. She has previously worked with National Theatre Wales, The National Theatre, BBC and Contact. A Clore fellow and recipient of Creative Wales Award; Rhiannon has recently joined the panel for the Inquiry Into the Future of Civil Society

Can you tell us what you do? 

I’m a theatre maker from Cardiff. I co-founded and co-run Common Wealth, a site-specific theatre company who work locally, nationally and internationally making work about people. Our shows are political and socially motivated, based on the here and now. We often work with people who are new to acting, we’re really interested in working in places where people might feel that art might not be for them and introducing them to theatre and art. We see our work as a massive collaboration and we invite people to come and get involved.

The way we see it, people are the experts of their own reality so, for example, we made a show about domestic abuse and we based it on interviews with people and staged it in a residential house, on a street. Local people always got involved and would come in and always add more to the story we were telling, whether that be through building set, sharing their own experience or inviting people to come.

It wouldn’t be my place as a theatre director to put my assumption on what I imagine people who are going through that to be because 100% I would get it wrong. We’re trying to find new ways and new processes of making work that is honest, that is real, that is highly creative and supercharged – we want to create high quality work which really pushes what writing can be, what theatre can be, what art can be. Pushing it as far as we can go to create new experiences for audiences.

We believe that everyone is creative and it is just about unlocking that potential in people. If we do not start trying to encourage people to become artists through whatever means possible, we’re going to get really boring art – that’s my opinion!

Why have you chosen to work in Cardiff?

I grew up in a council estate called St Mellons, which is halfway between Cardiff and Newport. Growing up in Cardiff, it was a completely different city from it is now. Growing up, it didn’t feel like we had much – I didn’t know where the theatre was, there wasn’t very many opportunities, there was no-one making theatre in my community like you see now. We were kind of out on a limb and forgotten about. We had quite a lot of bad media publicity which demonized everyone who lived there so we were up against it. I got into theatre by just doing it and my mum just encouraging me to read. I used to dress up all the kids in my street in my mum’s clothes and read poetry, put on plays for the parents. We kept doing it because that's what we did.

I left Cardiff when I went to uni, I was really lucky and was the first person to go. I was really hungry to see other parts of the world, I valued what it meant to travel. I hated Cardiff when I left – there was nothing to do, I was bored and frustrated. I moved to Bristol and got involved with making massive shows with incredible people. This is where I met the rest of Common Wealth and started to think about the audiences I wanted to make shows for. Our work was so politically focused and at that time it felt like we were making work in an echo chamber, so I decided to move back to Wales. I moved back to Wales on a mission to share everything I had learned on my journeys and share it with people. 

Basically, Cardiff pulled me back hard and made me want to be here – that is my mission, to make work in Wales to show people what is possible. 

We live in strange, difficult times and it’s hard for people. Fewer opportunities so that means we have to push a bit harder to make things happen, to change things.

These times affect us all and if we’re going to shift things I think we need to gain more confidence to approach it head on. We need to start owning our own stories, our selves, taking ourselves seriously and I do think you can do that through theatre.  

What inspires you about being here?

What inspires me about Cardiff is the people but also Wales as a whole – it's the cradle of creativity, we have got so much to be proud of from our poets to our artists to our history of working class leaders, it is all there. We’re fighting to be seen and the people of Cardiff just need a bit of a reminder and a kick up the arse to say that it is already there, you don’t have to do much. What inspires me about Cardiff is the potential, the warmth, the love, the generosity and even though it is a city it is a community. It is small enough to have all of those things and big enough to be great, to be a capital city. I love the familiarity of it – it is an inspiring place. People stand strong and proud, always managing to support themselves. The human spirit is strong here.

What challenges have you found in working in Cardiff?

I work quite a lot in other parts of the UK, especially London, and they are a lot more well connected and taken a bit more seriously. The majority of private donations given to culture are focused in London – what would happen if that was spread out a little more? Those funding opportunities, those connections to support networks, that feeling that other people are doing what you’re doing. The artists and support networks that do exist in Cardiff are absolutely brilliant there's just not enough. There are really serious artists in Wales and it is about actually being taken seriously on a national level instead of being ‘a bit of a joke’ that couldn’t compete with Bristol or London but actually, we can – we are as good. We’re not new to making art here!

But a young rapper in Ely isn’t going to have the same chance as a rapper in Lewisham, so how do we address that? How do we stop our talent being wasted? How do we make it worth our kids staying here? You have to see that it is possible – to make music, be an actor, all of that – in the place you live, of course you’re not going to leave and not come back.

How successful do you think Cardiff has been at making itself a creative capital, particularly in your area of work?

I think we’re in an interesting place – I had a moment when I was walking through City of the Unexpected with my mum, who’s not hugely arty, and she said: “For the first time, I feel like this is a European city.” And that summed it up for me. Everyone there was local, from all over Cardiff and my mum felt it was European. It felt alive, it was in people’s consciousness that we can do something on that scale and that those things can happen here, which is a great starting place. Big respect for that!

I think we need to shout about the arts more like the great things that the Arts Council have done with Creative Schools and also focus on more DIY stuff, not relying on the national companies or the mega institutions to be creative but how we – the people of Cardiff – are creative and responding to our creative city. Basically, I think it is about the people of Cardiff building a creative capital and it coming from the ground up, a DIY place and we’re all responsible for it. 

In your opinion, which three things need to happen to make Cardiff a more creative city?

Three things that need to change in the arts are: more access points for new people – easier pathways for them to get into the arts and become professionals. New people feeling like they can, having the confidence to and getting the support they need to get funding, apply for grants, set up a company because all of that is really complex, complicated stuff that I had to learn by myself. How do we share that with other people so it is easier for people to have a bit more vision? We want visionary theatre makers and artists to come forward and make interesting work and I think the arts restrain people from being visionary because there is so much to jump through to get there.

The second thing is, how do we reach new audiences in a genuine, generous way and show people that art is for everyone (which I don’t believe it is at the moment). I don’t want my audience or artists to feel like concessions. How do we genuinely bring people together to make theatre?

The third thing is for artists to feel free to use any platform that they want; use the city, the roads, the buildings and the parks; all this place has got possibility in it, in unlikely places. And how to get people to use the buildings and public spaces in different ways. How can we create more brave artists? How can we show people that publically funded spaces belong to them? They’ve got a share in it, its theirs. The museum is theirs. Chapter is theirs. The Sherman is theirs.

What do you think Creative Cardiff should try to achieve?

I think Creative Cardiff is brilliant – I think it has really helped develop a network of people and it is all there to see online. It makes me really proud to see all that is happening in Cardiff. I think you guys have got to keep doing what you’re doing and be that platform where people link up, find opportunities and meet people.

All of that is essential for Cardiff to grow as a creative city. It just needs to be wider – it needs to speak beyond just the creatives, beyond the walls of the creative community that we have and try to find others that you can bring along for the ride because it might be a place for them to imagine the possibilities.

What’s next for you? What projects are on the horizon? What new ideas are you working on?

At the moment Common Wealth are working on a play with National Theatre Wales called We’re Still Here written by Rachel Trezise.

It’s a play inspired by the Save Our Steel movement that kicked off in 2016. Our mission is to capture what it means when people come together to stand up and say no – a celebration of workers, the working class and of course the brilliant Port Talbot.

For sure this story isn’t specific to South Wales – it’s one that we hear from workers around the world. Welsh history is coloured with stories of its radical past from working class orators, uprisings, pickets and strikes. The SOS campaign is part of that history and we’ll be working with the people who were part of that action to tell a story that is still unfolding in a town on the cusp of change. 

The play is based on interviews from people that we met with Rachel Trezise in Port Talbot, the text is a rich mixture of all those people we met who carried many different opinions about the future of the works and the steel industry. We interviewed people who had lost their jobs, campaigned, went to Mumbai and those who care little about the unions and the fate of the works. We gathered stories about uncertainty, purpose, the fight and what it means to come together.

We're making the show in a massive old warehouse close to the steelworks. We’ll be creating a world for the audience to explore, accompanied by an epic sound score created by Wojtek Rusin. It’ll be on from 15 September to 30 September.

Image by Jon Pountney.

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