When Tamara Harvey talks about Junkyard – the new musical from the prestigious pens of BAFTA-winning playwright Jack Thorne and Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck which runs at Theatr Clwyd until April 15th – she gets a little emotional.
A co-production between Theatr Clwyd, Bristol Old Vic, Headlong and Rose Theatre Kingston, Junkyard is an honest and witty coming-of-age story about friendship and standing up for what matters, and features a cast of bright young talented actors.
“I’m so proud of this piece, it slightly shakes me up,” admits Tamara, who recently celebrated her first year of programming at the Mold production house.
“Junkyard was one of the first plays I was sent when I got the job. I read it and fell in love with it. It’s like Goodbye Mr Chips but set in Bristol in the 1970s. It’s that inspirational teacher story but with a twist. Any story that has that ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ moment chokes us up because we’ve all had that inspirational teacher or leader.”
But Junkyard has a special place in Tamara’s heart because of the way she believes it will connect with audiences. “It wasn’t until I sat in the Bristol Old Vic for the opening that I realised it’s much simpler than that. There was a moment in the second half when I realised that, ultimately, I wanted to put it on because it’s about the kid who doesn’t fit in.” Tamara takes a brief moment to herself at this point, before adding: “It’s about being that kid who wears the wrong clothes or says the wrong things or has the wrong voice… and that was me! That’s at the heart of it. I wanted to put it on our stage because if one kid comes to see it and connects in that way, then that’s enough.”
Tamara’s connection to the human story at the heart of Junkyard is typical of how she sees all theatre. She is passionate and knowledgeable on the subject, and her first twelve months as Theatr Clwyd’s artistic director have seen an eclectic mix of modern and contemporary with traditional and classic.
The first production under her directorship was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in February 2016. At that time Tamara was about to have a baby so wanted a reliable season launch that she could trust.
“I love Tennessee Williams, he was an excellent writer, it was a known title so it would have some currency. In order to persuade people off their sofas you need to give them something they recognise and that might be a title, a playwright, an actor or a storyline.”
Clwyd’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had all those things, directed as it was by Robert Hastie, now artistic director at Sheffield Theatres, and starring Welsh actor Gareth-David Lloyd (known for Torchwood) and Catrin Stewart (Doctor Who). Tamara followed it up with the regional premiere of April De Angelis’s comedy Jumpy, an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac with a twist of Welsh poetry, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was the first play Tamara directed for Clwyd.
“If you look across that first season there were a few things I was trying to achieve. There will be people who didn’t see Jumpy as it was unknown to them, but they’d see things like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Much Ado About Nothing that they did know.”
One of the aims Tamara has worked towards at Theatr Clwyd is to make more theatre, not less, despite budgetary challenges.
“When I arrived at Theatr Clwyd, it had gone from making eight productions a year to six in the face of local funding cuts,” she explains. “One thing I committed to was that we’d go back up to eight. It was possible if we worked differently and it was absolutely vital because the moment we stop making work, we’re on a downward spiral to hell.” However, Tamara has exceeded even her own initial target. “This past year we’ll have done twelve productions, and next year we’ve committed to fourteen! That’s testament to the company here and to the staff who just said ‘yes, we can do this’.”
Theatr Clwyd is the largest producing theatre in Wales. Tamara calls it a factory, and she wants people to travel from far and wide to be part of the industry there.
“This is a place to come and make work. That’s been a large part of the last year, saying come here and play. There are things we have that are increasingly rare and important – we still have a workshop, we have a full wardrobe, a props maker and a scenic artist. We have these amazing craftspeople and we’ve fought really hard to hold on to those skills.”
Tamara sees Theatr Clwyd’s role as nurturing Welsh talent, but while her predecessor Terry Hands often met that responsibility by employing a more traditional repertory model, using the same pool of actors and technicians for most productions, Tamara’s angle is to throw open the doors to everybody.
“Part of our role in nurturing Welsh talent is about employing actors, writers, directors and designers who aren’t Welsh, so there’s that cross-pollination. Welsh artists need to work with artists from the rest of the UK and the world so that there’s a dialogue, an exchange of ideas and a burgeoning of talent. I think it’s vital that, as well as employing Welsh talent, we also bring talent in from elsewhere and have them go back and say: ‘Wow, working in Wales and at Theatr Clwyd is amazing!’, and getting the word out there.”
A positive off-shoot of Tamara’s belief in making as much theatre as possible, with as much talent as possible, is the rise in co-productions with other companies.
“Together we are greater than the sum of our parts. The joy in making work together is not just that it can make financial sense – sometimes it doesn’t cut costs due to distances travelled or the shared ambition – but we share ideas and widen our reach. Together, we know more artists and try more things.”
In 2016 this sharing of ambition and talent led to a collaboration with HighTide on Elinor Cook’s Pilgrims, and Paines Plough on Alan Harris’s Wales Theatre Award-nominated Love, Lies and Taxidermy. Theatr Clwyd was also proud to be a co-producer for the twentieth anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent.
“That was a big deal for Theatr Clwyd,” says Tamara. “It was extraordinary. It felt like a very, very risky piece of programming when we committed to it. It felt important to attract a younger audience to the theatre, but you don’t know if they will come until you do it. Thankfully, they did, and we had teenagers here in droves, waiting to get autographs. We had standing ovations every night. It felt like an important moment for us as a company, of being involved in a really seminal production.”
Rent’s twentieth anniversary production played at Mold for three weeks last autumn, before transferring to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Other Palace (St James Theatre) in London over Christmas and New Year, then embarking on a national tour, which ends in May. “And we made it here!” beams Tamara.
There are more exciting partnerships in Theatr Clwyd’s summer season, building on last year’s collaboration with Paines Plough to present no fewer than three world premieres in June and July.
Performed in Paines Plough’s pop-up, plug-and-play Roundabout Theatre in the grounds of Theatr Clwyd, the three new plays will be performed in repertory by the same cast of actors. Brad Birch’s Black Mountain is a tense, psychological thriller about betrayal and forgiveness; Out of Love by Elinor Cook depicts the tragic fracturing of a tight friendship; and Sarah McDonald-Hughes’ How to Be a Kid examines the impact of parental illness through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl.
“It’s a really lovely thing for us, a chance for our audience to experience a theatre space that isn’t in our building, and a chance for a different kind of play-making,” says Tamara.
But before the summer premieres, there’s still plenty of first nights lined up, including a “fiery and fun” production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which hopes to blow the cobwebs off the play’s somewhat fusty reputation and inject fresh life into it.
“We’ve got two exciting young talents behind it in director Richard Fitch and designer Lee Newman. We’re taking a classic text and giving it to young artists and getting something exciting. It’s in period, but they’ve cast it young. It is one of the most brilliant plays when done well, a perfectly crafted, absolutely hilarious piece of writing. The problem is that too often it’s made dull and stuck-in-the-mud. This is the not that version! Having said that, it’s not the rap version of The Importance of Being Earnest either!”
Also on Theatr Clwyd’s horizon is Scarlett, another world premiere, this time from Colette Kane and starring Shaun of the Dead’s Kate Ashfield; a new version of Chekhov’s comedy Uncle Vanya; Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice; and the theatre’s traditionally raucous rock ‘n’ roll panto, which this year is Sleeping Beauty. There’s something for everyone.
“My goal is to say ‘just come in’, even if you’re not comfortable seeing a show, just walk through the doors. Theatres can be such scary places, can’t they? What do you wear and how are you supposed to behave… there’s this row about whether we should be allowed to eat in theatres. It’s a really tricky one: we’ve all had moments where we sit in the theatre and someone is unwrapping a sweet and it disrupts our enjoyment. But we’ve got to stop putting barriers up to people thinking there are unspoken rules about how to behave.
“It should be the most natural thing in the world to gather together and hear stories. We’ve been doing that for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s what we do as human beings, and theatres should be as natural to us as breathing. A place where you come together to laugh and to cry, and to understand more about who you are as a human being.”
To find out more about Theatr Clwyd, see www.theatrclwyd.com