Old Citizen (1973 – 1979) Jonathan Meth – theatre maker and network curator


06 June 2019
Drama and disability are common threads in the multifarious roles Old Citizen Jonathan Meth embraces in addition to his work as Associate Lecturer, MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

For the last 15 years he has been Curator of The Fence, an international network of playwrights. For the last four, Project Dramaturg of Crossing the Line, a partnership between theatre companies in Sweden, France and the UK - leaders in the field of working with learning disabled actors. For the last five, he has been an Expert Advisor to Ambitious about Autism, a national charity for children and young people with autism.

Jonathan’s passion for theatre began while he was a student at City of London School. “The fact that we had access to the Tuck Shop Theatre space meant that we had an experimental theatre laboratory,” he said. “Acting in School Plays, such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It and the 60s Society Plays where I could try my hand at directing, and our teachers - Peter Coulson, Alan Hurst, and Jonathan Keates – who were both enabling and encouraging.

“I also had a peer network of fantastic talent. Forty years later I’m working with playwright Yves Baigneres and playwright, director, theatre maker and fellow Goldsmiths lecturer Danny Braverman. Both of them were in New 2A with me at School.

“At the same time as directing fellow students Simon Liebesny and John Reynolds in Huis Clos (Sartre) during my Oxbridge Term, I also worked with fellow student Leopold G. Wurm to make a short film documentary on the National Autistic Society centre for children in Radlett, Hertfordshire. This was our pitch for the following year’s school charity and was to inform a future chapter of my life.”

Jonathan left School in 1979 to go to the University of East Anglia on the recommendation of David Dyke, a teacher at School, where he read English and American Literature with Drama. “I either acted, directed or produced every term there,” said Jonathan, “and went to the National Student Drama Festival as director with my production of Comedians, (Griffiths) and the Edinburgh Fringe with my production of When We Dead Awaken (Ibsen).”

His first job after university was as a teacher of English, Drama and General Studies at King’s School, Worcester. This was followed by a succession of roles with organisations in the creative industries and a Postgraduate Diploma in Theatre Direction from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Jonathan’s interest in disability came from his experience having a physically disabled father and a learning disabled and autistic son.

“My son’s Godmother is Jenny Sealey OBE, Artistic Director of the UK’s leading theatre company with people who are physically or sensorally disabled,” he said. “Over ten years, (1998-2008) from around the time of my son’s birth, I worked on five projects with her to develop disabled playwrights and embed playwright development within that company.

I became a parent trustee of Ambitious About Autism (AaA) in 2006, for the next seven years.”

Ambitious about Autism provides services, raises awareness and understanding, and campaigns for change. Through TreeHouse School, The Rise School and Ambitious College they offer specialist education and support to children and young people with autism and their families. “The ambition is to make the ordinary possible for more children and young people with autism,” said Jonathan.

“As Parent/Trustee at Ambitious about Autism, 2006-2013, I sat on the Impact Committee, the Youth Council and the Post-19 Working Group. I have given evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee and spoken about the need for reverse inclusion in mainstream schools, freedom of choice for parents to pursue a child-centred option for their education and the importance of properly maintained statements of educational need (now morphed into Education & Healthcare Plans EHCPs).”

Ambitious About Autism continues to grow, 20 years on from the four sets of founding parents who first came together to share resources in the education of their primary school children, in portakabins on Thomas Coram’s land off Mecklenburgh Square.  “The need continues to grow – and with it the ambition to meet that need,” added Jonathan.

In 2011 he was asked by Ambassadors Theatre Group and the Society of London Theatre to work with them on a steering group to investigate how theatre might respond better to autistic audience members.

“I co-Chaired the first Theatre and Autism Industry day at The Unicorn in October that year. Then in 2012 I was invited to the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC as one of 50 global thought leaders in theatre and disability. I had already decided I wanted to combine the knowledge I had gained from AaA with my theatre practice, so I looked across those gathered to find the three companies who later formed the Crossing The Line partnership. I suggested we all had a cup of coffee…”

Crossing The Line (CTL) is a partnership of European theatre companies in six countries. All are leaders in the field of working with learning disabled artists. Artistically led, they are committed to meeting the challenges of producing and touring theatre made by learning disabled and non-disabled theatre makers.

Jonathan said: “The first CTL project, thanks to EU Creative Europe funding,  enabled three of these companies (Moomsteatern in Malmo, Sweden; Compagnie de L’Oiseau Mouche in Roubaix, France and Mind The Gap in Bradford, UK) to bring their artists together to learn from and with each other; to engage with creative and audience development processes; to develop connections with a wider network of European theatre companies with a focus on learning disabled artists; and to create three new productions – culminating in a showcase festival in Roubaix in January 2017.” 

Crossing The Line (pictured right in Bradford) feeds into staff teaching and student learning at Goldsmiths College’s cross-departmental Disability Research Centre and the theatre and disability focus in the College’s Theatre and Performance Department.

Commenting on the challenges facing the project, Jonathan said: “Crossing The Line has just secured EU Erasmus+ funding to further develop the work begun by the British, French and Swedish companies. The partnership will need to continue to access EU support if it is to grow and sustain itself beyond 2021. With Swedish and French lead partners, this will only marginally be affected by Brexit.”

Another innovative collaboration in which Jonathan is involved, is The Fence network. Initially a UK collaboration between Writernet, The British Council and Creative Renewal, in association with the international network for contemporary performing arts, (IETM), the Fence was launched with an international writers’ retreat in John Osborne’s old house at The Hurst in Shropshire in October 2003. It continued as a Meeting Group at the IETM in Birmingham exploring the practice of contemporary dramatic writing in many culturally diverse European contexts.

“The network exists as a space to think, to be and to do. It aims to open up routes to work opportunities for playwrights seeking to extend their work beyond their own national and infrastructural boundaries. The founding aim was to create a network that was based primarily on relationships, rather than scripts and translations, that would enable people to come together and work out for themselves what they wanted to do.”

Jonathan’s role as curator is to “gently persuade people that they want to host meetings, fomenting then delivering collaborative projects and building partnerships to make stuff happen.”

Today, The Fence network has grown from an initial 25 people to 250 across 50 countries.

“It is an unusual model in that it doesn’t operate as an institution and has no ambitions to become one. Nor is it a conventional membership organisation – there is no fee, and membership is through recommendation from existing members. Our project is each other, so we operate as a form of community of playwrights and theatre makers. People value the informality highly. In this way, we are quite robust and relatively easy to sustain as we do not depend on funding. To mitigate the uncertainties of Brexit, we are now formally based in Stockholm.”

When asked which of his myriad skills and experiences he enjoys the most, Jonathan said: “Much has been written about Isaiah Berlin’s essay in his introduction to his book on Tolstoy, where he characterises the fox and the hedgehog thus: Hedgehogs, he said, have just one, powerful response to a threat: they roll themselves into a ball, presenting spikes to predators (and to cars.) They ‘know just one big thing’. Foxes, by contrast, have no single response to challenges, for they ‘know many little things’. They react to challenge by drawing on a pattern of general, pragmatic understanding, often making mistakes but seldom committing themselves to a potentially catastrophic grand strategy.

As the son of a refugee, you could argue that grand strategies need to be tempered with patterns of general, pragmatic understanding in order to mitigate potential catastrophe. Alternatively, I may just get bored rather easily with one thing…”

For the 100 or so students on Jonathan’s MA course, from many different countries across the world, with expertise and interest in all artforms in many different settings, “these projects represent a little bit of hedgehoggery, within the overall general foxiness which this fantastic diversity requires….”

Jonathan is currently also working as dramaturg on three plays by three different playwrights. He has just pitched an adaptation of a novella to a new film company “which is hopefully getting the money together in New York as we speak,” and he’s also directing for the first time in 25 years.