Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Avoiding the mistakes of the l97Os

GRAHAM LAKER discusses the "social ownership" of theatre space

We will inevitably look back on the 1990s as the decade when public funds for creating performance events shrank, while lottery grants made it possible, for the first time in a generation, to increase the stock and quality of performance venues. As more and more new, or improved, or refurbished arts centres come on stream, it is worthwhile looking back at the last period which saw a major expansion of theatre building in Wales. There may be lessons to be learnt.

Of the five theatres built for the Welsh touring circuit in the early 1970s, four were attached to universities or colleges: Theatr Gwynedd, below the Main Arts Building and adjacent to the Students' Union on Deiniol Road, Bangor; Theatr Ardudwy, adjoining coleg Harlech; Theatr Y Werin, in the middle of the university campus in Aberystwyth; and the Sherman Theatre, part of the new university development in Senghenydd Road, Cardiff. In due course, other new theatres were to follow the same pattern: Theatr Hafren on the site of Coleg Powys, and Theatr Taliesin on the univerisity campus at Swansea.

No doubt, this made economic and cultural sense at the time: in each case, the educational establishment made a substantial contribution to building costs, and joint arrangements were made between the institution and the Welsh Arts council to secure the theatre's annual running costs. It was a time when universities could still afford a role as local patrons of the Arts.

Today, we might well ask whether the establishment of this university-based circuit actually contributed anything to the long-term health of the performing arts in Wales. I'm not simply referring to the fact that, in every case, financial commitment on the part of the educational institutions towards the theatres has dwindled, and in some cases disappeared altogether, with inevitable consequences for their viability. No one could have anticipated the savage public spending squeeze in both Higher Education and the Arts in the 1980s. More significant was the failure of planners and stategists to recognize the importance of what we might call the "social ownership" of the performance space.

Who the theatre actually belongs to is of less significance than who is perceived to control the building. In this respect, all professionally-run theatres belong to the "producers" of the artistic event. It is the directors, managers, administrators, technicians and, to a lesser extent, the performers who hold the keys, and have access to all parts of the building. They control admission, determine the artisfic policy and programme, are responsible for maintenance, and organize the space(s). Members of the public (the audience) are therefore the "strangers", the visitors who, on payment of a fee, are allowed, at specific times of the day, limited access to certain parts of the building (e.g foyer, bar, auditorium).

This is all self-evident, of course, and true of any theatre, whether it be the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane or Theatr Y Werin, Aberystwyth. However, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theatres tended to be built in socio-centric areas - those parts of the town where the community as a whole lives, works, shops and socializes. And, for all their architectural and decorative strangeness, they have gained a degree of "community ownership" as well-known (well-loved?) civic landmarks.

University campuses, on the other hand, tend to be "socio-petal" areas, particularly in the evenings when most performances take place, and are certainy not "social centres" for the majority of the community. So, the decision to site the Welsh theatres on them created an additional "threshold" which audiences have to negotiate. In Bangor, they have to cross Deiniol Road from the "socializing" side of the city to the university sector; in Aberystwyth, they have to drive through the Penglais campus and park in the Visitor's car- park (sic) before entering the Arts centre. It is difficult enough nowadays for any theatre to maintain or establish itself as an essential component of the social fabric of a community, and it is not helped when the siting of the building appears to erect small but significant pyschological barriers. Only Clwyd Theatr Cymru, built, if any thing, on an even more socio-petal site in the middle of a a local government complex, has succeeded in regularly drawing large audiences, and then only by attracting middle-class English theatre-goers from Cheshire and the Wirral who would claim to have a natural "cultural ownership" of the dramatic product that the theatre chooses to offer.

This may all seem a bit esoteric, and certainly more research needs to be done on how audiences perceive and respond to different performance contexts, but it is interesting, by way of contrast, to look at the "social ownership" of the community venues - school halls, sports centres, village halls and the like - which is where most of our small- scale touring companies perform their work. For here, it is the producers of the arts event, the performers and technicians, who are the "strangers", the visitors who are granted limited access to the space. In all probability, it will be the community, or its representatives, who will be in charge of the building, control admission, sell tickets and organize publicity. A feeling of community or social ownership will be enhanced because the space is likely to be multi-purpose: at other times it will be used for badminton, five-a- side football, wedding receptions, meetings of local societies and youth clubs, blood donor sessions, and as a polling station. The space will be familiar, socio-centric, and, in most cases of course, within easy walking distance.

For someone who has spent some years trying, with limited success, to encourage audiences to attend Welsh-language productions at Theatr Y Werin and the Sherman, it is a thought-provoking experience to see productions by community companies such as Bara Caws in Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle, Penygroes, or Neuadd Talybont. Frequently, these venues are full of spectators who rarely, if ever, attend the university theatres. And it is not usually because the product on offer is so very different from what a main-stream company provides; it is much more to do with the audience's feeling of ownership of the performance event. Historically, there is, of course, a continuity here: theatre in Wales did not originate as a professional structure, but as a local, amateur and community initative.

We will, probably, avoid some of the mistakes of the 1970s this time around: lottery money will not be used, on a large scale, to build brand-new performance spaces on socio-petal sites. At present, grants are mostly being provided to adapt and improve existing community facilities. But there is a danger in transforming a multi-purpose, "low- tech" space into a dedicated performance venue. It may be that, once finished, it cannot be used for non-performance activities. The youth clubs and the five-a-side football teams will have to go elsewhere. The space may no longer be appropriate for blood donor sessions and "bring and buy" sales. Expensive "hi-tech" hardware may have been installed which means that access has to be rigorously controlled. In order to subsidise staff costs, it may be necessary to increase charges for the use of the space by local societies, and so on. Gradually, "social ownership" will shift from the community as a whole to professional administrators who will manage the space and programme activities according to an agenda which may have little to do with local need. In other words, we might be in the process of creating performance venues which will erect the same sort of barriers as the university theatres, and actually alienate or disenfranchise substantial sections of the community. In due course, and it may be happening already, we will see that small-scale touring companies will continue to use the local, unimproved, multi-purpose school or community hall, even if there is a spanking new, fully equipped and professionally staffed performance space next door.

As a footnote, I need to acknowledge a third sort of performance space which is "owned" by neither the community nor the practioners, but where both constituencies can meet, not so much on neutral ground, but where a sort of shared ownership can be established. The tradition of performing in autonomous spaces (i.e. presenting work in sites which radically disrupt expected relationships between performers, spectators and "venue", and sometimes dissolve the distinctions altogether) is well established in Wales. Brith Gof has led the way in exploring site-specific performance and the use of temporary staging units, setup in non- theatrical sites. As Mike Pearson argues in his article in Staging Wales, this movement connects with a history of community performance that predates the amateur stage in Wales, and looks back to the tradition of the earliest eisteddfodau, the camanfa ganu, and the strike meeting. It would be tragic if exploration and development in this area were curtailed in the rush to establish more and more "high-tech", professionally managed arts centres.

author:Graham Laker

original source: New Welsh Review #39, Winter 1997/98
01 November 1997


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