Theatre in Wales

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

Who's Paying for All This: the Cost of Welsh Theat

Ruth Shade reviews the history of Welsh Arts Council funding of theatre in Wales

During 1996-97, the Arts Council of Wales has been engaged in a review and re-structuring exercise. But no matter how many reports, consultation papers, and discussion documents ACW produces, as long as it continues to function within its current, and historical, conceptual framework, it will find it difficult to encourage a theatre practice capable of connecting with lived experiences in Wales.

This essay is an attempt to place theatre practice within an economic framework. It is my contention that the Arts Council's practised defence of its policies, i.e. that it would do so much more if only it had the money, is an evasion. In fact, the Arts Council has done a great deal to construct theatre practice as we know it. In particular, the Arts Council's role has been critical to the establishment of inappropriate power relationships. In what follows, I am going to investigate those relationships and try to show how a particular mode of thinking has defined English-language theatre practice in Wales.

The arts receive 0.4% of total government spending , and this includes the total grant given to the Department of National Heritage as well as local authority spending. However, despite this relatively insignificant figure, the Arts Council owns immense power within the field of theatre practice and, as Raymond Williams argues, "because (the Arts Council) is there, it is where the argument has to start." I want to argue that the Arts Council functions as a panoptic, or disciplinary, body, and it is this panopticism which provides the conditions for hegemony, or cultural domination.

Although ACW attained independence from ACGB in 1994, the thinking underpinning its decisions about funding theatre has not noticeably altered to reflect a new spirit of difference. Indeed, its policies suggest that ACW has some way to go before a 'decolonising of the mind' might be discerned. Panopticism creates a regime of truth, and we need to consider how the Arts Council of Wales promotes an archive of rules, which has the effect of privileging some voices over others in theatre, to the detriment of its own independent practice.

The Panopticon was originally designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century as a response to the problem of keeping hospital and prison inmates under surveillance for their well-being and protection. It was an architectural device which took the form of an observation tower, with windows on all sides, which faced onto a circle,.of cells, each of which had a window facing onto the tower and another facing the outside. Thus, a single guard could keep the occupants of the cells under surveillance at all times.

Michel Foucault's explanation for panopticism suggests that, "daylight and the overseer's gaze capture the inmate more effectively than darkness, which afforded 2 —enhancing the means by which inmates could be protected from themselves. Moreover, Foucault does not see the system as being exclusively repressive, since he accepts the possibility of "revolts against the gaze" and of counter-powers being exercised. The Arts Council may be viewed as a panoptic structure because its modus operandi is 'disciplinary'. Dicipline offers the Arts Council a means by which it can "reinforce" and "reorganise" its "internal mechanisms of power"; it "regulates movements..(and) dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways".

The Arts Council was established, like the Panopticon, for ostensibly utopian purposes. It was founded after the war but its framework was essentially that of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). Its aims may be seen as laudable and altruistic, for until this point the theatre was unregulated, in the sense that it was not subsidised by government money. Actors were still, for the most part, little more than the 'rogues and vagabonds' that they had been in the fourteenth century and, as such, could be seen to be wandering about the country in unpredictable ways.

CEMA was, then, a radical move towards organisation and regularisation, arguably the most major historical shift towards a national, cultural policy the UK has seen. What it did was to recognise the arts as disciplines. However, as Foucault has noted, "the disciplines characterize, classify, and specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate." The shift towards a systematised approach to the funding of the arts, while procuring a situation where the arts could, for the first time, be formally recognised through government sposorship, made the arts more vulnerable to 'discipline' in the form of 'normalisation' and categorisation.

From the outset, it was recognised that there would always be too many calls on the limited supply of money and, consequently, there was always the need to disqualify and invalidate. The important questions in relation to panopticism and the arts relate to the means by which disqualification and invalidation have been exercised, for "At the heart of all disciplinary systems functions a small penal mechanism."

The history of the Arts Council is the history of cultural policy in the context of government subsidy and, as such, evokes Foucault's description of panopticism as: the "uninterrupted play of calculated gazes". In order to make decisions about who receives public subsidy, the Arts Council has developed a system of surveillance, in effect a 'gaze', which ensures that arts organisations are "always to be seen"; and it is this state of visibility which "maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.'1 However, the concept of visibility works in the interests of the Arts Council.

For example, as this extract from a document relating to the Welsh Committee in 1965 shows, what happens in Arts Council committees is secret: Members should treat as strictly confidential all matters discussed...no statements should be made to the press (by Council, committee or panel members) without prior approval of the appropriate chairman. This ensures that, whilst the activities of the occupants of the Panopticon's cells (or, for the purposes of this investigation, theatre companies) are made universally visible, the deliberations of the Arts Council, or watchtower, remain invisible when it suits the Arts Council for them to be so.

Performing arts organisations have been ideal subjects of panopticism because the content of what they do is, by definition, visible. The problem is the extent to which they have colluded with the demands of the Arts Council to become self- disciplining, trained bodies. Like the inmates of Foucault's Panopticon, the performer "does not know whether the supervisor is there or not so he behaves as though he were under constant surveillance from the gaze." In this way, the performer/performance is not produced exclusively by the creative process, but rather by the effects of power through 'discipline'; as Foucault argues, "power produces... reality..(and)...domains of objects and rituals of truth."

It is worth examining the last CEMA Report (1944-1945) for evidence of the way in which, even by this early stage, the 6 on}council was using the terminology of panopticism, because it suggests how the relationship between reform, surveillance and the penal mechanism functions. Appendix D is entitled "Theatre Companies: Conditions (my emphasis) of association with CEMA". This might be read as the "penal mechanism" at work. Theatre companies have to subscribe to the Council's ideals before they can be eligible for sponsorship. These ideals include: "the hiqhest possible standards in the arts"; "all that is best in the theatre; and "work done in the interests of national service" (my emphases).

In return for endorsing these ideals, the theatre company will find that "an assessor appointed by the Council has the right to be present at all meetings of directors or other managing bodies." Furthermore, "The Council shall retain the right to withhold support from any production of which it shall signify its disapproval." The 'gaze' of the Council was in place; theatre companies were being trained and disciplined, observed, examined, and supervised.

Theatre forms were being hierarchised and differentiated. By 1945, a panoptic structure for the surveillance of the performing arts had already been established, and the Arts Council had not yet emerged. The crucial stage in the development of the Arts Council's panoptic power structure might be said to correlate with the decision of Lord Keynes (John Maynard - economist and first Chair of the Arts Council) that CEMA advisory panels should be deprived of their executive capacity. His construction of the power nexus brought with it the distinction between those who could vote, and therefore had direct power, and those who could advise: 'advice' being a much more ambiguous form of power.

This procedure was, inextricably, related to the fact that executive power came to rest in the hands of appointed functionaries, rather than in an elected corpus; and the complexion of the appointed was that of the upper-classes and the bourgeoisie, who were fundamental to the Arts Council mechanism which has engendered social hegemony. An effect of this structure on theatre practice in Wales can be seen in the expression of ideologically produced notions of quality and aspiration, as exemplified by the testimony of WAC Chairman Sir Hywel Evans.

In 1983, during the House of Commons inquiry into the Welsh Arts Council, he observed that: In 1953...the only places where you could get some real theatre in Wales were the New Theatre in Cardiff and the Grand in Swansea...Today, you can see high quality theatre in Mold. Bangor. .Harlech. .Milford Haven. .Newtown. .I would not say it was perfect theatre but. .of perfectly good quality. This endorsement of the Arts Council project reveals the extent to which its values were incorporated by WAC. There is an unequivocal definition of 'real' (high quality) theatre as being positioned within the context of traditional theatre buildings, and there is also the implication that Wales is somehow incomplete in its cultural practices because it does not produce 'perfect' theatre.

What this perfection might resemble is, in itself, problematic. The nature of panoptic control might have been expected to change when the ACGB disbanded to create an 'independent' Arts Council of Wales in 1994. However, it is noticeable that the Welsh Office Report, in detailing its conceptual framework for the arts, when it took over responsibility for funding the arts in Wales, retains the disciplinary language of the ACGB: its purpose, then, is to "encourage artistic excellence" (my emphasis). The ACW's dilemma is that it wants to be seen to be developing indigenous theatrical forms.

But its espousal of the ACGB concept of 'excellence' suggests the possibility of an unworkable tension between strategies adopted to ensure (Keynsian) excellence, and measures appropriate to developing indigenous (community) theatre practices, which may not conform with Keynsian artistic values.

Evidence for the case that the Arts Council of Wales perpetuates English Arts Council thinking can be found in WAC's Blueprint for the Nineties (1993), which identifies its priorities as:-
1. support for the arts of the past;
2. increased access to the arts;
3. improvement of arts education;
4. up-grading of arts buildings;
5. enhancement of Wales's international standing in the arts;
6. increase of investment in the arts from a wide range of agencies.

This is directly comparable with ACGB's various statements of its objectives for the 1990s:-
1. promotion of the arts of the past ;
2. access ;
3. the increase of audiences through education ;
4. the need to "commission new buildings to the highest standards" ;
5. the importance of international exchange;
6. the growth in the arts economy .

The ACGB's statements are taken from a range of sources and it is not suggested that ACGB handed WAC a set of imperatives.

However, whilst WAC may have perceived itself as autonomous, its adoption of the conceptual framework within which ACGB operated indicates that the Welsh organisation made "effective self- identification with (English) hegemonic forms", and was unable to distinguish itself from ACGB in any meaningful way. This is further substantiated by the content of ACW's Corporate Plan 1997-2000, published in November 1996.

Despite some shifts in emphasis, many of ACW's priorities are extensions of the Blueprint. For example, support for the arts of the past seems to have been modified to a policy of developing audiences for mainstream theatre across Wales, although those who are familiar with mainstream work in Wales, may think this amounts to the same thing. Taken as a whole, the new Corporate Plan re-iterates ACW's commitment to increasing access; the development of arts education; the up-grading of arts buildings, through Lottery funding ; enhancing the activity of Welsh artists abroad; and increased investment in the arts, by making arts organisations more aware of opportunities for private fund raising

The manifesto for ACW makes interesting reading when compared with the Arts Council of England's Policy for Drama, published in October 1996. The two are virtually identical in terms of their thinking. England also focuses on the mainstream, on increasing access, education and participation, the importance of the Lottery to improving building standards, on international work, and on increasing private sector sponsorship. The marked similarities between the two documents suggest that Wales continues to be unable to de-colonise its thought processes about theatre practice.

The stated priorities in The Blueprint for the Nineties, and those evinced in the new Corporate Plan, are crucial to the production of Welsh theatre practice, as can be seen from the evidence of financial distribution. Between 1991 and 1995, the largest single category of subvention in Wales has been given to mainstream companies working with their own buildings, and with the single-authored texts of playwrights.

Moreover, if the funding of theatre writing is investigated, it can be seen that Wales not only equals England but, in some years (for example, from 1991-1994), provides more subsidy for the text than does England. In 1995-1996, ACW indicated its intentions about theatre writing through a 57.2% increase in funding over the previous year. Perhaps we should understand this figure in the context of the 1997-2000 Corporate Plan which includes a policy of increasing the profile of new and recent plays by Welsh playwrights.

In 1991 and 1992, the category of Developmental theatre, which has been particularly useful to WAC's international profile, received 21.5% of the Drama budget. This can be compared with the figures for 1973-74 when "Experimental" theatre represented just 2% of the budget. After the inception of the independent Arts Council of Wales in 1994, 38% of Annual Revenue funding went to Developmental companies.

We must assume that the notion of development has itself been re-developed because this discrete term has been replaced by, in the main, the category of Production Companies who specialise in either English or Welsh language work. It remains to be seen whether the work of the former 'developmental' companies will change in response to their re-positioning. Equally, it is possible that the complexion of Hi-Jinx will alter in its new context as a Production Company, rather than a TiE/Community touring company.

If there is any doubt that the way in which a theatre company is categorised has any bearing on its functioning, it would be apposite to consider the experience of Moving Being. Gwyn Alf Williams included a tribute to the importance of the company in his book When Was Wales?, and at the beginning of the 1990s, WAC acknowledged the significance of Moving Being by giving it the largest single sum in the category of Development Production Companies

However, by the mid-1990s, the company had disappeared from all of the main Drama funding categories. In 1995-96, Moving Being was once again included in ACW's accounts, but was now funded at only 4.9% of its 1991-92 level. Therefore, the company might not produce the kind of work which inspired a "shock of recognition" in Gwyn Alf Williams: eight thousand pounds would be barely enough to produce one twig, let alone the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

If we consider funding proportions, it is possible to see how, irrespective of the meagreness of global totals, a theatre practice can be substantiated through funding priorities. ACW tends to use the example of TiE/Community touring companies as evidence of a differentiated, and indigenous theatre practice. Wales, unlike England, enjoys the provision of a TiE/Community theatre company for every region.

But twenty five years ago, Wales did not have TiE companies at all. This apparently 'indigenous' practice has been constructed through the way in which funding percentages are apportioned. Notwithstanding the fact that the nomenclature has changed to exclude the term community' as a category of funding (previously included with TiE), in 1995-96 TiE received an increase in subvention of 35.5% over the 1993-94 levels of subsidy. Public subsidy has shaped a centralised reality, as can be 13 ng.Aseen in the gulf between the lived experience and aesthetic expression, as well as in the demographics of theatre production in Wales. 50% of ACW subsidised theatre companies are based in Cardiff.

This metropolitan, centrist, bias can be compared with that of ACGB where, in 1993, 66.6% of Three Year Franchise Touring funding was given to London-based theatre companies. A more detailed analysis of the global sums devoted by ACW to Drama between 1991 and 1995 reveals that there is a substantial differential between the amounts of money devoted to theatre in Cardiff than, for example, in Mid-Glamorgan. In terms of population, twelve pence per head of the total subvention for Drama in Wales is spent on subsidised theatre annually in Mid-Glamorgan, whereas in Cardiff, £3.87 pence per head is spent. (A strict equitable distribution based on population in Wales, would produce spending on theatre at £1.04 per head.)

Given that centralisation is a function of hegemony, the significant imbalance in funding suggests that ACW is perpetuating ACE's methodology of developing 'centres' of excellence, irrespective of whether Wales is a country in which this approach might be useful. There is also a difficulty with the notion of 'touring' theatre. It is often assumed that, since it is peripatetic, it matters little where this category of theatre has been developed. However, this idea needs to be problematised because it underestimates the difference between preparing a production for an amorphous audience, and developing a production with a designated audience.

The panoptic power of the Arts Council lies in its ability to produce cultural policy not merely through the sums of money it makes available, but also through its dissemination of the articles of faith to which it subscribes. To an extent, its success can be measured by its capacity to 'discipline' and 'train' the body cultural; to believe that Arts Council priorities are in the best interests of all its clients.

However, as can be seen from the statistics, ACW's current policies can hardly be said to serve the interests of Mid-Glamorgan, at least. The paradox in the relationship between English and Welsh arts practices is that, at the very beginning of the development of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), during the Second World War, Wales had an opportunity to influence the whole structure of arts policy in the UK.

Andrew Sinclair, in his history of the Arts Council, asserts that the establishment of CEMA, the precursor to the Arts Council of Great Britain, was "due to Welsh inspiration and English administration". Sinclair suggests that CEMA was the idea of Welshman Dr Thomas Jones, who favoured populism over elitism, a point which is confirmed by Robert Hewison in Culture and Consensus, his book on the Arts Council. Hewison concludes that, "Dr Jones.. .saw (CEMA's) work as an extension of the 'social service' of pre-war Pilgrim Trust activities".

According to Sinclair, CEMA was, initially, run and staffed by Welshmen, but because they had influence over the arts, as a whole they did not envisage the need to ensure that Wales was developing its own distinctive and self-determining practice. However, Jones's interest in cultural democracy was replaced by Keynes's insistence on the pursuit of excellence. After the war, individuals like Huw Wheldon, who became the Arts Council Officer for Wales, followed Keynes's lead in focusing on the professionalisation of the arts.

In a sense, Wheldon functioned as a fifth columnist in his support of the ideas of Keynes and R.A. Butler, who wanted to "change the vision of the early Welsh pioneers". That "vision" was popular and socialist in character, in keeping with the lived experience of much of Wales. But ideological perspectives coming from outside Wales have dominated policy making in the arts to effect an English, liberal cultural practice that is at variance with local conditions.

Nonetheless, it could not have been possible for this to happen without the collusory thinking of the Welsh themselves. There has to be some mechanism which enables the thinking of Dr Thomas Jones to be superceded by the Keynsian ethos, and this might be found in the ~ shape of another Welshman, William Emrys Williams. W.E. Williams's career was, originally, advanced by Dr Jones. In the 1930s, he promoted "Art for the People", funded by Jones, and he was present at the meeting which 'invented' CEMA. Indeed, Hewison argues that Williams's philosophy of the arts was "part of the demonology of the right".

Crucially, Williams was on poor terms with Keynes, who decimated the funding of "Art for the People". But Hewison indicates how Williams, despite a modest background, came to be "one of the most powerful cultural mandarins in the country", for he was Secretary General of the Arts Council from 1951 to 1963. However inconvenient it may be to recognise this, it is the case that the policies of quality, professionalisation and centralisation, which have been so damaging to a distinctively Welsh arts practice, were manipulated by a Welshman, albeit one born in Manchester.

Williams shows how far he had moved away from popular theatre formations when he muses in 1952: might it not be better to accept the realistic fact that the living theatre of good quality cannot be widely accessible and to concentrate our resources upon establishing a few more shrines like Stratford... Both Robert Hewison and Andrew Sinclair, in their major books on the Arts Council, detail Williams's autocratic tenure, during which the Arts Council established its articles of faith connected with quality and high values; and it was this policy which encouraged Wales into developing an arts practice inconsistent with the lived experience.

Moreover, under Williams's Secretary Generalship, Wales did not even achieve its own 'shrine', but rather languished under the twin burdens of 'inadequate' professional; standards and an absence of shrine- worthy venues. It might be argued in Williams's favour that he had very small sums of money with which to work, and was co-erced into a strategy of 'raising' rather than 'spreading'. But this defence is strained in the knowledge that Dr Thomas Jones, when faced with CEMA's drift away from amateur traditions, and with it Keynes's insistence on excellence, withdrew all Pilgrim Trust funding from CEMA.

The significance of this is that one Welshman, in attempting to hold on to the integrity of cultural democracy, actually handed CEMA/the Arts Council over to central government patronage, thus (within ten years) enabling another Welshman to promote cultural elitism. After Keynes's death, it was Williams who enacted the Keynsian philosophy of the arts. What this demonstrates is that professionalisation and a particular notion of 'high' standards were not inevitable, but rather the consequence of one set of imperatives being followed and not another.

Thus far, the argument has been to suggest that the Arts Council is a kind of 'watchtower' observing, training, controlling and disciplining theatre practitioners; in consequence, theatres/practitioners have become self-disciplining to produce the kinds of theatre the Arts Council encourages. But this situation could also be understood as hegemonic: as Raymond Williams argues, "the true condition of hegemony is effective self-identification with the hegemonic forms".The use of the term hegemony is usually seen in the context of Marxian/Gramscian thinking, which is more overtly economistic in character than is Foucault's analysis of the Panopticon.

However, the concept of hegemony sheds light on the way in which the recipient of arts practices, the potential audience, experiences a dominant culture; whilst the notion of panopticism illuminates the way in which power structures operate to produce self-disciplining practices. This is not to say that the Arts Council made a deliberate and conscious choice of adopting a panoptic framework.

On the contrary, the argument is that the Arts Council was (and is) a utopian project designed to liberate cultural practices from the very real constraints of material poverty. In theory, its ambitions were, and are, egalitarian. But the tensions between the, ultimately very different, philosophies of two Welshmen, Dr Thomas Jones and William Emrys Williams, exemplify the difficulties of achieving egalitarianism in practice. There is no guarantee, of course, that had Dr Jones's ethos become the conceptual framework of the Arts Council it would have been any less panoptic.

Panopticism is an adjunct of organisational structuring and is, in this case, a direct consequence of inadequate funding levels: there is an intimate relationship between power and materialism. Both panopticism and hegemony are functions of having money. But whereas panopticism develops out of a perception of the world as a chaos which can only benefit from an imposed structure, hegemony manifests itself through definitions of reality. The permeation of the Arts Council's panoptic gaze can be detected in the outcomes of the relationship between the Arts Council of Wales and the former ACGB: WAC/ACW has identified with an external methodology for systematising cultural practices, and accomodates what is, in effect, cultural intervention. But it does so believing that this is in its own best interests.

Thus, in the late 1960s WAC assimilates the language of ACGB and perceives itself as having an 'uneven' tradition and a lack of 'good size' professional touring companies. It follows England's lead in siting theatres in 'important centres': in Cardiff and Bangor, for example. Most significantly for Wales, the Arts Council has been responsible for defining who holds executive power, and for appointing those individuals who influence the decision-making process. But panopticism does not, in itself, discriminate between the English and the Welsh.

Its outcomes are distributed across a cultural continuum, and can be discerned in who sees theatre, where they see it, whom and what they see, and the way in which theatre companies work. It creates the hierarchy of space which privileges the Royal National Theatre over a village hall, and London over, for example, Rhondda. It encourages performers to believe that success is synonymous with, say, a season at the RSC. The aesthetic expands or contracts to fill the spaces offered by venues, and constructs definitions of small, mid and large-scale touring.

Performance practice is constrained by the conditions of funding because accountability (visibility) involves submitting to a system of surveillance (appraisal). It is in this way that the Arts Council shapes the imaginative world of the nation. Whilst this construction of theatre practice may be observed throughout the UK, it does, however, have a greater discriminatory impact on Wales than on England. In terms of subsidy, power is centralised in the hands of the Arts Councils, producing an unequal relationship between Wales and England. In terms of the relative sizes of the population, this is inherently the case. A focus on funding in relation to population enables England to be perceived as the dominant partner, in the sense that Wales can be viewed as a region rather than a nation: that is in terms of having only 4.9% of the total population of the UK, rather than comprising 25% of the UK's national make-up.

There is, then, a potential for centralist cultural hegemony which theatre reflects. An analysis of total spending on Drama appears to suggest that Wales is heavily over-subsidised, in comparison with England. In 1994-1995, ACE spent the equivalent of £0.55 per head of population on Drama, while ACW spent £1.04. However, a different picture emerges when the number of theatre companies per head of population is examined. In England, there is approximately one theatre company for every 68 thousand people, whereas in Wales, there is around one theatre company for every 85 thousand people.

It is clear that an understanding of subvention produces a complex reading, and total revenue sums do not allow for a complete analysis of the relationship between England and Wales. Despite the seemingly generous subsidy, Wales is still less well-served than is England. The main reason for this lies in the effects of categorisation. In order to be seen to distribute subvention fairly, the Arts Council developed a system of categories, or disciplines. But these have been responsible for excluding dramatic forms which fail to conform, and it is the exclusions which have defined Wales as a nation without theatre traditions.

Therefore, in Arts Council terms, Wales has been a 'void'. Consequently, global totals of public subsidy have been used to compensate for the perceived lack of a theatre practice instead of enhancing the practices which might, under a different system of categorisation, have suggested themselves as worthy of funding. And it is those other theatre practices which are particularly reflective of the lived experience in Wales

In 1959, the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council asserted that "there is a strong native tradition of drama, but virtually no professional theatre". If this is compared with ACW's recent statement, from the 1996 Consultation Paper on Mid-scale Drama, that "Wales has developed a professional theatre which is a source of pride", it is possible to see how the (English) panoptic strategy of categorisation created a professional practice at the expense of an indigenous (Welsh) tradition. The major problematic in all of this concerns the question of ownership

The model of the Panopticon does not admit a single point of power, and the system of relationships it develops are complicated by an occluded power structure. Given the demands made of theatre companies by the Arts Council, it is difficult for companies and audiences to 'own' the means of production. Theatre companies are not able to produce their aesthetic environments, but are impelled to act within the aesthetic environment created by Arts Council funding policies.

The Marxist notion of the means of production includes consideration of labour power; the development of machinery; changes in the labour process; new sources of energy; the education of the proletariat; and geographical space. Each of these factors can influence the relations of production; that is the relationship between those who own the means of production and those who own only their own labour power. The difficulty here is in discerning who has real control over theatre practice. The problem of applying this industrial model to theatre is that the organisation of theatre is more diffuse than that of a factory.

The labour power structure of theatre would tend to involve a series of indirect relationships with both 'management' groupings and production agencies. Indeed, a major obstacle in investigating theatre practice is that the whole notion of 'ownership' is vexed. However, consideration of the means of production in theatre might include reference to the following:- space; the 'text'; lighting and sound technology; design artefacts (settings, properties, and costumes); access to sources of power, e.g. electricity and water; salary scales; the status of performers, i.e. whether they are permanent or temporary; access to publicity machinery (the printing of programmes, photography, information packages); the range of jobs available within a company; and access to funding.

Of these, funding is the most significant factor because the other elements are conditional upon it. The relations of production are a consequence of the way in which funding is delivered and received. To return to the problem of ownership: the question of who owns a piece of theatre is problematic because so many factors come into play. However, if we examine the relationship between the ownership of the means of production and the functioning of the least secure form of Arts Council funding, that is project funding, it is possible to see something of the way in which theatre companies are blocked from gaining access to the means of production.

For example, a theatre company in this category is unlikely to own its own rehearsal space and will, therefore, need to establish a financial relationship with an agency which does. If the company decides to use an existing playtext, it may need to 'rent' the text by paying royalties. The company will then need to pay its actors and, perhaps, a director. At this point, a hierarchy might be established between permanent company members and other actors who are brought in. Another hierarchy may exist between the performers and the technicians.

Such theatre companies are unlikely to own the lighting and sound equipment they will need, therefore they will have to find a way of negotiating with performance venues which own the equipment. Who owns this hypothetical production? The writer? The company? The Venue? The Arts Council? What of the audience which buys the tickets? While complex and obscure, the means and relations of production are significant factors in the contemporary reality of British theatre.

The Arts Council's panoptic approach encourages theatre to be conceived of as a prod uct rather than a practice, which places it within a strictly bourgeois capitalist mode of production in contra-distinction to the more varied ideological complexion of Wales which is forced to operate within it. Audiences in Wales are differently constructed in terms of class, politics, and national identity from those of England, and are disenfranchised because, in developing an arts strategy, the socio-economic structure of the country has been insufficiently taken into account.

For instance, at the 1992 General Election, nearly 80% of the population of Wales did not vote for the present government; in Wales, an average weekly income of £263.08 contrasts with £319.36 in England; in 7 regions of Wales, over 50% of the population literally speak a different language: Welsh; and a higher percentage of social categories C2, D and E attends arts events in Wales than in England . A panoptic methodology accentuates these differences and uses them to construct a definition of theatre practice in this socio-political context as inadequate.

The significance of the Arts Council in determining what is seen in the theatre has depended on its capacity to correlate subsidy with definitions of excellence, and in its ability to privilege professionalised buildings and companies over localised practices Wales may be said to have been structured in order to appear to be inferior to England in drama, because Wales has had a different experience of theatre practice from that of its larger neighbour. For instance,, Wales has enjoyed a strong amateur tradition, has not had a system of repertory theatre buildings comparable with England, and has also displayed an ambivalence towards every attempt at creating a 'national' theatre.

Instead of capitalising on these cultural conditions, the work of the Arts Council has been to describe Wales as being "without theatre traditions", and to establish a theatre practice out of keeping with the lived experience in Wales. The project of cultural democracy is the reclamation of definitions of reality from the territory of 'art', and, in terms of theatre this means relocating it from the closed realms of commodity culture to the open arena of cultural practices. This would necessitate understanding that different ideological landscapes produce different aesthetic realities, and would also include understanding that Wales might develop a theatre practice quite different from that which has emerged in the context of a 'British' or 'English' tradition. This may be a practice which might not even resemble a European or American theatre tradition, but which could share impulses with, for example, African Orature.

This is an integrated arts practice which utilises social co-operation; combines different art forms; transforms the local environment and its resources; incorporates the 'amateur' with the 'professional' in a non-hierarchical structure; and acknowledges the inter-dependence of members of communities. By its very nature, Orature does not separate creative expression from the local, lived experience.

It is not suggested that theatre practice in Wales should assume a contrived and inorganic imitation of African oral literature, but, rather, that traditions of cultural practices in Wales are already comparable with it; as they are tied in with local lived experience. Furthermore, the practice of Orature need not necessarily exclude the use of the play-text, nor preclude the service of the production event. Orature does not imply closure. Therefore, Frank Vickery's relationship with his constituency, Brith Gof's spatial explorations, the Blaengarw Community Play's involvement of professionals with amateurs, and the Sherman Theatre's active incorporation of young people in its policy-making are all demonstrative of features of Orature.

The example of the Noson Lawen, which has an integrated cross-arts structure, suggests that the problem of the 'invisible' theatre tradition in Wales is connected with inappropriate criteria being used by the Arts Council to examine the evidence to support funding decisions. In panoptic terms, the wrong cells are being kept under surveillance, and their occupants, the usual suspects, may not know where the bodies are buried.

If understandings of power structures on theatre practice in Wales are repositioned, its future could be imagined as distinctively Welsh. For Wales, the counter-resistance to hegemony is the power to re-define theatre practice on ideological terms more reflective of the lived experience, even if that may mean challenging the conceptual frameworks underpinning what is traditionally understood as British/European theatre. ACW's recent review and re-structuring exercise might produce a less panoptic strategy for theatre practice in Wales.

However, whilst the most important reason cited for the review is the realisation that more radical changes to policy are required in the wake of the creation of ACW in 1994, it is also acknowledged that the critical dynamic is economic. In addition to cuts in central and local authority funding, the need for the review is not unconnected with the decision to provide additional subvention for Clwyd Theatr Cymru. Raymond Williams asserts that "there has never been a coherent public policy (for the arts), and.. there are powerful groups who are determined that there never will be one."

While re-structuring could establish a coherent public policy, it would be prudent to recognise that it is not necessarily in the interests of powerful groups in Wales, like Clwyd Theatr Cymru for example, that there should be one. ACW's Corporate Plan 1997-2000 argues for cultural democracy as an imperative: "the arts have to become part of the experience of a wider proportion of the population".

But this ideal is unlikely to become a reality within the present panoptic power structure.

author:Ruth Shade

original source: Ruth Shade
01 October 1997

 

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