Theatre in Wales

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

A View from the Operating table

Extract from a talk given at the inaugural ITI Wales conference held at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, November 2002

Whenever the Welsh Assembly Government threatens to invest in the Arts, the old cliché is rolled out ‘You could build a hospital with that money!’ No doubt you could and a hospital would indeed take care of the physical needs of the people, but what of their spiritual needs? In an age of wilting morality, why bother keeping people alive in order for them to function as mindless consumers? Or perhaps that is the grand design? Life as supernumeraries sailing on the SS Mammon! A society of brain dead consumers, but physically vital as hell – bred for good shoulder barging technique and trolley pushing action!. Society needs to keep both its mind and body in balance . As a consequence, it should never be a case of Art versus, hospital – spirit versus flesh, for they both fulfil different, but equally valid roles. Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I, as someone who works in the Arts - someone who needs to justify his own existence!

However, I am aware that to replace a cartilage or to remove a cataract has a quantifiable worth. The benefits are tangible; a man can walk, a woman can see again – the miracle of modern science. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to quantify the worth of art, even if certain artistic expressions have had at times had a tangible worth. Beethoven’s ninth during the reunification of Germany or Elton John’s Candle in the Wind at the death of Diana. But in general, it is difficult for the Arts and, theatre in particular, to make a strong case for ‘their existence in a ‘best value’ culture, which puts a value on everything but knows the truth worth of very little. Everything is reduced to local government terms, the worst possible yardstick! In such a philistine climate, it is easy for the public to target the Arts and any moves to invest in them, as the Arts don’t tend to perform well on the ledger line or in the ballot box. And yet, I believe, the cultural health of a nation is vital to its holistic being. Indeed, imperative. And I would venture to say that the two new theatres currently being built in Ysbyty Gwynedd, Bangor will perform as vital a role in the community as Welsh language theatre could were it in a healthy state. I say could, because it’s currently in a sad state; performing particularly badly, and has done for years and that is why, perhaps, it is so easy to dam Welsh language theatre and so difficult to defend it. It should be in the Vanguard of a new Welsh society, unfortunately, it’s not, it’s sick; just one more reason for the public at large to shout ‘You could build a child’s hospital with that money!’ And though they wouldn’t be right, they’d be very very wrong!.

However, I believe that, contrary to opinion, Welsh language theatre, though in a desperate state of health, is not dead yet. I maintain a bloody minded optimism when others have given up the ghost and read their last rites over the corpse. I will not walk away and let it die, for, I believe that theatre has the power to shape the destiny of nations. One need only think of the role of the Abbey in the consciousness of a fledgling Irish nation or the role it played in the Velvet Revolution in Prague. It is also no coincidence that the Chechen rebels chose to step upon the world stage in a Moscow theatre. One performance, I hope, the world will never see repeated. Theatre is a primitive experience, an act of social cohesion that has the ability to bind communities and nations. Of course theatre has suffered lately in the fractured post – Thatcher society; an age we have been informed where ‘society is dead!’ To some theatre is also dead – but not quite! However, Welsh language theatre in particular has suffered a dramatic decline and flounders for a cure .

With the dawn of S4C, theatre was faced with a direct challenge. Up until 1982, it held a cultural monopoly of sorts. Cwmni Theatr Cymru was a unifying force in the cultural life of Welsh language communities. When Cwmni Theatr Cymru came to town, the whole town turned out. With few social opportunities to express ones Welshness the act of attending a Cwmni Theatr Cymru performance was, to a large extent , political. And if the act of attending was a political one, the act of acting was, in the early days of the company, highly radical.. Many of our most respected Welsh language actors spent at least one night in jail in their youth, for the sake of the language. In the seventies our theatre was charged with subversion. It was an instrument of rebellion. Not with regard to subject matter perhaps, but with regard to its very existence. Perhaps the quality was at times lame, but the stage was alive and kicking

It was a period when Wales was fighting for status. With regard to the media, first, came Radio Cymru and later the Tory Government gave us S4C– a beggars banquet perhaps, but the Welsh media class has been dining upon the fat of S4C ever since! . The television channel was a nostrum to pacify the Welsh language community through kindness. The Tories are a clever bunch. They duped us into believing that the language battle had, to some degree, been won, and their great act of philanthropy helped diffuse the focus and radicalism of a nation. On the plus side, there is no doubt that S4C has helped to maintain the language as, in its own way, the William Morgan Bible did in Elizabethan times. The station has played its part in helping to shape the modern Wales. Unfortunately, it has also had a huge negative impact upon the Welsh language stage, It has drained away creative talent and neutered many artists through the power of its purse. It has also played its part in the cellularisation of the Welsh cultural experience

With the dawn of S4C, people had the option to stay at home every night and be Welsh from the comfort of their own arm chairs. They didn’t have to freeze to death in cold village halls for the sake of the nation – just because they felt they should! They could take cultural fix through the television screen- bubble gum for the eyes, as Frank Lloyd Wright wrote or ‘gum bwrlwm i’r llygaid’ as we were taught in Rhydfelen! That which was lost, was the community experience of sharing in a live event. Welshness. That sense of belonging to a community, or to a nation of communities is reinforced through theatre

The early eighties also saw the demise of Cwmni Theatr Cymru. The last production being ‘Dyfroedd Dyfnion’ - deep waters indeed! As many of you know, at the beginning of the eighties, the company changed artistic direction. This caused some bad feeling amongst established practitioners. And, it has been said, that during the final years there were both artistic and financial difficulties. As a consequence, the company declined and eventually died. Our national voice was silenced

Several new Welsh language companies rose out of the ashes of the national company Most notably Hwyl a Fflag and Bara Caws. One drawback however, as a direct result of losing Cwmni Theatr Cymru, was that it was left up to individual practitioners and small companies to fight their own corners, each claiming, at one time or another, to be the true voice of the people of Wales. And perhaps, in their own ways, they all were. The Welsh Arts Coucil, or Arts Council Wales perpetuated this ‘fleet of coracles’ model and claimed that our national theatre both in English and Welsh has been its plethora of voices.

But this fractured model of theatre has led to a climate of mistrust and fear amongst practitioners as each take their artistic last stands. They have felt increasingly vulnerable and defensive in the ever changing political scene of funding. The fracturing of Welsh language theatre has also caused uncertainty in the minds of Welsh language audiences. We must be honest with ourselves, standards have been variable, production values have at times been low, new writing and direction have been inconsistent.. This is only to be expected, we are a small nation, we cannot hope to produce a n Aykbourne a Berkov or a Kane with each generation, and we have no formal training for directors. As a consequence, audiences have become tired of being disappointed time and time again by mediocre experiences. They have lost confidence in their theatre and have stayed away in their droves. I’m not saying that the practitioners themselves are solely to blame for this decline, there are many factors which have had an impact – the changing demographic, digital technology, better restaurants and ‘Dai Jones Llanilar! Whatever the cocktail of reasons, the combined effect has been a downward trend in attendance figures particularly during the nineties.

Of course there have been some notable exceptions to this decline; productions which have packed them in. These have mostly been for shows where audiences have been certain of what they’re going to get before they buy their tickets. The seasonal pantomimes, the club show, the odd adaptation of a TV classic or GCSE set text. In my experience, the Welsh language community is in the main a conservative one. It is suspicious of the new, only a few embrace change wholeheartedly. Familiarity or the feeling that you’re going to be comfortable in the theatre is an important factor. In addition, in an age of increasing de-politicisation, Welsh language audiences seem, in the main, to demand only one thing from theatre these days– to be entertained. In the past, they were willing to be preached at, or to endure patchy quality for the sake of a greater good. But times change and attitudes change

However, I believe that people are beginning to tire of the infinite choice - Given hundreds of choices, how do you make a choice? It was so much easier when the world and its dog watched Cathy Come Home and talked about it the next day in the work place. All people experienced the event in their separate living rooms but somehow, the experience still remained communal. These days, within any street, on any given night, an hundred TV channels might be viewed by an hundred different families. People are isolated by their leisure activities. But as people are social by nature, I sense a backlash. If theatre could rise to the challenge and be a focus for the dreams of a nation, then a revival in its fortunes might happen. However such a revival would need a strong focus and centralised vision for it to be realised. I have backed the push for the re-establishment of a national theatre since it was first mooted back in the late nineties. I still believe wholeheartedly that the time is ripe for a National Welsh language Theatre that can create the stage where the aspirations of a fledgling nation can be acted out. For most, the events that have led up to the eve of an historic Assembly decision to invest in such a national performance company in the Welsh language are shrouded in mystery. Believe me, even for someone, who was embroiled in the process, the truth is still beyond me.

Between 1992 and 2000, I was one of those ‘happy few’ who were consistently given project money by Arts Council Wales to realise my own writing – a privileged position. As a natural lone wolf, it meant absolute freedom, and upon the basis of that freedom I gained a certain standing both in Wales and beyond. As a consequence of my fragile success, in 1998 I was, asked to join Bara Caws. At the time, it was in danger of being closed unless it took on an Artistic Director. A few applied, but none were satisfactory, and so I was approached and gladly accepted the post. Though I must admit, it did feel strange - my only other contact with Bara Caws prior to 1998 was an audition I attended whilst still a budding non Equity actor. The only things I can remember about the audition are Cefin Roberts and leg warmers – I didn’t get the job! Anyway, fifteen years on, I was appointed Artistic Co-ordinator for the company. I remember at the time being stopped by Ed Thomas on the street and asked ‘Why the hell are you going to Bara Caws?’ At the time I didn’t want to explain my actions, but the truth is, I sensed a shift in the Arts Council policy – a desire to resurrect a National Welsh language Theatre seemed to be on the cards and I wanted to be where it was at.

The intention to resurrect a National Welsh language Theatre was soon to became public knowledge, when the discredited Arts Council Wales’ drama strategy was published. As you may recall, in that strategy Bara Caws and Theatre Gwynedd were to merge in order to form the basis of a National Theatre. As Theatr Gwynedd was without an Artistic Director at the time, I believed that Bara Caws and its community values could lead the debate and turn from a junior partner into the main driving force behind the change. However there has always been a suspicion between both companies and talks were difficult to initiate.

In an attempt to kick start the process, I wrote a paper entitled Towards a National Theatre – The pyramid model, this I did in conjunction with Tim Baker of Clwyd Theatr Cymru. In it we outlined a model for a National theatre not too dissimilar from the one currently on the cards. It was a model which suggested a similar administrative structure and an artistic policy firmly rooted in the community. For Wales is a nation of communities, whatever Thatcher says, and the strength of any future National Welsh language Theatre must lie in the communities it serves. In it, we called for the divorce of Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd from the building and that the production resource should be pooled with Bara Caws’ resources to form the basic revenue grant of the new company.

One of the main differences between the pyramid model and the current model was the issue of new writing . In our paper, we proposed the grafting of the grant for New writing in the Welsh language onto the main body of the National company. In a theatrical culture where most theatre productions are productions of new writing, and resources are so limited, integration seemed to make sense. However, as I am sure you’re aware, it was political to establish a bi-lingual new writing company in the capital before setting up the National theatres in both the Welsh and English languages. To be honest, I still believe that the Welsh language side should exist independently to the English and as a part of a Welsh language National provision. I could see its role developing into a dramaturgical one leaving the National Theatre and other companies to produce work generated by, and in conjunction with, the New Writing company. In a culture of limited talent and resources, this seems to make sense, otherwise there seems to be a huge duplication of services. Bara Caws commissions new writing, as does Arad Goch, Theatr Gwynedd and others. With so few writers of genuine talent, you’re diluting the potency of Welsh language theatre across the board. The setting up of Sgript Cymru was, in my opinion, knee jerk and showed a certain lack of vision on behalf of the Arts Council as they crumbled in the face of dissent.

In that crumbling was also lost the impetus to set up a National Theatre based on the Bara Caws / Theatr Gwynedd model. Following my first paper, I drafted a second after the Llanberris meeting where I gave the key note speech, an impasioned plea for all practitioners and companies to support a national company for the sake of the art form in Wales. I had great hopes, as did many of those that attended the meeting that the resolve was at last there to establish a national Welsh Language Theatre company. Sadly, more delays followed, and then the Council changed, and two or three years of angst and vision were wasted - a national company would no longer be set up on the basis of Bara Caws and Theatr Gwynedd model. It would be a brand new institution set up with Welsh Assembly Government money and a board appointed under the Nolan rules.

I was appointed Artistic Director of Theatr Gwynedd after this sea change in policy was made public. However, the boards of both Bara Caws and Theatr Gwynedd still clung to the belief that there was a ghost of a chance of leading the debate which puzzled me as it was obvious that the theatrical horse had already bolted to another stable. Had they appointed me as joint Artistic Director twelve months previously, when the climate was still favourable, we might have forced the hand of the Council to create a national theatre based on the joint model But it was too late. And sensing this, I resigned from Bara Caws to concentrate upon directing for the main stage. I had spent three valuable years at Bara Caws, but I felt it was time to move on. However I will never forget the community values I learnt there and they will always form the basis of my theatrical vision for Wales I would like to publicly praise Linda Brown’s commitment. She was a strength and her devotion to Welsh theatre is second to none.

Having now worked for both Bara Caws and Theatr Gwynedd, I must admit that it’s with regret, but also with relief, that I can say, it has been a good thing that the new National Theatre is no longer to be established upon the merger of Bara Caws and Theatr Gwynedd. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks, and Bara Caws and Theatr Gwynedd, with due respect, are two old curs. They are comfortable in their own corners and I do not believe that their structures would have allowed them to embrace the larger vision necessary if a national company based upon them was to be a success. Who knows what role each will fulfil in the new national structure?

In Theatr Gwynedd’s case, I’m now in a position to reveal its future. This week a meeting was held between the board of Theatr Gwynedd and representatives from Arts Council Wales. In this meeting, it was made absolutely clear to the board that both the building and the company will have to split by March 2003 and that both production and receiving house have to establish new boards.

And so, from March 2003, Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd will operate independently of the building. This will be for a period of a year or so and will act merely as a bridging device between the current situation and the National Welsh language company beginning production some time during Spring 2004. After that who knows, perhaps the grant will be swallowed up by the national provision, perhaps it will fill a niche regional role? Time and more importantly the Assembly decision expected later this month upon whether it is to make money available to establish a National Welsh language theatre, will tell. (i)

I remember one conversation I held some years ago with a leading Welsh director upon the nature of the National Theatre. The conversation got a bit heated and, at a high point, he turned to me and said ‘Let’s be honest. What role do you want to play in the National Welsh language theatre? I want to be its director, what do you want to be?’ I must admit I was shocked by the attack. I thought for a while, then turned to him and said ‘My role within a National Welsh language theatre is irrelevant, what is relevant is that we work to get the thing up and running, if we’re good enough, we’ll find a position within it’

I’m greatly relieved that Arts Council Wales has at last had the courage of its convictions and is determined to create a National Welsh language Theatre. For I believe that twenty years of fracturing has to stop, both the practitioners need a theatre to aspire to and the audience needs a theatre they can once again feel is theirs. A kite mark it can trust – good value entertainment that cannot be found on the television. Cinema has seen a resurrection, theatre could also see an upward turn given vision.

I have many hopes for the National Welsh language theatre regardless who leads it. Amongst them, I hope that it will strive for excellence:
- Be led by an artistic not an administrative ‘best practice’ strategy
- Be inclusive
- Offer a career structure for young Welsh theatre practitioners
- Build bridges between education and the profession
- Think strategically and restore the confidence of the audience
- Create work for all the communities of Wales
- Unite those communities, and be their voice
- Be a stage that it will reflect the aspirations of an emerging nation
- Be our cultural ambassador
- And be a thing that we can be proud of, not a sick art form on its death bed, but a vital force, pumping with creativity, in rude health, a living theatre.
I titled this talk ‘A view from an operating table’. I hope that the operation goes well and that the patient makes a speedy recovery
Ian Rowlands Tach / Nov 2002

(i) By now, events have moved on. The Welsh Assembly Government has made a commitment of £1.5 million over three years. In addition, Lyn T. Jones has newly been appointed the chair of the the National company and, as I write, a board are in the process of being selected. I hope that they turn out to be surgeons par excellence!

author:Ian Rowlands

original source: Ian Rowlands
17 December 2002


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