Theatre in Wales

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

Welsh writing in English

Contextualising new writing: Geography is not a container but a condition, (Franco Moretti)

This paper was presented by Jeni Williams at the second Sorted Symposium at the Soho Theatre, London on 21st June 2003


This is the second symposium to celebrate Welsh theatre writing in English. Like the first it seeks to introduce new and established writers to a different audience and to raise questions about the value of that difference. The aim of this paper is thus to promote additional informed debate.

The establishment of the National Assembly for Wales has prompted calls for ‘a distinctive and creative culture’ as the foundation of a sustainable and, importantly, inclusive national identity. This is why, in their strategic ‘Plan for Wales’ the Assembly has committed itself to 'increasing attendance at arts events to 42% of population by 2003/4' and to 'promoting international knowledge and appreciation of Welsh music, film, art, drama, cultural heritage and sport by 2010'.

Yet the generalised nature of these promising commitments mask a failure to address the specific case of theatre. The recent Scoping Study towards a Policy Review of Anglo-Welsh Culture seemed to clarify where the Assembly’s priorities lie however. The morning was devoted to a discussion of literature, the afternoon to broadcasting and just three-quarters of an hour was allocated to theatre with speakers representing performers and performing arts organisations (Chris Ryde, Equity and WAPA), international associations (Hazel Walford Davies, ITI Cymru) and new writing (Simon Harris, Sgript Cymru). These papers are now available on the Assembly website.

There are some very strong plays being written and performed in Wales today and extracts of some of these form the centre of the symposium today. This short paper seeks to give such work a broader context. Although some of it may be well-known to delegates from, or familiar with, the situation of new writing in Wales, for others it may be entirely new. I have separated it into three sections: new writing and the question of funding, new writing and the question of reception, and new writing and its afterlife. The first two sections draw heavily on Simon Harris’s presentation paper (for the Scoping Study, above) and on follow-up interviews. The final section draws on discussions with Welsh publishers and the Welsh Books Council.

New writing and the question of funding,

Writing is a form of travel of the mind… if the foreignness of life doesn't get into your work, it will turn into cliché, routine. It will become (that deadening phrase) 'an imitation of life.'

So says the poet John Hartley Williams in the current issue of that reinvented, newly exciting magazine, Poetry Wales. It's a pertinent comment for playwrights who struggle with the deadening influence of the soaps and reality TV and are dogged by calls that their work should be 'an imitation of life' – as ‘life’ were some single, simple thing. What matters, as Williams points out, is the vitality of any writing’s imaginative travel and that is a far more exotic flower. Subtle and effective writing does not appear out of nowhere, however, but requires funding, hard work and development; additionally, theatre writing requires further investment in appropriate venues, publication, dissemination and the occasional retrospective. This has historically been missing in Wales.

Sgript Cymru is the only revenue funded theatre company entirely devoted to new writing in Wales.1 Four years ago there were two – Made in Wales worked in English and Dalier Sylw in Welsh – which together received a total of £260,000 from the Arts Council. They were replaced in 2000 by Sgript Cymru, which was expected to commission work in both languages even though the funding allocated to new writing had been cut by one third to £170,000. When I spoke to Simon Harris he explained to me that although £75,000 of the original grant was restored in 2002 the full sum has never been reinstated and that Sgript Cymru has had only an inflationary increase of its grant in three out of the last four years. The accumulated deficit means that year on year there have been even fewer centrally funded productions and less resources across the board for playwrights than in the past. The imbalance with the situation in the rest of Britain is astonishing - as a brief glance at the funding in Scotland and England demonstrates: last year Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre (which sees itself as Sgript Cymru’s sister company) received £676,300 from the SAC, while several other Scottish companies also received substantial financial support for new writing. In England every major regional centre has its own dedicated new writing space while the emphasis on and corresponding financial support for new writing in London alone is staggering in comparison to that in Wales. I quote the figures given in Harris’s presentation:

The Royal Court receives £1,816,398 per annum in core funding, [and] new writing companies and venues proliferate, at such places as The National Theatre Studio, Hampstead Theatre (£561,756), Soho Theatre (£581,981), Out of Joint (£470,000) Paines Plough (£214,000) and The Bush Theatre based above a pub in West London seating just seventy, which receives core funding of £442,433 per year.

This is a total of around £3.5 million per annum in London alone. Meanwhile, new writing budgets in Wales are on miniscule standstill funding and, although there are spaces where new writing can be seen, there is no dedicated new writing space.

This lack of official support for new writing extends to the funding available for individual writers for the stage. In Wales the academi can give up to £10,000 in new writing bursaries – which sounds promising – but these are not available to playwrights who have to compete against other arts such as sculpture and painters for funding from the general AC ‘Creative Wales’ budget.

In the short time of their existence Sgript Cymru has worked hard to stimulate new writing on the ground (an innovative partnership with London’s Royal Court in their Community Writer scheme, awards for productions) and to take Welsh theatre in both languages further afield (the Traverse Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company). They have worked with new writing company Paines Plough and built ongoing relationships with the Traverse and the Royal Court. The fact that the company has managed to do so much on so little funding suggests how much could be achieved with more. But funding for productions is not enough.

New writing and the question of reception

Harris’s presentation highlighted two facts that demonstrate a widespread ignorance of Welsh theatre outside Wales: firstly that Richard Eyre’s acclaimed book and television series Changing Stages: A History of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century might have detailed the ‘wave upon wave of Irish, Scottish, American and English writing that has dominated the history of theatre in the last century [but it didn’t] contain a single reference to a Welsh play or playwright.’ Secondly, that when the theatre director, Dominic Dromgoole produced his recent book entitled The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwrights, his ‘thumbnail sketches of over one hundred living dramatists, many of whom are not necessarily established [included only] one Welsh playwright – Cardiff-born Peter Gill, who is in his sixties and who has made his entire career outside of Wales.’

Wider recognition is crucial to develop the sense of creative confidence that generates exciting new work in any field. And Welsh theatre writing is not the only art in Wales that seems to have escaped this recognition. Take the fertile field of Welsh popular music which, now Catatonia have broken up, has been reduced by a London-based media to just two names: Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics. (And yes there is more, even more than Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mwnci…) As for the visual arts, consider the Today programme's sloppy report of 11th June on the row over the first Welsh Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. No major Wales-based artist or critic was consulted. Neath-born Dean Howells, obviously consulted because of an association with the Manics, was unchallenged when he dismissed the whole Welsh art scene as 'boring' and Kim Howells, the Pontypridd-based Culture minister couldn’t think of a single contemporary Welsh artist's name - even though Shani Rhys James has recently won the prestigious Jerwood prize.

It's no wonder that a major Welsh artist and commentator like Iwan Bala – who, unlike Howells, at least knows what he talking about - should call for the development of a Welsh ‘art world’ to develop supportive networks and artistic confidence within Wales. In popular music the emergence of the Welsh Music Federation has a similar aim, seeking to stimulate a rich Wales-based culture of new music and offering invaluable practical advice on opportunities and promotion. Theatre writing in Wales has an equal need to be sustained by networks and dedicated venues within a varied Wales-based culture of new writing one that generates recognition and self confidence within Wales

To produce such a culture however companies have to have the opportunity to explore and take risks. But because of chronic underfunding Sgript Cymru are only able to commission two English-language plays a year and this leaves little space for experimentation. The outraged incomprehension that read Gary Owen’s Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, a subtle dissection of the mindset of bigotry and the appalling damage caused by bullying as somehow its legitimation, demonstrates how desperately new writing needs the new audience that can only emerge through regular access to challenging new work.

The situation is not of course impossible. As is evident in this symposium, good work is being produced. Companies do manage to raise funding for individual projects individual pots of money to commission plays: Theatre y Byd’s commission of Lewis Davies’ Sex and Power at the Beau Rivage is an excellent example of this. Companies and venues may also co-commission new work: Mike Kenny’s stunning Caitlin was developed by the Sherman Theatre Company in association with Taliesin Arts Centre.

But there remains a chicken and egg tension between venues and companies. Venues are afraid of new writing because it doesn’t sell – but it doesn’t sell because audiences are wary of new plays. Interesting that when Creu Cymru’s Richard Hogger spoke of the collaborative commissioning power of venues at the ACW’s first national conference in Swansea this May, he chose the example of Gwent Theatre’s production of a new play by the internationally successful Wales-based children’s playwright Charles Way. The Tinderbox was an excellent play but Way is an extremely experienced writer and thus a known quantity. This was no box-office gamble and no model to succour new writing.

Harris questions the wisdom of seeing venues as the saviours of new writing anyway, noting that they have no staff with time and skills to help the inexperienced (never mind the experienced) writer develop work in progress. He argues instead for a two pronged approach: two devolved funds (providing bursaries for emerging and existing writers respectively) and the establishment of a small theatre space of 70-100 seats to present the work. In a letter to the Culture committee sent to follow up his policy review presentation he argues that ‘the essential requirement is that the Welsh playwright must be offered the right conditions to build an audience for their work and … [that] new stage writing needs to start in relatively small theatre spaces, in order for it to be nurtured, developed and not over-exposed.’

New writing and its afterlife

To ensure the future development of good writing in Wales we need both to nurture its production and to debate, document and disseminate the completed texts. The most pressing arguments so far have been those advanced by Sgript Cymru from the cutting edge of new writing development. But there are other arguments which relate to new writing by dealing with its afterlife: the publication, marketing and availability of the completed script for future production. As playwright Charles Way points out, at least one second production is ‘fantastically important’ for the development of the writer: ‘in practical terms, it gives you the opportunity to redefine and improve things in the script, and, of course, in financial terms, it’s crucial if you want to make any sort of living.’ Recognising this Sgript Cymru ensures that it publishes each of the scripts it produces even if they make a loss. For a publishing company however this is a more difficult proposition.

I spoke to Dominic Williams, who deals with the sales of literature for the Welsh Books Council. He tries to promote contemporary drama but comments that plays are even harder to market than poetry, itself notoriously difficult to sell. Indeed, of the Wales-based publishing companies, only Parthian continues to publish new work. Seren have frozen their fledgling drama list because the plays just weren’t selling. They claim that the market for drama is quite different to that for their other work and feel strongly that unless the theatres get involved in selling plays they can’t risk new ventures. When I spoke to them they pointed to the additional problems with venues like Swansea's Taliesin where the on-site bookshop is a Waterstones – a chain that doesn't handle local books. In terms of promoting Welsh drama they felt it should be taught in schools, together with the criticism that enables it to be studied and taken seriously by those who will become the Welsh playwrights of the future.

Luckily for Welsh theatre writing, Richard Lewis of Parthian is a playwright himself with an enormous energy for promoting theatre in Wales. Parthian thus continues to be committed to drama publication but even Lewis admitted that ‘it does take a lot of effort for quite small sales.’ He does give a more substantial reason for continuing to publish drama in that he sees it as an important part of the company’s profile: ‘bringing out drama titles gives an intellectual depth to [our] list and reaches a different sort of committed people many of who are closely involved in culture and creativity in Wales.’ He agrees with Seren but, being closer to theatre scene, suggests additional practical measures. He believes that we not only need more plays but ‘a reappraisal of the back list with a good season of recent Welsh plays from, say, over last ten years at theatres like the Sherman, the New or Theatre Clywd.’

It is only because of Parthian that we can look back now on Alan Osborne’s savage and stunning Merthyr Trilogy, written during the 1980s, or on Ed Thomas’ strange, innovative plays of the 1980s and 90s. And, for someone like myself, involved in teaching this material at degree level the articles in these books are a godsend. In terms of the longer life of the plays publication is essential – and if they vanish there are no models for further writing. The power of the written word is lost without publishers but publishers, like new writing companies, need a culture of support to nurture more new and exciting work.

I leave the last word to Simon Harris however whose letter to the Assembly Culture committee makes a passionate plea for the recognition and support of the centrally important role of theatre within a of 'a sustainable and inclusive national identity':

We must also make a distinction between the words “new” and “experimental” when it comes to new writing. The sense that “new writing” is “new” is much more in the sense that it is “untried and untested,” rather than in the sense of being “avant-garde.” The playwrights in Wales are a very diverse group, who work within a variety of different forms and conventions, as well as a wide range of audiences and communities. Primarily, they need the opportunity to write with freedom about the issues and ideas that concern and preoccupy them; by doing so, they mediate and represent the wider concerns and preoccupations of our nation to society at large. …There is such a serious under-investment in our playwrights and their work that the important work of Sgript Cymru is like a band-aid to a debilitating wound.’

author:Jeni Williams

original source:
24 June 2003


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