Theatre in Wales

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

Policy Review: English-medium writing In Wales Po

Simon Harris (Artistic Director – Sgript Cymru)


I think for the purposes of this review I am expected and would like to limit my comment to a consideration of dramatic writing and my perspective as Artistic Director of Sgript Cymru – the national company dedicated to new stage writing in Wales.

The contribution of English-medium books and writing in Wales to Welsh culture:

Does Wales need its playwrights?

Cultural commentators queue up to inform us that Wales does not have a tradition of literary or text-based drama. It is a truism that is widely accepted, even by some in Welsh theatre. The Welsh Assembly Government itself has adopted a paper, which refers to the lack of "a continuous and unbroken line" in our theatre history. This and other arguments have been used to declare that the play, therefore, is simply not intrinsic to Welsh culture. This is a strange argument, given that, even in England, there have only ever been three short-lived periods before The Second World War when theatre was dominated by indigenous written drama, each lasting not much more than a quarter century – the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, the Restoration period and the period between 1890 and 1914, where Wilde, Shaw and others were in their heyday. Moreover, the concept and tradition of "new writing," where there is a commitment to an ongoing evolution of written drama, is a relatively recent one.

Despite the fact that the history of drama is, overwhelmingly, writer-centred and text-based, it was not until the 1950’s that a theatre dedicated to the primacy of the writer’s vision began to define itself through the activity of George Devine and The Royal Court Theatre. Prior to this, there were, of course, new plays and there were also theatres where new plays were at the heart of theatre-making, even of self-conscious nation-making, such as The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, but the work of The English Stage Company that began to be seen at The Royal Court represented something revolutionary and new. In Edinburgh, the Scots had The Traverse Theatre for new writing from 1968. In the English language, the existence of a dedicated new writing company in Wales was slower to materialise, being formed for the first time in 1982.

My own view is that, even if it were the case that Wales lacked a dramatic tradition, then that would not be a serious argument against beginning one. However, it is also false. Setting aside the long traditions of oratory in Wales combining text and performance, and the anterliwt in the Welsh language, in the Edwardian period, a socialist Welsh playwright – J.O. Francis – was having his plays Change and The Poacher performed in the West End of London. While Wales does not have the rich, extended and celebrated tradition of dramatic writing that exists elsewhere, it does not mean that a tradition, or body of work does not exist. One need only consider the out of print or unpublished, relatively unstudied and unread plays of such as Richard Hughes, Caradoc Evans, Gwyn Thomas or Alun Owen and others, to understand clearly that their work is hardly revived and rarely acknowledged. However, even without the widely known work of Emlyn Williams and the constantly regurgitated Under Milk Wood, there is sufficient Welsh drama written before the 1980’s to merit some occasional revival and re-examination. Perhaps if this were to be combined with translations of extant work in the Welsh language into English, Wales may even start to look to itself and the outside world as if it had a not inconsiderable amount of interesting "classic" drama from the early to mid-twentieth century.

Despite the ignorance and neglect of the body of drama created in this period, the gap between 1956 and 1982 need not have been hugely significant. However, while the post-war new writing boom exploded in England, Scotland and Ireland, leading the social, political and cultural concerns of these nations to be placed centre stage, nothing similar was taking place in Wales. One wonders what would have happened, if after the success of the 1979 devolution vote, rather than its failure, a committee reviewing the practice of English-medium Welsh writing could have given rise to an entire wave of Welsh dramatists placing the social, political and cultural concerns of our own nation centre stage, but that is wishful thinking. Again, that is not to say that there have been no dramatists producing interesting and good quality work in the last twenty years, on the contrary, there has been exceptional work produced in impoverished circumstances, but, sadly, the success of the playwright in Wales has been in spite of the opportunity afforded, rather than as a consequence of it. Faced with the intrinsic difficulties that theatre in Wales presents, many good people have tried and failed to create the necessary sense of context and opportunity for contemporary dramatists to thrive. In respect of available funding and making a living as a writer, it still seems hard to argue with Carl Tighe’s view expressed in his 1986 essay Theatre (or Not) in Wales that "Since Wales is marginal to England, and theatre is marginal to Wales, and the playwright is marginal to Welsh theatre... the business of being a playwright in Wales can be a very unrewarding experience."

In 2003, however, Wales is no longer marginal to England; much of the narrative of its destiny is in its own hands. Similarly, the transformation in our cultural and leisure pursuits means that theatre is no longer elitist and marginal, but practiced and enjoyed at many levels from the grassroots to the professional main stages. Indeed, one of the ways in which Welsh playwrights have survived and succeeded over the last twenty years is through writing for young audiences and for specific communities, where companies such as Gwent Theatre, Spectacle Theatre and Hijinx have provided important impetus to the careers of significant writers such as Dic Edwards, Charles Way, Greg Cullen and Laurence Allen. Also the commitment of amateurs writing drama is still strong in Wales, well supported by organisations such as The Drama Association of Wales. On the main stages and with general adult-oriented new work, however, the position is much more ambiguous and difficult.

Recent decades have certainly offered cause for celebration of the distinctive drama and significant talent that Wales can produce. There have been many highlights, not least the plays of Alan Osborne in The Merthyr Trilogy, the questioning arc of that truly radical body of work by Dic Edwards, the visionary and theatrical chutzpah of Ed Thomas,and the emergence of quieter, less celebrated talents such as Peter Lloyd, Sian Evans, Roger Williams and most notably outside of Wales, Peter Gill, exploring a range of diverse experience that speaks resonantly of the multiple identities and shifting landscapes of contemporary Wales with great imaginative power. There are many others also, not mentioned here, that have worked, and continue to do so, with similar ability and zest. Indeed, on Keith Morris’s excellent website, there is an archive that details 756 premieres of new works since 1991. Meanwhile, Welsh audiences are still as hungry for stories that reflect their lives and concerns, while Welsh dramatists remain as eager to communicate their vision.

Looking at a list of 756 premieres, therefore, may lead one to think that there was nothing wrong with the position of the playwright in Wales. A glance at entries on the forum page of the site, however, soon puts this in perspective. Frustration at the lack of opportunity in new writing is a common theme. Paid commissions to the writer are rare, as many of the companies are unfunded. The production run is short, as sometimes the plays run for just one or two nights. The plays are rarely reviewed or published, barely registering beyond the initial audience at the time of production and soon disappearing from sight afterwards. The most successful writers of drama in Wales either work in twolanguages and across the broadcasting media or work out of Wales entirely. For some people, theatre writing is not an attractive option, as they are as likely to have television series or a film commissioned, as they are to have a play commissioned and produced. Given that the financial rewards for the commissions are hugely different, you really have to be determined to write for the theatre, if you are going to do so. Moreover, in recent years, if one excludes adaptations, revivals and short plays, the number of full-length, original commissioned plays by theatres across Wales in both English and Welsh has numbered not much more than a dozen; most of those commissions have originated with Sgript Cymru. The hard reality is that it is next to impossible to have a career as a professional playwright in the English language in Wales.

In many ways, the creation of Sgript Cymru in May 2000 was taken as an opportunity to begin to address the range of unique circumstances and needs that have contrived to make the Welsh playwright such an allegedly under-achieving and unheard voice. One of the distinctive features of our operation is that we work across both languages and on a Wales-wide basis as a national company. For the last three years, Sgript Cymru has been a source of major success in Welsh theatre and has established an enviable reputation for itself as a respected and fast-growing component in British theatre with ten premieres of new plays to date. For two years running, Sgript Cymru has received by popular vote the Best New Writing Award for our challenging and controversial productions of Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco by Gary Owen and Franco’s Bastard by Dic Edwards in the Theatre In Wales Awards. We are also recipients of a major ACW Audience Development Award for work in the Welsh language to produce a stage adaptation of Bethan Gwanas’s Amdani, which will tour Wales from September. With our first English language productions, Crazy Gary and Art and Guff, we created a first for Welsh theatre by performing both plays side by side to great acclaim at high-profile venues in London. With past away by Tracy Harris, we discovered a twenty-two year old first-time playwright with a remarkable new voice. We have also taken work by Meic Povey to the Traverse in Edinburgh, where Tair was performed in Welsh and in English. Subsequently, we introduced the play to The Royal Shakespeare Company, leading to it being translated into the majority languages of Europe for wider theatre production under a prestigious European Union of Theatres award. Building on our relationship with The Traverse (which refers to Sgript Cymru as "our sister company in Wales"), we recently returned to Edinburgh in June to perform Meic Povey’s first English language play, Indian Country, as part of a national tour, which was critically acclaimed and highly popular with audiences. In the spring, we will be presenting Gary Owen’s Ghost City and returning to a playwright whose career we helped launch. Gary is widely held to be one of the most exciting and promising playwrights in the UK at present, having his work acknowledged recently by the two most prestigious awards available to emerging dramatists –The George Devine Award and The Meyer Whitworth Award in 2003. In a profile on the state of drama in Wales, The Guardian wrote that as a consequence of Sgript Cymru’s efforts, "New Welsh work was no longer insular."


* New writing is a new phenomenon across the world, not just in Wales.
* The notion that Wales does not have a dramatic tradition is false, but it is neglected.
* There is much to celebrate in the drama of the last twenty years.
* New writing has been inadequately funded, but there is a strong commitment to writing plays within Wales.
* It is almost impossible to have a career as a professional playwright in the English language in Wales.
* In three years, Sgript Cymru has become a major success.

The support mechanisms available to writers in Wales, including playwrights and screenplay writers

Before looking at support mechanisms, it is perhaps necessary to begin with some attempted definition of the meaning of "new writing" with regard to theatre. Broadly speaking, "new writing" relates to the support, practice and presentation of the original work of playwrights and where the craft and vision of the playwright is central. Commonly, it is not held to include revivals, adaptations, devised work or physical theatre that contains some text. While many performance and cross-media artists write their own texts, the text is only one element and, in general, not the most central. While some theatre producers commission new plays as part of their repertoire and are part of the broader ecology of contemporary drama, "new writing" reflects some specific commitment to the discovery and support of playwrights, as well as to a theatre where the dramatist is acknowledged as a fundamental creative force. While some producers commission new plays on specific subjects or for specific audiences, such as for young people, or to target the needs and experience of a given community, the central thrust of "new writing" is commonly held to be an open invitation to the playwright to write on a subject of their own choosing and for a general audience.

In the field of literature, there is a more straightforward separation between the development of new writing and its production and reception. In Wales, this has led to Academi becoming responsible for writer development, and The Welsh Books Council for publication and distribution. However, in the theatre, writer development is best when it is linked to production. For example, the creation of a novel or a poem is essentially an individual artistic endeavour. Novelists and poets receive support from editors and others, but the individual writer has creative ownership of a text that is fixed on the page. In theatre, however, the relationship between the two aspects is intrinsic and, therefore, harder, if not impossible, to separate. By its very nature, theatre is a more collaborative process and the playwright’s text is like a blueprint for something that is enacted in front of an audience. Frequently, something that appears to work on the page, does not work in the mouth of an actor, and, inevitably, by the time a play is published, it has inherited a different purpose. The job of a director of new writing is to work with a playwright to make his or her play communicate itself to an audience most effectively. In this process, there is a necessary connection between writer and director, whereas developing individual plays separate from producing them is fraught with many dangers. However, the notion of offering writers broad-based development opportunity, such as craft expertise through workshops and so on, is different.

Sgript Cymru has a role that incorporates writer development, working at the grassroots to discover emerging talents, and simultaneously working as a high-profile producing company, taking the best of Welsh writing for the stage to audiences at home and beyond. It is the responsibility of the company to be advocates for the needs and creativity of playwrights in general and to simultaneously respond to the wide diversity of theatrical vision that they share. We do this in many ways. By contributing towards dialogues such as this one with The National Assembly, for example, but also through raising awareness about the position of playwrights and their work in Wales with organisations such as The Arts Council of Wales, WAPA, ITC/TMA, Writernet, Equity, The Writers Guild, the wider media, as well as with a host of other companies and organisations across both languages. In our advocacy role, the company is regularly represented at symposia, platforms and conferences.

Directly to the playwright, however, in the first instance, we offer a free reading service. A playwright can submit a script, which receives a page of feedback on an A4 sheet from a reader – generally, a young director that works with us. The Literary Manager also reads it. If it shows any promise, it is read more widely in the company and we try to encourage the playwright with a meeting and advice. Further to that, we can then offer various stages of practical support and/or financial incentive, including commissioning or an option to produce. For example, once a year, we run a week-long intensive residency focussing on the craft of dramatic writing for sixteen young and emerging playwrights, which costs nothing to the participants. We also offer direct commissions to writers and try to maintain a balance between Welsh and English, as well as, emerging and established playwrights. As part of a commission, we offer one-to-one sessions on the work in progress, as well as workshops with actors where the play is read and worked on to develop it. Sgript Cymru is an approved ITC employer and offers the standard rate to playwrights for a full commission, which is £5,650. We currently have 15 writers under commission – one of whom is our Associate Writer, Meic Povey, acting as a mentor to younger writers and an advisor to the company.

Beyond individual opportunities, Sgript Cymru also aims to offer some broad-based development, which represents the intersection between the focussed work of a producing theatre company and the activities of the wider writing community. We offer a Wales-wide circuit of workshops under the banner of Sgript Saturday/Sgript Sadwrn, which includes a beginner’s workshop, a workshop focussing on an element of craft led by a professional playwright, and an ancillary event, such as a reading of a work in progress or a session where aspiring playwrights can hear their work read aloud by actors and receive informal feedback. All of this activity is freely available to the participants. We also publish a quarterly newsletter containing useful information for writers, which goes to about 600 people. Our website at will also soon promote development activity for playwrights, as well as general information about the company and its productions.

We have recently re-launched our groundbreaking and extremely successful Community Writer scheme, which, in 2001, was based in Harlech, Mold, Swansea and Holyhead. In 2003-04, four playwrights will be working with Sgript Cymru on attachment to a variety of different groups and organisations, representing strands of the wider community. Over the course of a year, participants from The National Youth Theatre of Wales, The Young Farmers Associations, The Urdd Eisteddfod, The National Eisteddfod, as well as local people in Merthyr Tydfil and Torfaen will be encouraged to discover dramatic writing and try their hand at writing a play. There will be face-to-face contact in the local communities throughout the scheme and web-based contact where the work generated can be shared via a password controlled part of our website. Entitled Live Wire, this is a Wales-wide project accessible in both English and Welsh and freely available to participants. Some of these organisations are already established partners and the response to the project has been strong. For example, the local authority in Merthyr is offering to pay for their participants to visit the theatre and for a weekend residency with Sgript Cymru at The Writers Centre at Ty Newydd. However, the funding is only available from ACW for one year making it difficult to develop a sustainable service to playwrights across Wales.

Beyond Sgript Cymru, there are other organisations and theatre companies that work with writers and provide opportunities in Wales. Where possible, we try to keep in touch with them, share ideas, provide advice and support, as well as, recommend promising talent. We also have established partnerships across the media in Wales and beyond. For example, the BBC Wales Writers’ Unit has offered a regular programme of script advice surgeries at Sgript Saturday and plays developed by the company have been produced, and are intended for production, as radio plays. However, in terms of dramatic writing, the level of cross-media understanding in Wales is very weak with the level of investment in entry points for writers at a critically low level. There is very little joined-up thinking between the educational sector, which is increasingly offering creative writing, scriptwriting and media training as an option, and the providers in the creative industries. There is a commonly agreed need for some kind of support working across the media, linking the various writer-based activities and enabling access to them, but no agreement on who should fund it, who should provide it or what exactly it should be. Dynamic organisations elsewhere, such as Writernet in London, provide just such a role and it is needed also in Wales.


* "New writing" relates to the support, practice and presentation of the original work of playwrights and where the craft and vision of the playwright is central.
* Writer development works best when linked to production.
* Sgript Cymru has a broad role:

(i) It is an advocate of new writing

(ii) It offers individual support to writers, including direct commissions

(iii) It offers broad-based development to writers

(iv) It offers a ground-breaking scheme working with, in and for communities across Wales

(v) New writing takes place across other organisations in Wales, but there is a need for better linkage and access to opportunity

The support mechanisms for the production and marketing of new writing, including private sector support.

In a recent meeting on July 18th, 2003, Sgript Cymru was informed by ACW lead officers that the Arts Council of Wales "does not have a strategy for new writing." This absence of strategic vision presents an ongoing challenge to the work undertaken by a company such as Sgript Cymru. New writing is noticeably missing from the ACW Five Year Development Strategy ‘Supporting Creativity’ and that is an omission the Welsh Assembly Government sponsored arts funding body clearly does not plan to address.

I wrote earlier in this document of the failure to create the necessary sense of context and opportunity for contemporary dramatists to thrive. This failure is not borne of individuals, but of the long-standing absence of strategic vision and its underpinning with adequate investment and infrastructure. New stage writing in Wales is forced to contend with two overwhelming obstacles. The first is simply that insufficient money is being directed towards the commissioning and presentation of contemporary drama. The second is that there is no seasonal or year-round repertoire of new writing that can provide a context within which the work of playwrights can be evaluated and focussed. Both issues are inter-dependent and, in my view, key to reversing a history of apparent under-achievement in Welsh drama.

There is a shameful disparity between the funding dedicated to new writing in Wales and the situation elsewhere. I detailed some of this disparity in my contribution to the preceding Scoping Study of Anglo-Welsh culture. Colleagues in Ireland, Scotland and England find the position simultaneously curious, shocking and laughable. The Arts Council of England recently reported that, "The text-based play is a supremely powerful cultural asset." The Arts Council of Wales does not seem to share this view. Ironic then that, when The Arts Council of England announced its £25 million increase for theatre in 2002, dedicating the vast majority of the money over three years towards additional funding for new writing and new work, it did so on the set of Sgript Cymru’s production of Art and Guff at The Soho Theatre. A previously well-funded new writing company, Soho Theatre itself was among a dizzying number to receive substantial increases towards their work – in Soho’s case, 160% over three years, which has subsequently been increased again. By comparison, in 1993, the dedicated new writing companies, Dalier Sylw and Made in Wales were receiving a combined total of £210,847, which is £40,000 more than Sgript Cymru was awarded seven years later at its inception. In 2003, Sgript Cymru will receive ACW revenue funding of £276,515, an increase of just 24% to the sector over the course of ten years. Of course, Sgript Cymru is not alone in having to work within funding constraints, but it is the only revenue funded new writing company in Wales, whereas in other nations there are several organisations working in concert. Additional money is an important part of the answer, but it is also the scale of prevailing priorities in Wales and the lack of a coherent overall strategy that is so greatly frustrating.

For all the importance of development opportunities, the single most important issue for a playwright is whether their play will be produced or not. It is also the opportunity that they can learn most from. Very many of the mid-career English-medium writers under commission to Sgript Cymru have thriving careers out of Wales. Their work is produced in Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia, The USA and elsewhere, but unfortunately it is rarely seen in Wales. Unfortunately, at present, Sgript Cymru finds it a financial challenge to produce two English language productions per year, alongside two productions in Welsh. For a company such as ours, it is a weak base from which to be responding to high expectation. Aside from the impact on the opportunity for playwrights, the gap between productions makes it an additional challenge to build a brand identity for Welsh writing with the public. New writing in Wales has always suffered from this ad hoc, unfocussed mode of presentation. It can take a company several years to build an audience. Given that, for example, Tracy Harris’s style of writing is quite different to Meic Povey’s, there is a challenge inherent in the diversity of the material also. To date, the company has shown a remarkable degree of success in overcoming these challenges and by reversing the cycle of decline in English language work that preceded our formation, whereby touring was minimal and the production run was very limited. For example, Indian Country recently played to full houses for the best part of its three week run in Cardiff, followed by a successful three week tour of Wales and a further week outside of Wales. But it is unrealistic to think that any play we present can naturally fall into such a pattern.

In an ideal world, there would be a magical similarity between what the wide-ranging Welsh public wants and what its playwrights produce. For example, the company is trying to strike a balance between its role as a producer of appealing, accessible drama that happens to be new, and producing innovative work in form or content that enlarges the idea of what contemporary drama is. As a general rule, while audiences prefer the former, the significance of new writing from Wales more widely depends on the latter. There is no doubt that Welsh audiences are hungry for stories that reflect their lives and their concerns. Clearly, these should be stories that affirm, celebrate and make visible the life of people in Wales today. But they should also be stories these audiences need to hear, not just the stories they want to hear – stories that are challenging, stimulating and exciting. Nevertheless, this can also give rise to inherent tensions. Welsh theatres already have a very solid track record of attracting audiences, but introducing a new playwright or a new play to an audience can be a commercial risk. Venues can be overly cautious and unimaginative when it comes to marketing new writing. Some venues prefer to treat new plays as loss makers and show no interest in marketing them at all. To counteract this, Sgript Cymru has developed a pioneering Audience Development plan with four venues across Wales, where we have secured funding to support access to the work and to offer workshops about the plays. Sgript Cymru believes that, while building an audience for new writing is a high priority, audience size alone cannot be made to be the sole barometer of success. If marketability alone were the criterion, Jeffrey Archer would be a brilliant novelist simply because he sells a lot of books. By the same token, Welsh playwrights, despite their worth and achievement, would never have an opportunity to be seen. Thus, it is the case that at the level of production, touring, writer development and audience development, there needs to be a much wider strategy to support new writing than currently exists.

The most significant omission in Welsh theatre is, however, the lack of a dedicated theatre space for new writing, such as exists in every other nation in the UK and, indeed, in every major regional city. Examples elsewhere include The Live Theatre in Newcastle, The Door in Birmingham, The Traverse in Edinburgh and Soho Theatre and Writers Centre in London. Many have previously called for such a resource and Wales desperately needs a theatre space dedicated to new writing on a year-round or seasonal basis that can provide a context and a focus for its playwrights. This should seat no more than 200 and not only be a showcase for the best new work from Wales, but also play host to exciting incoming work from elsewhere. In terms of capital, it is a relatively inexpensive option, as it could involve refurbishing or re-branding an existing space or building, but in order to protect playwrights and deliver to audiences, we need to create a context within which the work can be properly focussed and evaluated, rather than judged in damaging isolation and over-exposed.

In his seminal consultative report on theatre for The Arts Council of England in 2001, professional arts consultant, Peter Boyden wrote that, "Across the creative industries new writing is the key to investment and productivity. It is the primary process through which ideas are ordered as the basis for performance" As a consequence of his research, his recommendations included, "Encouraging new writing, new plays and new work as central to the health of theatre and to the wider creative industries". This vision is now coming to pass as theatre around the regions of England reinvents itself and new audiences flock to see the result. The imagination of this policy contrasts sharply with the position in Wales.


* The Arts Council of Wales does not have a strategy for new writing.
* Insufficient money is being directed towards the commissioning and presentation of contemporary drama.
* There is no seasonal or year-round repertoire of new writing that can provide a context within which the work of playwrights can be evaluated and focussed.
* There is a huge disparity between Wales and elsewhere in terms of funding for new writing.
* There needs to be a much wider strategy to support new writing at the level of production, touring, writer development and audience development.
* A policy that favours new writing works with audiences.

The mechanisms for raising public awareness of English-medium Welsh literature and writers

Sgript Cymru’s full title is Sgript Cymru – Contemporary Drama Wales. The aim of the company is to start generating a lasting legacy of contemporary drama that is culturally meaningful for Wales. The choice of "Contemporary Drama Wales" was deliberate, however, in that, while our main thrust was to be a progressive new writing company, we also wished, from time to time, to demonstrate the value of work from the past through revivals and retrospectives. As playwright Charles Way has pointed out, a second production is extremely important for a writer and his or her development and profile, "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." It also builds the audience for the playwright and new writing. However, it would be an abdication of responsibility to existing playwrights to dedicate resources to such an idea out of our present core funding. Nevertheless, we are working with the internationally respected playwright and director, Peter Gill towards a retrospective of his Cardiff plays, as well as an exploration of his life and work, beginning in 2005 under a proposed partnership with Cardiff Council. This kind of focus is much-needed for other Welsh playwrights, but the likelihood of it happening at all is conditional, again, on a change in funding and a reversal of the long-standing neglect of the body of work that exists. The Peter Gill season is intended to have a photographic exhibition, talks, workshops, masterclasses with young Welsh writers and directors as well as the involvement of Peter himself. Retrospective seasons of this kind are a particularly powerful way of validating the work of the playwright and branding its significance in the mind of the public, as well as involving the academic community. It also draws critical attention from national newspapers and attracts cultural tourism.

The afterlife of a play can be very significant in terms of its strength as a cultural asset. Part of the reason some of the early Welsh playwrights are so neglected is that their work is unavailable. Similarly, the wide body of work presented in the last twenty years is little published. In every decent theatre section of a bookshop, there are anthologies of plays from America, Ireland, Scotland, even Latin America, Japan and Hungary, published by the major play publishers – Methuen, Nick Hern, Oberon and Faber. There is not one anthology of Welsh plays from these houses. Although some individual Welsh playwrights are published, there is nervousness about Welsh work in general that is not applicable to Scottish or Irish writing. Sgript Cymru has a policy of publishing each play we produce as part of a playtext/programme. However, we receive no support at present from The Arts Council or the Welsh Books Council towards any publication, unless we submit it after the production is over, therefore, making it much less useful to the company’s purpose because it is sold on the door. The Welsh language plays we have produced feature on the school syllabus and, therefore, it is possible to recoup the costs through sales eventually. However, this does not apply to the English language work, which is unfairly neglected by the WJEC. Distribution is also an issue as the Welsh Books Council will take a hundred copies of each Welsh language play published and distribute them to bookshops, but there is a need for a similar arrangement in English language work. As a response to the problems in publishing, heroic Welsh ventures like Parthian Books, run by playwright Lewis Davies, have established themselves and have a solid list of recent English-medium Welsh plays, but publishers, like new writing companies, need a culture of support for the work to thrive and there is a perception in Welsh publishing, as there is with venues selling tickets, that new writing is "a hard sell." For example, Seren has stopped publishing drama entirely. That said, sales of new plays in the major publishing houses mentioned above are booming, especially with purchases now possible via the internet by-passing the high street chains. Yet again, there would seem to be a contrast between the position in Wales and elsewhere.

The Welsh Development Agency has emerged recently as a tentative, but potentially useful ally to the business side of marketing and promoting the arts. Sgript Cymru has worked in the last year with a marketing consultancy, The First Step, which has been part-funded by The WDA. It has been incredibly useful to us in sharpening our image and communicating what we do to the public. However, there seems to be some confusion in the agency as to the legitimacy of its relationship to the creative industries, which could usefully be addressed. There would surely be a role for it to play in considering issues that have arisen in the publishing sector for example. However, without the publications, it is hard to educate people about Welsh writing. As part of a different approach, Sgript Cymru is currently embarking on an educational programme that is intended to support and enhance perspectives on the work when it is produced. For example, an education pack available on request and through our website will now accompany each play. We also offer free workshops to schools where young people can start to write their own plays, take part in acting exercises and explore the playwright’s world. We try to provide opportunities to meet writers through talks and question and answer sessions. We also offer ticket deals for school parties as part of our Audience Development programme, although again funding is limited to the duration of the project. Experience proves that younger audiences are particularly interested in Sgript Cymru’s work and the audience that the company has developed in Cardiff for new writing demonstrates that with energy and imagination progress is eminently possible.

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the most significant mechanisms for raising public awareness of English-medium new stage writing would be the existence of a dedicated venue for contemporary drama, as argued earlier. The names of The Traverse, The Abbey and The Royal Court are synonymous with new writing in each of their particular cultures – the venue reinforcing the writer’s identity and the writer reinforcing that of the venue. In these cases, both the venues and the writing have become bound in a virtuous circle that resonates hugely beyond the physical event of the play’s staging. Given that the playwright is still the expressive artist best placed to mediate representations of Wales to audiences amongst our own communities and also beyond the border, it must be counted as a debilitating weakness in arts provision in Wales.

It is hard to avoid the subject of a national theatre in the English language, especially as a bid from The Arts Council of Wales for money for such a project is now lodged with the Minister. Some might be tempted to think that this is a way to promote awareness of English-medium Welsh drama and its playwrights. However, the idea of the relationship between a national theatre and our culture in the English language is inherently more complicated than it is in the Welsh language and it does not follow naturally that a national theatre will be beneficial to Welsh playwrights. Indeed, many are actively opposed to it, because they see it as an exclusive institution that will disenfranchise the other companies and act as a magnet for all funding. Personally, I do not have an overwhelming objection to a theatre based primarily on the production of the classics, modern European theatre, translations, adaptations and some new writing. Indeed, in my view, the artistic programme of any national theatre should mainly comprise of such work. But the fact that that there are so few classic, popular Welsh plays available in English is a problematic issue for such a theatre. Moreover, there is a limit to how much an actor, a director, designer or a stage manager, albeit collectively as part of "a national theatre," can express Welsh identity through their work in performing Shakespeare or Noel Coward, for example. In performing the work of a Welsh playwright, however, the matter might be altered. The danger is that an English language national theatre that relies on the English language repertory theatre model - classics, modern plays, translations and adaptations - is going to become a national theatre in name, but not in practice. In which case, it becomes little more than a branding exercise. Moreover, without a commitment to the work of living playwrights, experience shows us that the audience ages and diminishes.

Also much of this debate has worryingly and absurdly focussed on scale with calls for a national theatre that has large casts and big venues. It is an economic fact that it is a huge gamble to present new plays in large theatres and, politically, it has been an objection raised by many artists over the years, particularly Welsh artists in recent times, that there is an unfair hierarchy of investment in large, administration-led buildings, rather than in artists and in their work. In addition to financial objections, Max Stafford Clark has convincingly argued that when audience capacity moves above 250 there is an inverse and diminishing ratio of spectacle to content. That may not be of concern with pantomime, musicals and opera, but, as Sir Richard Eyre said while debating the future of theatre a short while ago, "In an age that seeks to make all experience virtual and all art a commodity, there’s a powerful case for an art form which can never dissolve the scale of the human figure, the sound of the human voice and our desire to tell each other stories." There have been too many theatre companies in the past that have foundered on impractical ambitions with damaging financial consequences. Furthermore, The Arts Council of Wales seems to be pressing ahead with an initiative that is driven by individual agendas, rather than a proper inclusive process. It is fine to set the goal of a national theatre, but there has been no consultation about what sort of national theatre it should be and no impartial process from which to pursue a strategy. To proceed towards fresh initiatives with ear-marked funding, when the vast majority of revenue clients are historically under-funded seems unjust.

I leave the last word to playwright, Gary Owen, who spoke about his hopes in a recent interview in The New Welsh Review, "David Greig has made the point that when two thousand people see a play in a city of the size of Edinburgh (which is what... three million?), it has a very different impact to two thousand people seeing a play in a city the size of London. Now think about Cardiff. Two thousand people is not that much for a successful new play: it's a fairly good house in a studio space for a month. It's not even a sell-out. If two thousand people see a play in Cardiff, that's one in every hundred people. That's someone in every street. That's the start of something. And then imagine that we had a hit. Imagine that we had an extended run - a transfer to the main stage at the Sherman, or the New Theatre. Imagine that a new Welsh play became a must-see, here, in Cardiff, in Wales. Imagine that. Imagine what we could do then."


* We need to support second productions for Welsh playwrights.
* Much more needs to be done to address problems in publishing drama.
* Education in schools should include consideration of contemporary Welsh playwrights.
* Public awareness would change if there were a dedicated space for contemporary drama.
* A national theatre in the English language is not inherently good for Welsh playwrights.
* There has been no proper process towards the goal of a national theatre and it remains unsupported by many.

author:simon harris

original source:
01 December 2003


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