Theatre in Wales

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

Educating Peter!

Peter Doran, artistic director of the Torch Theatre looks at the state of theatre i Wales at the start of 2004

Educating Rita is The Torch Theatreís twenty-fifth production since I took over as Artistic Director in 1998 and, apart from our production of The Caretaker, when a torn cartilage kept me out of the rehearsal room, Iíve directed them all. So, why Educating Rita? Is it because being the son of a Scouser I enjoy that distinctive brand of humour? Is it because I have a great admiration for Willy Russellís play? Maybe itís because whilst working on a play set in that great city I feel closer to my other passion, Liverpool Football Club? Well, itís all of those things. Cynics, however, might suggest that as there are only two actors and one setting, it is cheap to produce. Sadly, this is a major factor but that is the state of Welsh theatre at the moment: the economics dictate.

However, that is not the sole reason for doing ĎRitaí: it is a great play and one to which Pembrokeshire audiences will hopefully flock and enjoy. But, in an ideal world, Iíd rather produce, for example, Willy Russellís Blood Brothers if for no other reason than it provides work for ten actors and at least five musicians. I am well aware of the groan from the acting community when they hear of yet another two-hander being produced by one of the only three building-based companies in Wales. Their chances of work are reduced dramatically. Actors have a hard time in Wales, harder still if youíre not Welsh speaking and I really feel for them, Iíve been there. One of the greatest pleasures of this job is offering an actor work but, with over two thousand letters each season from actors looking for work and some seventeen jobs on offer, the pleasure is heavily outweighed by the number of rejection letters I send. Not a week goes by without hearing of yet another talented Welsh actor moving to London because itís impossible to make a living in their homeland.

Is the situation likely to change? Not in the foreseeable future, not until there is a large injection of money ploughed into English language theatre in Wales and, even then, money will not solve all our problems but it would go a long, long way towards easing the situation.

Am I despondent? Yes, who wouldnít be in my situation? Although talk of resignation is far from my mind because Iím currently in the rehearsal room doing what I enjoy, creating theatre. I know that on my desk back in the office are a dozen potential headaches waiting for me, waiting for me to administer the Paracetamol treatment. With £3.7 million to raise for our development fund, a VAT issue which could cost the Theatre hundreds of thousands of pounds, an underpaid staff working in the most appalling conditions, equipment breaking down all around me, a heating system that barely works and a leaking roof, the headaches are slowly becoming immune to Paracetamol.

But letís be positive, itís not all bad:

Our audiences have rocketed over the past five years, so much so that one of the priorities of our development is to get more seats into the auditorium.

Our Company shows are playing to over 70% capacity, which is more than respectable for a theatre with such a small catchment area.

The critics have been very generous towards my work and I get a great deal of support from the theatre community in Wales. Iíve also had support and valuable advice from Terry Hands at Theatr Clwyd and Phil Clark at The Sherman.

It is often assumed that there is some kind of rivalry between Artistic Directors but Iím not aware of any. Itís easy to knock Phil Clark and Terry Hands, they are easy targets but I have a good understanding of their problems, which is more than can be said for a lot of those who criticise. We all want The Sherman to produce more work, itís in the capital city for heavenís sake, but nobody wants that more than Phil Clark. Theatr Clwyd is seen as the very rich relation in the North but it is all relative, they work on a larger scale than the rest of us, the demands are higher and the costs greater but they are suffering from Local Authority cutbacks and so the pressure is no less than at The Torch. Clwyd should be up there with the big regional powerhouses of Leeds, Manchester, Plymouth and Birmingham.

I come from a background of the regional repertory company system, a system that worked for decades and one in which I still believe. Wales needs to develop its regional theatres, we should be producing more and touring nationally, we have the talent. The recent talk of a National Theatre for Wales is an unwelcome diversion: weíd all like to see one in the future but now is not the time. Any builder knows that if your foundations are not secure then your house will fall down. In Wales we donít have those foundations whereas in Scotland they have talked about a National Theatre for a long time but only now have decided to go ahead. With fourteen successful building-based companies and a steady flow of new writers coming through, Scotland has the foundations on which to build. Wales has three under-funded producing houses, only a handful of new writers coming through and a dwindling budget to support the project companies: hardly the foundations on which to build.

So what do we do to lay those necessary foundations? A good start would be to invest in the existing infrastructure, thus allowing those companies to operate at optimum capacity. We need to build on the fine work started by Simon Harris at Sgript Cymru by establishing a base for new writers: as a nation we need a distinctive voice and that voice needs to be heard loud and clear. Sadly, itís back to money: where is it going to come from? Iím afraid I donít have the answer. My job is to be Ďartisticí and part of the problem in Wales is that we seem unwilling to allow Ďartisticí people to get on with what they do best by throwing obstacles in their way.

Anyway, having made it back into the rehearsal room, Iíve managed to get those creative juices flowing again. Educating Rita is an interesting piece to come back to. When it was written, little importance was attached to adult education whereas getting a degree was greatly valued (and it didnít cost you anything). Many interesting conversations with the two actors have opened up and itís a shame Charles Clarke couldnít be in on them. With only two in the cast it does mean that you can work in far more depth which is very rewarding (hopefully for both parties).

Sarah Withe, who plays Rita, is a former student of mine from my time at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I directed her in her final-year showcase and this led to a nine-month contract in Brookside. It is great to be working again with Sarah and seeing how sheís developed and matured as an actress. Coming from Liverpool, she has a great understanding of the brand of comedy that is the hallmark of Willy Russellís work.

Keith Woodason plays Ritaís university tutor, Frank. This is Keithís fourth appearance at The Torch and his versatility and commitment never cease to amaze.

Ritaís journey towards gaining an education is a long and bumpy ride: with the support of Frank, she achieves her goal but is she any better off? The future has no more promise than when she started her journey, not unlike my six years at the helm of The Torch. Iíve learnt one hell of a lot and yet the job isnít getting any easier. And what of my future? Well, like Liverpoolís beleaguered manager, Gerard Houllier, letís just say weíll see what position weíre in at the end of the season. Educating Rita runs until February 14th: The production is sponsored by Paracetamol.

author:Peter Doran, Artistic Director of The Torch Theatre

original source:
30 January 2004


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