Theatre in Wales

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

Centre Stage?

There isn’t much the Wales Millennium Centre can’t offer the principality. But what will it mean for existing theatres?

November 2004 sees the opening of a new arts and theatre venue in Cardiff. One set to put the Welsh capital on an international platform of culture. “We will attract worldwide audiences and performers,” claims Angharad Wynne, PR manager for the Wales Millennium Centre. “We will showcase Welsh talent to the world”.

The regeneration of Cardiff Bay and the city in general has helped elevate Cardiff into becoming one of the UK’s most prestigious cities. The Wales Millennium Centre is set to raise its reputation even higher. “It will attract audiences from across the world and be a truly international venue,” adds Wynne. “The centre will be a cultural icon,” says Heledd Llewelyn, acting senior press officer for the Welsh Tourist Board. “It will enhance Cardiff’s reputation as an events host extraordinaire”.

The arts community in central Cardiff has been served by a quartet of venues for many years. But the equilibrium between The New Theatre, The Sherman, St. David’s Hall and Chapter Arts Centre is due for a major upheaval as the new development will be the largest performance venue in Cardiff and throughout Wales and will house companies such as Welsh National Opera, HiJinx, Diversions and Urdd Gobaith Cymru.

Criticism has been levelled at the Millennium Centre since the beginning of its development. The spiralling cost of the project has drawn the majority of negative attention. Originally budgeted at £75 million; the final cost rests at over £104 million. Blaenau Gwent MP Llew Smith called for the plug to be pulled on investing public money in Cardiff Bay as £25 million has already been ploughed into the Millennium Centre. While the cost aspect is under continual scrutiny, the effect the centre will have on the existing Cardiff venues is yet to be addressed.

The New Theatre is certain to be affected most directly, with some of its most profitable companies and performances relocating to the new larger stage. Welsh National Opera has been selling out at the New Theatre for 50 years, and this year sees the end of that partnership. “It will free up 16 weeks worth of dates annually,” says Andrea Heath, Cardiff Council information officer. But with the Millennium Centre putting a strong focus on large-scale musical productions, currently the most profitable brand of performance seen at the New Theatre, this seems likely to leave far larger holes in the theatre’s schedule. “We will use the free weeks to have a larger variety of drama and musicals,” says Heath.

Julia Barry, assistant marketing manager at The New Theatre admits, “There has been an increased emphasis on incorporating spoken word drama into our programme.” Last year, while An Inspector Calls sold out during it’s week long run, but later in the year plays such as Taking Sides woefully undersold, leaving a future programme of unpredictable revenue without the guaranteed audiences traditionally drawn by musicals. Even St David’s Hall will feel the effects as the Millennium Centre stages international ballet, and takes the National Orchestra of Wales away, both of which have proved massive successes in their schedule.

The Sherman has also acknowledged the effect the Millennium Centre will have on its attendance figures. Phil Clark, chief executive director comments that, “The first three to five years are going to be difficult as we strive to maintain new audiences”.

The centre will offer new opportunites for many of south Wales’ performance companies. Among others, Welsh National Opera, HiJinx and Diversions Dance will all find a permanent home inside the 1,900 capacity, £104 million complex, funded by various organisations. “We have never had our own performance space,” comments Caroline Leach, head of press for WNO. “We are primarily a touring company, and we will not be changing that. But the Millennium Centre will be our base and place of performance in Cardiff.” Increased capacity at the Millennium Centre will enable the WNO to offer tickets at reduced prices, “We will be able to attract an audience that previously were unable to enjoy opera,” Leach adds.

As well as the direct benefits for Cardiff, Urdd Gobaith Cymru, who promote Welsh language through a variety of activities and mediums, will offer opportunities for young people across Wales to experience the Millennium Centre and the surrounding area. “We will have 150 beds within the centre for residential projects,” states Iola Jones, Director of Public Relations for Urdd, “We have two outdoor pursuit projects in North Wales and this will offer theatre based workshops and a city experience for young Welsh people.”

Although mainly a touring company, HiJinx has its sights set on developing its Odyssey project. Every year, the group stages a show involving adults with learning disabilities. In past years, this has been performed at Chapter, but now looks set to be performed at the Millennium Centre’s secondary performance space, a 200 seated studio. Val Hill, administrative director for HiJinx comments, “Future performances and venues will be decided upon once we are settled at the centre.” Despite potentially losing popular performances from its future schedules, Chapter remains optimistic. “Chapter is bursting at the seams with companies wanting to perform here or use us as a base,” says Carole Jones, “The centre will only affect us in a positive way.” But the Studio space offered at the Millennium Centre is similar in size and intention as that offered at both Chapter and The Sherman. “This will be the greatest concern for both these venues,” comments Val Hill, “But this will hopefully provide opportunity for collaborative projects”.

The Millennium Centre states its their policy is to bring the Cardiff theatre community together and to offer shows such as Russian Ballet and large West End musicals that could never previously have come to Wales due to the scale of the productions and lack of a venue large enough to host. “We need to make sure that whatever we are running, that there are no major clashes in other venues”, says Angharad Wynne. “We will be working closely with Cardiff and Wales-wide venues and theatre companies”.

“The Millennium Centre will do the same for arts and theatre in Cardiff as the Millennium Stadium did for sport,” comments Val Hill, and while the Millennium Centre is still the subject of continual speculation and criticism, confidence in the centre and the future of the existing city centre venues remains high. “A greater audience will be generated by the cultural and artistic buzz that will surround the centre,” adds Hill, “The Millennium Centre will create new audiences rather than take them away from existing venues.”

author:Michael Baggs, Big Issue Cymru

original source: Big Issue Cymru
12 March 2004


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