Theatre in Wales

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

Creating a Scene

AND let's just try to get through the rest of the day without even mentioning the words National Theatre, right?"

So said one exasperated delegate at the conference on The Future of English Language Theatre in Wales in Cardiff, organised by the Wales Association for the Performing Arts.

And it was easy enough to understand why his comment won him a spontaneous round of applause.

With just a handful of English-language companies struggling to stay in business across Wales, it's not surprising that many people in the Welsh theatre world find current talk of a National Theatre as irritating as it is unrealistic.

There was no chance, though, of the subject of a National Theatre remaining completely on the back burner; if only because the current situation in Scotland, about which I had been invited to speak, offers so many interesting points of similarity and contrast to the issues facing English-speaking theatre in Wales.

Last September, after a debate lasting almost a century, the Scottish Executive finally announced a 7.5m funding package, over two years, for the setting up of a National Theatre of Scotland, on the innovative model first proposed by the Federation of Scottish Theatres in 2000; a National Theatre that will be neither a company nor a building, but a commissioning body, working through Scotland's existing network of around 20 major companies to commission work that will showcase the best of Scottish-made theatre to the nation and the world.

The news was greeted, perhaps not surprisingly, with almost as much wariness as celebration; many Scottish companies still find it hard to believe that the coming of the NToS, due to stage its first season in spring 2005, will not be used as an excuse for cutting funding elsewhere.

But all the same, that moment last September represented a historic turning-point for Scottish theatre, a massive 50% at-a-stroke increase in central government support for it, and a rare moment of opportunity to build a new relationship with audiences; it's a good moment, therefore, to review the process by which Scottish theatre reached this point, and to see whether elements of it strike any chords in Wales.

In the first place, I think we are probably dealing in both countries with a culture to which theatre has traditionally been marginal, perhaps seen as an art-form in which England excels, and which is therefore not so closely associated with our own self-generated culture as, say, song or music, storytelling or poetry.

The result of this marginalisation is that theatre made in Wales or Scotland has low visibility in the national life, low media attention, low public awareness, and a certain losers' amnesia about its own achievements.

For better or worse, the idea of a National Theatre offers an opportunity to change that relationship; but if Scotland's experience shows anything, it's that the move onto a national stage has to be preceded by a generation of solid work in creating a theatre that reflects the diverse voices of the nation, and can begin to hold its own in a national arena.

In the second place, it seems clear that the crucial element in that building process is the development of a strong national repertoire, based around new work, translations of contemporary work from elsewhere, key classic revivals inflected by our own culture, and the kind of bold formal experimentation in which both Wales and Scotland have often excelled.

Wales has a touring company dedicated to new writing in Sgript Cymru and it has its tradition of formal boldness.

But it crucially lacks a Welsh Traverse or Royal Court, a well-funded building-based theatre for new writing which can act as a permanent focus and crucible for new talent.

Over the last 30 years the Traverse has played a key role in the emergence of wave after wave of Scottish writers, from John Byrne and Liz Lochhead in the 1970s, to David Greig, David Harrower, Henry Adam, Gregory Burke and Isobel Wright in the years since 1990; and together, they have had an incalculable effect on the emergence and growing self-confidence of Scottish theatre as a live arena for debating and analysing the contemporary world.

In the third place, the growing strength and self-respect of Scottish theatre over these years led directly to the development of the Federation of Scottish Theatres' unique model for a national theatre project; a model that came from the theatre profession itself, that is federal and commission-based rather than competitive with existing companies, and - crucially - that makes the successful development of the national theatre project completely dependent on the strength and viability of the existing theatre infrastructure.

I'm not suggesting that this Scottish-made model should be applied wholesale to Wales.

But it's worth noting that if it were applied, what it would tell us, right now, is exactly what the delegates to last December's conference were saying; that Wales's English-language theatre infrastructure is years away from being able to sustain a national theatre project, and that there is no case for even discussing such a project until the nation can support a network of, say, at least 10-strong and adequately-funded year-round companies that can give a voice to the full geographical and social diversity of Wales, and push forward the task of developing a rich, 21st-century repertoire in every kind of language spoken in the country.

Which brings us, finally, to the grand political task that faces theatre in every nation, and particularly in every small nation; the task of raising more cash on our own terms, and without selling our souls to any political project or establishment.

English-speaking theatre in Wales today urgently needs more public money; funding levels for adult theatre in the English-speaking sector are shockingly low, even by Scotland's far-from-lavish standards.

So for the fund-raising process, here are four key thoughts.

First, the theatre community must get together and lobby with one voice, as the Federation of Scottish Theatres did back in 2000.

Second, the Scottish and Welsh administrations, as regional governments in a European context, need to be encouraged to recognise that culture is something they can do, and do well; one area where, uniquely, they have the powers, the cash and the opportunity to make a huge difference for a relatively small number of bucks.

Third, the administration needs to accept once and for all that the poverty-wage tradition among theatre workers is a disgrace, and that the nation's theatre life should not be subsidised by the chronic exhaustion and insecurity of the dedicated people who work in it.

And finally, they have to be persuaded that live contemporary theatre at its best has something every nation needs: a sense of diversity as richness and fascination, rather than as a threat; a sense of sexiness and glamour that Britain's nations and regions urgently need to reclaim for themselves, after the long age of metropolitan dominance; and that sense of distinctive, indigenous creative energy and excitement without which no modern nation can hope to thrive.

Investment in a bustling, brilliant national theatre culture, in other words, is one of the best investments that any small nation can make; and on the day when all the politicians of our new devolved Britain finally begin to understand that truth, and act on it, we will truly have something to celebrate.

author:Joyce McMillan

original source: the western mail
14 May 2004


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