Theatre in Wales

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

Hope on the Welsh Horizon?

Welsh Theatre is in a parlous state: no one but the most blind money-saving politician would deny that.

Welsh Theatre is in a parlous state: no one but the most blind money-saving politician would deny that. It is under-funded by comparison with the rest of the UK, threatened with the end of arms-length funding, and riven by factionalism and in-fighting. Many Welsh actors shake the dust of Wales off their acting shoes and rarely, if ever, return professionally.

Two reports from the Arts Council of Wales, published this week, show the depths to which the Welsh theatre scene has sunk. The picture painted by Peter Boyden's report into English Language Theatre in Wales is not a pretty one:

English language theatre in Wales is characterised by low levels of investment, a weak professional infrastructure, low levels of output and unsatisfied demand for indigenous theatre from presenting venues and audiences.


The last two decades have seen a steady drift of talent to work in theatre elsewhere or to leave the sector altogether. Of the graduates from the acting course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2003 only 17% found their first professional work in Wales. There is a debilitating assumption that talent must leave Wales to achieve its potential.

Boyden, as he did with English regional theatre, shows a way forward, and if his proposals are put into effect, the whole scene could be radically transformed relatively quickly, which is what happened in England.

However one is forced to wonder if that will happen. In England there was a willingness on the part of government to respond to the Boyden Report, and the money was made available. Whether the Welsh Assembly has that willingness is open to conjecture: the fact that it is proposing that the Arts Council of Wales should effectively become part of the civil service, thus giving the politicians control over the giving of grant-in-aid, is not a good omen.

The principle of arms-length funding has been central to the arts since 1945 when the Arts Council of Great Britain was set up, and has remained unchallenged throughout the United Kingdom until now, through all the changes from ACGB to Arts Council England, ACW, SAC and ACNI. Even after the latest ACE revamp, the taking over of the Regional Arts Boards by the central organisation, the principle is still firmly adhered to and, in fact, has been re-affirmed by Whitehall.

The prospect of artists having to lobby politicians for their funding is a frightening one, and its probable effect on what is produced scary indeed. Fund a play critical of Assembly policy? No chance!

There are countries in which arts funding is distributed directly by government departments (Austria, France and Germany are good examples), but these countries have freedom of expression legislation, something which is singularly lacking in the UK. The nett effect of lack of such legislation, combined with the arms-length distribution of funding, is that the two approaches are actually very similar in their end results. Take away the arms-length principle and you have the perfect conditions for government censorship by economics.

One wonders if this is the Assembly's aim.

There are obstacles in the Assembley's way, however. ACE is mandated by the Westminster DCMS to distribute Lottery funds. This is one function which the Assembly cannot take over without a change in national (i.e. UK-wide) legislation. Since Westminster is vocal in its support of the arms-length principle, such a change is highly unlikely. This could leave ACW as a distributor of Lottery funding whilst the Assembly, through its culture committee, distributes grant-in-aid. Apart from the fact that this would destroy any chance of sensible strategic planning for the arts, it is very unilkely that Westminster - which holds the purse-strings - would go along with it.

Boyden's report is a bright light on the horizon of Welsh theatre, but the Assembly could snap it out in a moment, leaving future generations to look back at the current situation as the good old days. "17% of Welsh-trained actors stayed in Wales? Wonderful!"

author:Peter Lathan

original source: British Theatre Guide
12 September 2004


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