Theatre in Wales

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

Night Out - John Prior MBE looks back at 25 years

In Nov 1979 I was appointed to SEWAA after a decade in Theatre-in-Education and straight from writing and directing a play called HORNS OF THE BULL For Gwent Theatre.

At that time the default position for countless theatre companies in the UK was a more or less socialist and often revolutionary. The state subsidy system accommodated theatre companies whose avowed intention was to see the collapse of the state as we knew it.

Part of this agenda involved a scornful dismissal of the old repertory theatre network – seen with some accuracy as ‘bourgeois’ and therefore irrelevant to the task of taking theatre to the proletarian masses, for whom ‘going to the theatre’ was either a social event for the toffs – or intellectual stimulus for those who had been to university and knew about literature and that sort of thing.

A whole raft of touring theatre companies sprang up, with the implicit intention of taking the theatre to the huddled masses - by getting on the road and seeking out audiences in non-theatre environments, with methods of theatre story-telling designed for audiences unfamiliar with theatrical conventions.
They had rallying-call names like “Red Banner”, ‘Red Ladder’ “Red Flannel” “Belt and Braces”, “7:84” (84% of the wealth owned by 7% of the population). Some like Red ladder were agit-prop, stripped down to the barest essentials of a platform and a couple of actors, and their Red-painted step-ladder, symbolic of the stepped hierarchies in society became a familiar sight outside factory gates as they performed for picket lines during Ted Heath’s winter of discontent. Others like “Monstrous Regiment” and “Bag & Baggage” were advancing the feminist agenda.

Probably the most successful company was John McGrath’s “7:84” company, whose ground-breaking play “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil” was said to be packing the village halls in Scotland through the Seventies. At their best they were wonderful tellers of tales and singers of beautiful folk-based songs. The Theatre in Education movement had its part to play in this thrust – disillusioned with the repertory companies’ attempts at engaging over-excited masses of school children in large auditoria, they took tailor-made pieces targeted at small groups of specific age-groups into the very classrooms and developed hybrid forms of theatre in response to this.

However, in England and Wales, the problem was that, for all this talk of “Playing to the masses”, the reality was that (aside from TIE) there was no efficient system that could deliver theatre performances into the heart of working class culture in sufficient volume for those companies to make a living without heavy subsidy. There were the Working Men’s clubs, (with their all-powerful Entertainment Secretaries, used to sending comedians home unpaid if they did not please), but it was hard work trying to get them to book theatre. Companies would trumpet their occasional successes in persuading the NUM to sponsor half-a-dozen performances - but the vision of playing to the proletarian masses was more dream than reality .

You can’t keep your subsidy if you don’t perform, and most companies had to turn to the growing network of Arts Centres and the Students’ Unions for the bread and butter of touring. This presented them, consciously or otherwise, with an artistic dilemma. The audiences in these networks (the ‘denim elite’ not ‘bourgeois’ but educated and radical) had more sophisticated tastes; they tended to value explorations into form above content and entertainment. For them, mere ‘story’ or social analysis was not enough; they would expect stylistic and structural surprises from their theatre visits, and tended to judge a company’s work by comparison with its earlier work or that of its rivals, or for its curiosity value, rather that by what it appeared to be saying abut the human condition. Thus began the drift into stylistic sophistication that would distance companies’ from the proletarian audience they had set out to seek. Music became more complex; straightforward narrative became old hat and form for form’s sake became the order of the day. This reached its nadir locally in my view when, so concerned to avoid such bourgeois indulgences as dramatic shape, or the sharing of applause, a plant would be set in a Chapter Arts Centre audience, primed to be the first to leave the auditorium as a sign to everyone that the end of the show had arrived!

This was the situation as I saw it when I took up post as Arts Officer in South East Wales Arts Association in November 1979 – after a decade as an actor, director and writer in Theatre-in-Education – and straight from a tour with Gwent Theatre too often characterised by sports-hall managers failing to do anything constructive with the publicity material sent to them in advance.

I was given the luxury of three-months’ grace to recommend to the Board what I thought my job priorities should be, and as part of this, I set to thinking about how the lack of a reliable system of taking theatre to what I chose to call ‘ordinary folk’ might be addressed. The problem was that with rare exceptions, Workmen’s Institutes were geared up to Bingo, Beer and rowdy entertainment, and the new community facilities based around sports-halls were acoustically difficult and were generally managed by staff understandably more committed to liniment than leotards; besides which, neither had any staff with training in marketing theatre if they chose to book it.

It occurred to me that if we were to create a market for theatre amongst people who, for whatever reason did not prioritise visits to the arts centres and theatres so thoughtfully provided for them by the state, we would need to find local organisations deeply rooted in their own communities, where voluntary effort is what makes thinks happen. We would need to find these and develop an ‘offer’ that would do something for community cohesion, in a form that would make it easy for energetic committee-members to take ownership of occasional visits into their neighbourhoods from touring companies, without their optimism being vetoed by the proper pessimistic caution of their treasurers.

The organisation that seemed to meet this criterion was the committee of the Village Hall or local Community Centre They were in possession of premises, were equipped with local knowledge and had an ability to organise and be accountable, they appeared to be able to provide voluntarily, the marketing personnel so lacking in the council’s managed sports/community centres.

In order for them to be recruited, we needed to ensure two things
· that they would be able to choose what shows they hosted and have ownership of the visit.
· that if they took on the responsibility of hosting a show they would not be exposed to financial difficulties.
· That they could see this as a service designed to benefit them as a community, rather than to do a favour to the performers or ourselves.

My first instinct was to call it the “13Amp Circuit” and I sometimes wish we had done so – but Peter Booth, SEWAA’s Director came up with “Night Out” and it has served us well ever since.

I approached the Leisure Director of the District Council of Blaenau-Gwent – a thoughtful ex-British Lion called David Nash – and told him we were prepared to pay fees to theatre companies if community-centre-committees could be persuaded to choose them, invite them in and gather an audience. We would do this if he would stand as guarantor for the sum of £50 towards the cost and first call on the ticket money up to that sum.

He liked the idea and took me on a tour of housing estates in his borough where we peddled the idea to half-a-dozen committees …. who spent some time questioning me ‘looking for the catch’ and when they realised that there wasn’t one, leapt at the idea.

The first tour was by a lovely but sadly short-lived company born out f the Flintshire TIE company, called “SMALL CHANGE THEATRE” They had a show called “Hope Street” – about the Gresford Colliery disaster which launched the circuit in Nantybwch Senior Citizens’ Hall in Tredegar, on 13th October 1980, and followed it with six more performances, in Cwm, Swffrydd, Cwmafon, Pontymoile, Gilwern and Llanhilleth to average audiences of 93. That first year 1980/81 produced 11 promoters, who hosted 34 with an average attendance of 82.

It began simply as a theatre circuit, but soon the logic of it catering for any of the performing arts became overpowering..

After nearly five thousand performances of an unrecorded number of productions, individuals will have their own high and low points and it is impossible to generalise. But, subjectively, here are some that stand out in my own memory……..

July 1980 - First partnership deal struck – with Blaenau-Gwent District Council

1 promoters host 34 performances in the first season

FIRST SHOW - in Nantybwch Senior Citizens’ Hall, Tredegar 13th Oct 1980“
This was HOPE STREET” a play about the Gresford Colliery disaster by Small
Change Theatre - a delightful but short-lived company born out of the Clwyd
Outreach TIE Company.
They followed it with six more performances, in Cwm, Swffrydd,
Cwmafon, Pontymoile, Gilwern and Llanhilleth to average audiences of 93.

As other District Council Leisure officers came to hear about it their willingness to join in partnership with us spread like wildfire. The following year we had partnerships with six district councils (1 in South Glam, plus 5 in Gwent )
(Mid glam was excluded because of a little local difficulty over their funding of the arts generally)

24 promoters host 49 shows

5 Partnerships in place with District Councils in Gwent and Cardiff)
“ONE BIG BLOW” by 7:84 theatre in Night Out’s very first year: This was a theatre in the round musical play in which miners dealing with industrial relations underground, struggled above ground to save their band when their leading cornet soloist succumbed to pneumoconiosis.
The songs and brass band music were all sung by the all-male cast in enchantingly intricate a-capella harmonies, with so much joy that after eight months touring the actors decided to go into business as pop-stars, and launched themselves on the Edinburgh fringe as “THE FLYING PICKETS” with the rock-and-pop repertoire they had amused themselves with in the back of the transit.

90 promoters host 103 shows TOTAL 186
Mid Glamorgan’s six districts join the scheme as does Vale of Glamorgan

1985/ 86
116 promoters host 194 shows TOTAL 380
WOT THEATRE appear on the scene and open up a new market in 16 South Glamorgan Youth Clubs (Night out partnership struck with South Glamorgan County Youth Service) This starts a five-year period of WOT theatre ‘hitting the button’ for youth club audiences from 1985 to 1990. Night Out kept them going with fees through nearly 200 performances whilst ACW’s Drama Department wondered whether to fund them.

22 performances of “NOAH’S LARK” (Hijinx Theatre) a modern morality play on the biblical theme; played on a catwalk, close to the audience with Richard Berry as Noah and Glenys Evans as Mrs Noah . Angels played tenor sax’s – Noah can’t afford the wood, so the Lord sends what he needs in ‘kit form’ . . ………….. . . (Still unsurpassed theatre in my view).

1986/87 80 promoters host 140 shows TOTAL 520

First “Hennessy & Friends” Arts Variety show held on 30TH Jan 1987
in Cefn Coed y Cymmer as guests of the Vaynor Community Council
I had seen the need to provide a platform for individual artists that would surprise people with the joy of new experiences in small doses, and the idea of an “Arts Variety Show” seemed to meet the bill. What was needed was a recognisable and popular ‘brand’ that people would trust because of its popular appeal, and to inject short performances by guest artists from a variety of performing traditions that people might be surprised and delighted by. The search for the right presenter took some months – but when Frank Hennessy agreed to give it a go, we started something which has carried on and retained its vigour for the following 18 years.
Guest artists have presented Bharat Natyam and Arabian Classical dance, contemporary dance, classical guitar, harp, poetry, Jazz and a wide range of folk artistry.

1987/88 115 promoters host 115 shows TOTAL 635
(Includes 47 youth clubs in Mid & South Glamorgan hosting 64 shows.
i) WOT Theatre’s Youth club market expands into Mid-Glamorgan
WAC Drama Dept slowly considers whether to help with up-front funding.
ii) 24 performances of Charlie Way’s “She Scored for Wales” (Gwent Theatre)

138 promoters host 213 shows TOTAL 848
(Incl - 47 youth clubs hosting 66 shows)

WAC Funding to WOT Theatre denied: Artistic Director leaves to run
Oxfordshire Touring Company, leaving company leaderless.

i) Early performances of House of America by Ed Thomas

ii) Performance of Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Rhymes” by Peter Florence – now director of the Hay Festival
iii) Taking Jane Davidson (now Education minister) to a youth club in Llanrumney and “Discovering” Ian Rowlands (Now director of Theatr Gogledd Cymru) confronting young people with a show about AIDS

124 promoters host 223 shows TOTAL 1081
(Includes 39 youth clubs hosting 41 shows
Youth service leadership networks rationalised ,
Youth club funding partnership declines.
Now leaderless, WOT Theatre disbands

Hiring heavy-duty raised seating and fitting it up night-after-night to ensure sightlines for a Masquerade Theatre production whose action had more low-level floor-action than anticipated.

27 promoters host 141 performances TOTAL 1222

Gilly Adams’ production for made in Wales Stage Company, of “The Scam” by Peter Lloyd . Memorable for performance by current man of the TV moment Ian Puleston-Davies then not long out of college, who gripped an audience of twenty teenagers crammed into in a council house converted into a community centre on a troubled housing estate in Pontypridd (since renamed) - with a performance of an intensity and menace that it was obvious then would take him far.

129 promoters host 196 Performances TOTAL 1418

Sherman Theatre begins its tradition of annual touring shows for the under 5’s with “PRETEND WE’RE FRIENDS’ to 11 venues in December
PETER GREGORY appearing in “Risky in Pink”in Hensol Hospital!

127 Promoters host 200 performances TOTAL 1618
Ian Rowlands in his Play “The Sin Eaters” short but impressive tour

108 promoters host 201 performances TOTAL 1819
“BAROC” hit the circuit with their classically trained Jazz and Gershwyn acapella singing

104 promoters host 189 performances TOTAL 2008
i) Christopher Owen ( seen in Inspector Morse, Men Behaving Badly and Poirot) bringing “The Parson’s Tale” - his affectionate solo-recreation of the life of a rural parson in 1895 - to St Illtud’s deconsecrated church on Brynithel hill high above Llanhilleth
ii) “Tales from Beyond the Border” storytelling company spins of St Donats storytelling festival

107 promoters host 171 performances
TOTAL 2179
Local government reorganisation creates unitary authorities – dissolving District Councils and with them out network of partnerships
These have to be recreated from scratch with each of the new counties
This leads to a ‘blip’ output the following year.

77 promoters host 146 performances
TOTAL 2325
WNO’s “Welsh brass Ensemble” joins the circuit

1997/98 90 promoters host 184 performances TOTAL 2509
JP meets Mentrau Iaith organisers in Aberystwyth to encourage them to use
the scheme.
100th Hennessy & Friends show held at packed TREDEGAR ORPHEUS HALL
With guest artist PAULA GARDINER

159 promoters host 300 performances
TOTAL 2809
In response to the urgent need to bring all counties rapidly into partnership, North Wales regional office funds “Dowries” to help each of their counties to create a budget with which to underwrite Night Out events. All Counties in North Wales Region come into partnership at once.

111 promoters hosted 201 performances
TOTAL 3010
“Dowry” exercise brings all but one of West Wales Counties into partnership
Downturn attributed to undeveloped all-Wales marketing mechanism.
This leads to
Launch OF the first Community Touring website in UK

150 promoters hosted 307 performances
TOTAL 3317
Rules amended to allow funding of participatory workshops (when directly
connected with a performance)in line with new ACW policy on participation.

165 promoters hosted 298 performances
TOTAL 3615

187 promoters hosted 374 performances
TOTAL 3989
Theatre Bara Caws include the filmed image of Rhys Ifans as part of a play and cannot get the equipment up the stairs at Amanford miners theatre.

206 promoters hosted 392 performances
TOTAL 4381
92 in Communities First Areas
£20,000 injected from Targetted Communities Development fund to offer increased subsidy for shows in COMMUNITIES FIRST areas
Balance of take-up shifts considerably to the North, Mid and West of Wales relative to Cardiff and the valleys

252 promoters hosted 411 performances TOTAL 4792
111 in Communities First areas
April 15th 2005 with Hammer Dulcimer virtuoso, JIM COUZA

ii) Pontygwaith Regeneration Partnership promote CATHERINE JENKINS in
concert at Tylorstown Leisure Centre May 5th 2005

Shift in balance of take-up to the North, Mid and West of Wales relative to Cardiff and the valleys continues

411 performances supported by the scheme
29 826 people attended 409 of these (2 others were large scale outdoor- so audience numbers unreliable - possibly 10k)
111 were in communities first areas
229 performing groups or individuals were booked- (Night out helping to keep artists alive )
308 different productionms were presented
252 organisations booked them
258 community premeises were used as venues

drama 35.8%
Panto 3.1%
Dance 6%
Folk Roots world rock 24.1%
Populatr Song 9.2%
Chamber Music 7.29%
Jazz 5.1%
Operatic 0.7%
Spoken Word 6.1%
Variety 3.2%
Puppets 2.2%
Circus 1.5%

source of performers
77.6% wales
17.8% UK
4.6 % overseas
11.6% satisfied

Analysis by region
Mid west wales 154 performnces
south wales 128 performances
north wales 129 performances

author:John Prior MBE

original source:
09 January 2006


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