Theatre in Wales

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

Legacy Conference - Theatre in Education (Theatr C

Keynote speech by Charlie Way, playwright

This is the text of the keynote speech delivered by Charles Way at the Legacy Conference at Clwyd Theatr Cymru on the 8th December 2006. (Information on the conference iteslf can be found by following the link at the bottom of this page)


Legacy Theatre Conference.

I am very pleased to be here with you this afternoon speaking about a subject so close to my heart and so close to home-namely the future of young peoples theatre in Wales. A subject that might to some seem rather narrow but to mind takes in a huge range of issues and themes, that criss cross the borders of politics education and art.

[It may be worth defining some terms, Theatre in education is a practice of using theatre/drama in an educational context-generally working with smaller numbers of children. Actor/teachers might work with a class for a morning and then perform a play and then do more work with the children, possibly in role-play. The work is based on strong educational principles pioneered in the seventies and eighties. In today’s economic climate this type of work is increasingly rare, but it is at the heart of the young peoples theatre movement. Theatre Powys is a leading practitioner in this type of work. Young People’s theatre for the 12+ and children’s theatre are more directly performance based but may include teachers packs and after show discussions. Children’s theatre is increasingly seen as work, which goes into theatres and may not be curriculum based but is educational in the broader sense.]

The future of theatre for young people is based on a hard won past. It has not always been easy for the companies to survive the changing times-or even to be born at all, and yet they have survived, not least because of some true grit shown by those who work in the sector and others who support from outside but essentially because over the years their importance to the fabric of welsh life has been recognised far beyond the educational sphere.

I have been working as a playwright in Wales since 1979 when I first wrote a play for Gwent theatre in Abergavenny, where I have since lived and raised children. It was a musical play for community audiences based on ‘A Christmas Carol’ and it was called Humbug. In one particular performance a woman who had brought a party of children with her, confirmed in her own mind the aptness of our title when she walked out taking her children with her-and the reason, as she vociferously declared was Scrooge’s use of the word ‘bloody’-The play literally stopped in mid scene. After she’d gone the rest of the audience then formed a committee, and after a show of hands agreed that the play should continue and thus we proceeded to the point where Scrooge, chastened by the spirits of the past present and future-not only turned out to be unrealistically nice but he also stopped swearing. Such was my introduction to welsh theatre and audiences where social democracy and the right to take offence were upheld in equal measure. The next day the Argus and the Echo labelled the play a ’bad language play’ and the company a ‘bad language company’, and that’s when tickets started selling.

In the 1980’s the companies I worked for, particularly Gwent had six full time actors, a full time designer, a director and stage management. Not so today, such is the strange nature of progress. Three plays a year were produced for infants, junior and secondary schools plus a community tour like the one I just described. The theatre company was embedded into the community and rarely toured outside of it. The lives of the theatre companies and the subject matter they chose reflected the times and in the 1980’s several companies presented plays about the history of the mining community. I was involved in one called ‘In Living Memory’-which despite being for a junior school audience also worked well for local adults- and I am very keen that the work of the companies you see here should also been shown to the parents of the children-because good drama unites audiences and communities in a very unique way. However, we performed ‘In living memory’ at Big Pit in Blaenavon- just as it was being turned into a museum. In a rare confessional moment the Guardian reviewer of the day Mr David Adams said that the play had brought a tear to his eye, a critical event so rare that it was hard to restrain oneself from diving across three rows of ex miners to catch the salty droplet. Joking apart, you won’t find a Guardian reviewer near young peoples theatre in Wales, especially one emotionally attached to the locale. Such is the strange nature of progress. We therefore have to work very hard to continually raise the status of the work- because when it’s not visible to society it becomes easier to cut. In those days TIE in Wales grew strong in a binding relationship between the company, the Arts Council and the local authorities and it seemed unbreakable. Matched funding was the key -as long as the local authority put in its share then the arts council would follow and this provided the security that allows art and artists to flourish. I think the success of the companies at the time was based on an unwritten social enterprise to reach out to young people in poor areas blighted by rural and industrial collapse, and underpinning the enterprise was I believe a sense of shared values which allowed the companies to survive the political upheaval in the eighties where some of their English counterparts did not-such as Belgrade Theatre in Education at Coventry-and many others. Here in Wales there seemed a greater political and social consensus. Even so the times changed and priorities shifted and moved, Wales changed and if a whole industry as powerful as the miners can be made to vanish because it was deemed uneconomic, how easy it would be to loose what at first sight might look like a fringe activity on the margins of society- involving groups of actors touring round in not so new vans to isolated spots in an upland country-an activity called theatre which on the face of it makes very little ‘profit’ .Who would miss it- and surely the money for the arts in Wales should be spent doing something more prestigious more visible that could reflect Wales in the larger world?

Thankfully, and for a whole range of reasons we now have a whole range of theatre provision- from the very large scale to small scale touring-the mistake that people often make is that large equals better . Not so in my view- it’s as easy to produce large-scale crap as any other size. Excuse my directness- and seriously the reason why I think these eight companies survived the white waters of change is because as a cultural nation we recognise the importance of art; in some ways it is synonymous with education in the welsh psyche. Education was seen by whole generations as the way out of poverty. And we also recognise art beyond the celebrity sense or in the elite sense- but for the ability art has to carry meaning, history and values from one generation to the next . Storytelling in a politically and economically disenfranchised nation becomes a means of survival- the nation used to exist only because people said it did-and there were plenty of others who said it did not. We live in a different climate now-with the law behind the welsh language in education and in the work place and with political representation through the Assembly. So now is the time to look outward and to look at Wales in the world and this is what many companies are now doing presenting work from ‘off’ as my gran used to say- plays from all over Europe such as ‘Bison and Sons’ by the Dutch author Pauline Mol presented by Theatre Iolo or ‘Mirad a boy from Bosnia’ another Dutch play, produced by Gwent Theatre.

We live at a time when it is not only young peoples theatre that needs advocacy but theatre as a whole-and in the face of so much competition from other ways of telling stories theatre has to continually redefine itself and the young peoples theatre movement is crucial to the enterprise. Crucial because in its directness it reaffirms what is powerful about theatre as opposed to spectacle. When you witness in the barest of school halls the ability of theatre to transform time and place- to a slave ship, a mine- a field in Patagonia –one does reconnect with the idea of theatre itself and to see in the rapt eyes of an eight year old boy, who might not be the brightest button in the drawer but who has the imagination and ability to allow that transformation to take place and to be held there through dramatic action then you know that a profound artistic and social interaction is taking place. One of the main forces that holds the child transfixed in the moment-is often the power of emotion. The emotion that happens both on stage and in the watcher and this is the key to using the theatre the companies provide. It means a subconscious connection has been made between the child and the subject as reflected through character and this can stimulate all kinds of creative work and individual mental and social development. As an audience member the child will witness the emotions and actions of other people [the characters] from a safe place-through the framework of story. We can then examine why such and such a character behaved in a particular way. One can begin to understand others who are perhaps strangers to us because one can examine their motives. We can excite empathy in the audience for people whom they might otherwise fear and judge. At the heart of theatre at all levels is the notion of ‘play’, pretending to be someone else and within that premise lies a profound concept ‘what does it feel like to be someone else? To see the world from someone else’s point of view, and this I believe is central to any real project concerning ‘citizenship’

In theatre for secondary pupils the theatre company can take on areas that it’s hard for teachers to reach- because real discussions based on ‘pretend’ situations are safe. Its fascinating to hear a debate between young men and women on the sexual mores of our times- and its clear that that debate is not stimulated by plays with simple messages-such as ‘you must use condoms-‘ theatre is not best used for that- but by plays which open up grey areas of morality and behaviour. To my way of seeing this is not fringe activity.

Of course this interaction is not confined to YPT alone –but YPT is unique in the consistent closeness of the actor to the audience, both thematically because the plays are often targeted and made for a specific age group and also in the literal physical sense. There is little confusion between theatre and TV in the school hall, whereas as in building based theatre there can be. At a production in Manchester last year-three lads about nine years old spoke throughout the whole play- always about the play so it wasn’t bad in itself- but I asked them at half time if they could hear the actors on stage- and they said yeah loud and clear- and I said well they can hear you too-loud and clear- and their jaws just dropped. It hadn’t occurred to them it was as if the actors were behind a veil or a screen. I could put money on it that the boys had seen very little theatre in their school. They simply didn’t understand the form, and it must not be our generation who lets the form-slip through their fingers.

The fact that the actors and the audience are in the same space is the great simple strength of theatre, and I don’t know why we spend so much money trying to hide the fact-the experience is now and it comes to us through the hearts and minds of living beings and this makes it the great social art form that it is- to my mind even greater in the long run than cinema, the art form of our age as Theatre was in the 17 century. Through a book an author enjoys an intense personal relationship with the reader- exploring inner realities if you like-and this happens in theatre too plus the fact that the audience can react as one being- and you become very aware if the person sitting next to you has a different reaction to you. The audience in the theatre is a very powerful force- it makes the play go slow or fast depending on their reaction-whereas a film always ends at the same time-the actors timing is always the same- its immoveable, although of course the audiences reaction to it is not. I read it argued recently ‘that choosing theatre as a means of telling a story was like getting a horse and cart to fulfil the needs of modern haulage.’ This kind of sentiment comes from the idea that theatre- is implicitly less sophisticated-and that the form itself is ‘childish’. I would argue the theatre of directness or as Peter Brook called it ‘the empty space’ which is what you get in a school hall can be as sophisticated as any other art form and can take on any subject, or at least any theme. It is the unique communion with the action through actors and text that has made the Globe theatre in London so successful in recent years where the audience have rediscovered who they are- the very powerful other half of the story. The power that the audience feels at the Globe can also be felt by any child or young person who sees a good play in their school. It can be direct but that does not mean less profound. Great stories can be told in small circumstances and it is the very bare nature of the event that exposes the power of symbols in theatre - a crown rolling across school floor may represent a kingdom lost- a flower pinned on a fence may represent a young drivers fate- these symbols become powerful tools in the theatre and they gather by their isolation meaning and power. It is here that one can begin to learn to decode society We live in difficult days and while we may say that it was ever thus, these times seem to be particularly confusing. Children and young people are faced with more information both textual and visual than any other previous generation. The images and symbols are often subverted-to mean new things so that it gets hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. A plane hitting the twin towers looked like a movie-or so my 13-year-old son said on that dreadful day. How can the young decode and analyse the world around them if they don’t have the tools to do so. This is what the work of the eight companies here is about-empowering young people to read and analyse the world in which they live.

Sometimes the world throws at the very young dreadful pictures of suffering from all over the world from ethnic cleansing to suicide bombers. If these images and events reach the minds of the young undebated and unexamined then the young are open to fear and prejudice. I believe that theatre is one of the best ways of approaching and examining such difficult and complex situations- it can strive to make the contradictions in us and in our society clear. How can good people do terrible things? What circumstances exist to turn a young woman into a suicide bomber? Theatre can also deliberately provoke debate-and this too is a useful means of exposing deep-seated feelings. We should not be afraid of the power of theatre to upset-its part of the nature of the beast and I sometimes feel we are overprotective of the audience. In the hands of the companies here today I hope you will witness the sensitivity in which the great themes of our times can be approached. Essentially any play is about behaviour, about motive, what makes a character do the things they do. Centuries after the play was first performed we still debate the motives of one ‘Hamlet’ a particularly fine piece of writing for young people- about a young man striving to make sense of a world no less complex than our own. In any play of worth we can see the humanity in our enemies and the foibles of our friends and ourselves, we can examine not only what it is to be someone else but also explore what it is to be human. Theatre is a kind of laboratory of behaviour-where drama is often derived from our differences or conflicts with others which then pulls into stark focus what we have in common.

The problem for our society as it is in many other countries, is the question of cost. Is it worth it?

Of course theatre costs money- by its nature its labour intensive. The great patrons of the arts historically have been rulers or monarchs now we have the arts council and the dept of Media Culture and Sport and they do for arts organisations what old style patrons used to do. It simply isn’t possible to have theatre provision in Wales on any meaningful scale without public investment- because here there is no real culture of private patronage as in America where funding the arts is seen as a moral duty by companies and individuals interested in the welfare of American society. The money that the people raise for this sector of the arts in Wales through taxes is their money-therefore it is their theatre.

To quote Nicholas Hytner-‘Whether you are talking about 18 century Vienna or the UK today, the wealth that was and is handed out to the arts is the people’s wealth. And it is absolutely right that it should be spent on the arts because a healthy society thrives on self examination and needs to be engaged in wondering what’s beautiful and what’s truthful.’

The eight companies here of course want to produce beautiful and truthful work on a regular basis and although more money does not easily equate into more truth and beauty I feel confidant in saying that the young people of Wales would be better served if the companies themselves could plan ahead in such away that allowed them to create and commission work well ahead of production times. For myself a two year process from commission to production is now normal- and comparing our process to those in Sweden and Denmark this would be seen as commonplace. Young audiences deserve the same quality as their adult theatre going counterparts. We are sometimes- forced to rush our work- because it is a kind of service industry but in the long run what matters is providing quality work that people cannot forget-that stays with them and becomes part of the deeper culture of Wales. The eight companies have been for many years at the forefront of welsh new writing in both languages. In this regard I have often seen the eight companies as the real national theatre of Wales-because they reach out across the width and breadth of the nation to all ages with new plays, which are the lifeblood of a healthy theatre scene.

The companies are a crucial part of our whole arts infrastructure, providing a bridge between the generations and others arts organisations. Directors actors writers and designers move from one company to the next from one art form to the next-taking ideas and ways of working with them. Thus the whole society is enriched and the companies have within themselves a healthy level of competition and a deep sense of cultural belonging.

The theatre represented here is also part of a larger family, a growing world wide movement of theatre for the young which Wales is very much part of and must continue to be part of. Under the umbrella organisation Assitej, Welsh theatre companies can influence and be influenced by theatre from Europe and across the world. It was this organisation, which first brought my plays to the attention of European companies. Young peoples theatre work from Wales is now regularly translated and performed all over Europe. This is not only economically valuable to Wales it is I think central to the European enterprise, which because of my age I see as an enterprise geared to making it unlikely and hopefully impossible that the great conflicts of the last century can be repeated. Children’s theatre makers regularly meet; support and listen to each other’s ideas and work-they support directly the creation of new theatres for children in other countries. These new relationships undermine the negative principles maintained by those who base their worldview on differences and misplaced national pride. Assitej is about creating a world through and with children that honours and respects difference and encourages children and artists to express themselves freely in regard to their own cultures while at the same time using theatre as common ground to explore what we share as human beings. There is nothing more universal than childhood itself which is the greatest subject of young peoples theatre and in an invisible and subtle way I believe this process is more successful in making our world secure than any hidden camera or army outpost.

A visiting company to Wales will find a theatre scene, always struggling to get by-always filling in the next application form for money, and yet a theatre scene with high hopes for the future-a theatre based on a strong text based tradition which is increasingly interested in expanding its ways of telling stories to an audience who are ever more needful of their services. In truth eight companies aren’t enough, one theatre visit a year to a child is not enough.

In recent years the companies have begun to look for new ways to reach more children and the world of Children’s theatre, finding its place in the programming of our building based venues is an exciting development. Spectacle theatre and Gwent theatre are combining for the first time in 25 years to create a middle scale touring project which will enhance their schools work. Theatr Clwyd and Theatre Na nog-regularly tour high quality children’s theatre-so that the culture of theatre going starts at an early age and the link between seeing theatre in schools and going to the theatre is very important. If we are going to talk as a nation about a national theatre what about starting with a national children’s theatre- a sector in which we have a strong track record-where all these companies could display their work on a regular basis and build an audience and theatre culture that would be the envy of Europe. ‘What are we going to do today Mum? Lets go and see a play at the Welsh national theatre for children a company called Arad Goch are performing there alongside a visiting company from Germany’. Why not?

We now have a fine circuit of venues in Wales and every time a family or a group of kids go and see a play in a theatre the whole economy benefits- the car must be parked- food must be bought etc, the same is true of museums and art galleries - we are part of something very big, meaningful and profitable.

It is my hope to see Wales continue to take a leading role in young peoples theatre both in the UK and in the rest of the world-we should think big in this regard-we do have something great to share a strong tradition-ideas, stories, dreams, and a way of seeing and speaking that is unique. In order for this to happen it must be made possible for people to live their creative lives in this sector of the arts- and this means challenging the current notions of success in our industry which is blighted by celebrity and star status. Over the years these companies have nurtured many children through performance and youth theatre activities some who have gone on to join the profession, and some of those will stay and give their best years to touring schools because its feels good and is good-and is a positive way to live within the arts and in society. What better time than now to try and rebuild the theatre companies here in terms of actor strength, in terms of commissioning power in terms of sustainability for the benefit of all young people. We do now after thirty years have a great theatre tradition for young people in Wales what better time than now to expand our horizons and increase not only the volume of our work but its quality. What better time than now to believe in ourselves as artists and as funders of the arts.

author:Charles Way

original source: Link to news article on the Legacy Conference here
20 December 2006


Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 keith morris / red snapper web designs /