Theatre in Wales

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

New Writing for Theatre in Wales

Tim Price & Others On Writing

New Writing

On its launch the National Theatre of Wales did something unprecedented. Like every new company it created a website. But next to details of its productions it created a social network. The selected platform is not the most versatile. Its structure is ungainly. The search functions are laboured. But, grown to a shade under three thousand members, it has life to it. If it is comprised in the main of private comment, and a high measure of self-promotion, so be it. The language is colloquial, gossipy, but now and then there is the odd jolt into moral seriousness.

To be an artistic director is a big job. To his credit, John McGrath has added the activity of writing to and about the artistic community. The odd actor has made a contribution. More often than not, it has been awkward. One poor soul let out that it was an obligation under contract. Obliging an actor to write is as illogical as obliging a writer to act. It appears that the company may wisely have come to this view also, as this source of writing has dried up.

On 21st June Tim Price made a contribution to the Writers Group. His point was that the foundation of the National Theatre of Wales had shifted the shape of theatre in Wales. Given that Theatr Clwyd, Theatr Genedlaethol and NTW all in different degrees worked with new writers where, he asked, did that leave the Sherman?

Tim Price wrote seven sentences, one hundred and fifty-four words. Two weeks later his question had provoked responses that ran to tens of thousands of words. It is the nature of the bulk of Internet commentary that writers tend to lack primary experience of the subject on which they are opining. “Comment” is a euphemism for a mix of irreverence and irrelevance, jokery, spiced with a good dose of bile, insult and prejudice.

Not so this thread; the contributors on the NTW site are the real thing, writers and directors with theatre and television productions between them running into three figures. The conversation is open, discursive, off the point sometimes. It captures a range of moods and personalities. It speaks, refreshingly, on subjects like money.
But there are some subjects that are passed over.

By their nature social networks are decentred, anarchic on the surface at least, and deficient in editorial voice. The two-week dialogue, or poly-ologue, is a digressive, circular affair in which voices dip in and out. Some key voices in the theatre of Wales, not least the makers of cultural policy, are mute entirely. The surge of comment circles around its subject, without ever quite reaching an endpoint. Not the least of the issues raised is that of how the Internet itself is used within an artistic community.


The Internet may be celebrating its twentieth birthday but it is still revolutionary. Tim Baker has just staged a reportedly fine production of the voyage of the Mimosa. To be a company, communicating online, is not dissimilar to that ship’s passengers. Quadrants and compasses are to hand but it is a mighty large ocean, filled with hazard, where many of the rules are still being made. Just a single reader of a piece, for example, in Britain that offends an overseas oligarch and a site runs the risk of a libel action.

A major report on the Arts, the McMaster Review of 2008, wrote of the Arts’ laggardly use of new technology. That has changed. The Arts have perforce employed a host of digital marketers who talk the talk. But the oldest cliché is that it is a transformative technology. Just talk to any HMV employee who is about to be sacked.

It is nice for venues and companies that they have access to low-cost electronic mailing and advertising. But the digital ecosphere has, in the main, been employed to carry on doing old things, albeit in a slightly new way. Equity to its credit has published the numbers. The ratio of fixed cost to variable cost in theatres, that is actually putting on a production and paying people like actors or designers, has deteriorated severely.

Why, rages Hull Truck founder Mike Bradwell, would anyone spend months forging a new play into existence? There is more money in theatre, and from its funders, in advertising a play than writing one.

“The Cluetrain Manifesto” published in 1999 has had a significant effect on the way that marketeers think about themselves. True to its ethos the whole book is available online. It is probably an uncommon sales person in the Arts who has read it. In structure it comprises ninety-five theses, evoking Martin Luther. Theses one to six are titled “Markets are Conversations”. Members in markets communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny, sometimes shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.

Most corporations, on the other hand, say the Cluetrainers, are stuck. They know only how to talk in “the soothing, humourless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us.”

Middle managers in the Arts have rushed into social networks in a way little different from brand managers at Heinz or Tesco. Of course, what the poor mid-level account manager then finds is that the Internet likes to bite back. The French have, in their way, banned their public broadcaster from recommending specific media corporations. Our public broadcaster is in violation of its charter of commercial neutrality daily. But the corporate challenge is best articulated by Evgeny Morozov in his book “the Net Delusion.” The directors of websites want their users to be consumers. The participants, particularly the new generation, are the community; they wish to be treated as citizens.

This is a dilemma for publishers and owners. Information technology has been in many respects a disaster for public service. It is not just the vast, leaky databases that violate all the strictures of security advisors. But front-line professionals by the million now spend seventy per cent of their time, not in carrying out their primary work activity, but in its recording and documentation.

The kick-off of Tim Price’s thread was no doubt one of genuine dilemma for Wales’ new writing champion. The Sherman may or may not at first have issued a fatwa of silence upon its staff. But as a reaction it is understandable. If a job is already busy, then time spent on Internet chat is a digression. It is undesirable that the working week of theatre employees follows that of social workers or educators.

But, on the other hand, the voices present made for some weight collectively within the ecology of Welsh theatre; hence the dilemma, hence presumably the delay of a week before an intervention.

The Place of New Writing

Great nations, wrote John Ruskin, write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. A community tells stories to itself through drama. Arwel Grufydd writes that “new writing is a national endeavour.”

Theatre is the medium best suited. It is collaborative creation and collective experience, unlike the novel. It has speed and relative economy, unlike screen media.
The position of new writing within theatre can be likened to Cardiff’s National Museum. The visitor can choose; in one direction a sumptuous and accomplished Gainsborough, in another a naïve Elizabethan portrait, in another the Davies sisters collection. At the right time of year Artes Mundi offers innovation and boundary-breaking. It is the parts of the collection that make the whole. It would be aggravating were one gallery to be downgraded by the curators.

The poles that theatre encompasses can be argued any number of ways. But there is at least the old, the new, that with music, and that which tests the assumptions and boundaries of the form. Undisputed excellence in site-specific work, Saunders Lewis and Shakespeare is in itself not quite enough. Among artistic directors Mike Bradwell, cited above, has written his autobiography “The Reluctant Escapologist.” It is a role in his account that calls for single-mindedness, unsinkability, probably obsession.

New writing has a downside. It can be uneven, foolish, strident, banal. The silliest script I have ever seen was performed on the stage of the Royal Court. At the Traverse I saw a lumbering political allegory in which the playwright obliged two actors of middle age, for no particular dramatic purpose, to indulge in a bath scene. Against all the odds, the penis of the male slightly paunchy player began to take on an excruciating horizontal life of its own.

But then there are times, not often, when a production touches a nerve in the body social and politic. It is a moment when it becomes bigger than the small space which first contained it. Generating that moment is worth whatever it takes. But if the quantity of new writing is small, every new piece has to bear a weight of scrutiny that it is often not built to carry. Were the numbers to be cranked up the critiques would cease to matter. Rebecca Gould: “when there’s a dull play at the Traverse, it doesn’t count for everything.” New writing will vary. A new writing company is not to be held to the quality standard of a factory.

Britain has morphed into the strangest constitution on Earth, the words of Sir Emyr Jones Parry, UN Diplomat and Chair of the All-Wales Convention. But it has one great and under-valued feature. It offers benchmarks for comparison. Scotland has a population a million people larger. Its mountains are higher. Before their demolition its banks were mightier. And it has playwrights who sell out in London for weeks on end and play to Europe and the world.

Given that there is no difference biologically, and much in common socially and historically, the difference is maybe structural. The goal of a new writing company is not to create new drama, but to create dramatists. The Bush Theatre, a venue of a ludicrous tininess, is currently putting online its badge of pride. Two hundred and fifty writers have had their careers galvanised into life at this tiny place, kicked around by a series of landlords who could not have cared less and a local authority with not much greater interest.

As for language Arwel Grufydd, with one of the trickiest jobs in theatre in the world, writes “To always separate or compartmentalise elements of our shared cultural richness and diversity not only unnecessarily over simplifies who we are, but also denies an essential element of what sets us out from other nations. The future sustainability of the Welsh language requires that certain elements of Welsh-language cultural activity needs to happen purely in Welsh, but writer development in the theatre and a commitment to producing new writing in the nation’s capital is not one of those.”

Language is besides just one element. The literary manager at the RSC states what makes a theatre writer: “instinctive rawness, linguistic invention and concern with ideas”. So often discussion on language is reduced to dichotomy, in effect culture’s first reference point is English. But Gareth Miles said it best. “The only way to avoid the compromise of bilingualism is to be trilingual or polylingual. I do think it is so important for writers in a small country like Wales, which is so close to England, to have at least one other world language beyond English.” If the approach to new work, and its standard, is that it is destined for translation, into German, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Catalan, then the originating language loses primacy.

A genuine question is raised about touring, to Mwldan, Byrcheiniog and all the rest. Talk to National Dance and, yes, they regularly open in Aberystwyth but their audience is the world. There are at least fifty capitals in Europe. New writing should aim to play in Frankfurt, Vienna, Barcelona, exactly the way in which Europe has lapped up David Harrower, Martin Crimp and Simon Stephens. If a show makes it to Y Galeri, then that is nice but in itself it is not sufficient.

Past organisations are past. But one propelled Othniel Smith to London. The other originated “Deep Cut”, which played the Tricyle and achieved recognition across theatrical Britain. New writing is a public role. Bill Hopkinson, late of Wales, interpreted the role as one of visibility. He was to be seen on his feet at venues like Theatr Clwyd and the Dylan Thomas Centre, championing new writing as a moral cockpit.

Corporate Structure
Corporate structure is not the first topic that artists are going to jump on or enthuse about. Rebecca Gould writes: “I'm not for a second suggesting that writers should know about the detail of insurance and stuff, or be in the least concerned about it.” I am not so sure. The detail is not necessary but some awareness of the costs, the relentless overhead pressure that venue managers have to put up with, would give artists some insight. Of course, the budget-holders could generate understanding in return by publishing some broad breakdowns. Charity sector leaders have sought to legitimise their activity by making public overhead-to-donation ratios.

A first premise in design is “Form Follows Function.” The thread contains heartfelt testimony to the legacy that the Sherman embodies. “The Sherman” writes Carmen Medway-Stephens “has enabled many to realise their ambitions. The Sherman theatre is part of the Welsh landscape and I see it as integral to bringing through the young generation in its Youth Theatre and seeing them grow up to adult professional practitioners.”

But in the debate of its mission Greg Cullen captures it succinctly: “The primary function of Sherman Cymru is to embed itself within the city of Cardiff and its locality, not only as a much loved and used venue, but for its outreach into the city and beyond through drama workshops and collaborative productions with sections of the community.”

A spirited digression breaks out as to whether a generalist director can really be the igniting fire for new writing. Admiration and disdain swirl in equal measure around the emblematic figure of Max Stafford-Clark.

Certainly a precedent of a new writing powerhouse allied to a general theatre and receiving house is hard to find. Birmingham Repertory Theatre, prior to its current demolition, had a good record of new work in the Door. But the West Midlands is not Wales; it has no aspiration to culture of a national standing, if indeed that is the cultural and national prerogative.

The Future

Sir Brian McMaster wrote about governance in his report. Paragraph 1.5 reads: “I recommend that the board of every cultural organisation contains at least two artists and/or practitioners.” It is the privilege of the Great and the Good to be wise, to be consulted, and to be well and truly sidelined. The Arts are agitated about being “relevant.” It would be revealing to take Britain’s top hundred cultural institutions and count up the number of Board Members under age thirty, forty even.

The framers of cultural policy are small in number, well acquainted with one another. Indeed a contributor waspishly writes that, in public, they are hard to distinguish one from another. But at the core is a decision. Does new writing carry the same status as the classics, devised work, opera, dance?

Rebecca Gould asks the question: “deep breath, should Welsh Theatres mainly support Welsh and Wales based writers, at least for the next 5 years just to see what happens (I look longingly at Scotland)?” It’s a good question. Economists are divided over the Infant Industry issue. Maybe one hundred and twenty self-described dramatists are not up to it, but it would be good to know.

Scotland has its National Theatre and its new writing theatre located forty miles apart. In Wales, they are a ten-minute walk apart. The gene pool of discussion is reduced. An alternative is go to where office rent is low, lower than the capital. Borrow or rent a room in Merthyr. Ten square metres will do. Merthyr has a new theatre, just weeks old. It has a young audience and is looking for content. Merthyr is not just at the epicentre of history but looks to the other Wales, the fat Usk Valley and Northward.

All organisational design needs to follow the paths of law and economy. But the specific design has only one guide and principle; that is to be the most effective.
Hypothecate a few percent of the theatre budget for new writing. Invite bids from two people to be the new writing champions. Forbid the overhead to expand beyond two members of staff. Outsource finance and legal compliance to a Merthyr accountant and solicitor.

Let the applicants pitch publicly before an audience of writers and interested parties. Give the winning pair two, three, four trustees to whom they are accountable. At least two trustees should be writers; include a professional manager, if need be, to ensure proper governance. Greg Cullen again: “writers need to be brought into a more equal relationship with the companies that have responsibility for new writing.”

The new writing brief is unambiguous. An organisation is like an individual; at any one time a single goal focuses effort. It is not that the record in new writing is bad. But it is dispersed, infrequent, with a tendency to bloodlessness. It does not travel regularly. Like any sector protectionism behind national boundaries weakens. It is exposure to the world that toughens up quality. Audiences are happily paying big money to see a group of Chicagoans discuss property issues. That is “Clybourne Park”. The climate for theatre in the US is harsher than Britain. A Bruce Norris emerges because the structures in Chicago facilitate his emergence.

Let the successful bidders be held to one goal only; within twenty-four months to have helped gestate a work that been sold to a dramaturg in a major theatre in one of Europe’s major cities.

Last word to Brecht. The Singer who closes “Caucasian Chalk Circle” says, in Eric Bentley’s translation, “Take note what men of old concluded/ That what there is shall go to those who are good for it.”

A small place, a tight community can afford to be interesting. An experiment is like any other experiment. If a hypothesis does not generate a result, it can be torn up. New writing given to the writers to take responsibility; might it generate a result? Maybe not. Might they be given the opportunity? Definitely not.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
20 July 2011


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