Theatre in Wales

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

Cuts, Creative Writing & Valuing the Arts

And That Was 2013- the Best of the Talk

The avalanche of comment on the arts is so colossal as to be beyond the grasp of any single reader. The small compensation is the fraction that is built to a quality to endure is small. In the melee a few pieces stood out.

On 22 February writer-activist Fin Kennedy launched a twenty-two thousand word report, co-authored with Helen Campbell Pickford “In Battalions”. Writing in the blogosphere is wildly solopsistic- when an article purportedly on criticism contains the word “I” twenty-nine times the reader can be sure it is just one more piece about “me, me, me.” The Kennedy/Pickford report is based on research, inspired by a comment by England’s Arts Minister, with conclusions that are disheartening

Theatre, in England at least, faces a perfect storm; Arts Council grants down, civic budgets as tight as they have ever been, trusts and donors trying to maintain their capital in a one-percent-interest-rate economy. The pain has fallen on the new: “programming fewer new plays… cut down on R and D, including measures such as putting new plays on for shorter runs, cutting back playwriting residencies and developmental readings, cancelling open access workshops for beginners, or curtailing education work or unsolicited play reading. Regional theatres, writer development agencies, theatre for young people, and small-scale touring were being disproportionately badly hit.”

The full report is on www.scribd .com. One theatre taking part was Northampton’s Royal and Derngate which “said it can only programme work by writers whose names the public will know.” Mark Lawson returned to the same theatre in the Guardian 9th December with an article “What’s the secret to running a successful regional theatre?” An English metropolitan centre is not the same as Cardiff, where the links between actors, writers, directors are close and regular. But the Sherman cannot help but come to mind when a spokesman at Bristol’s Old Vic says “Of course you have to be very, very careful with your risk. We put our risk into the small-scale, with things like Bristol Ferment, where the difference between a sell-out house and a tumbleweed house is manageable, because it’s only 50 or 100 people in a studio theatre.”

Rachel Cusk wrote an article early in the year “In Praise of the Creative Writing Course.” Eleven months on it reads very well. It also whipped up a ferocious amount of commentary, much of it uncharacteristically well-informed. With a nod to history a contributor pointed put that a writer like Coleridge would have spent “years of learning grammar, etymology, technique, styles, genres, the classics etc. - in other words, a thorough grounding in both the craft of writing, and the cultural landscape, both historical and contemporary, that created a natural springboard for any young writer.”

Amidst the cries of “absolute rubbish” and “anyone can write” there was grammatical correction: “site-specific writing”?, “sonic' text?” “multi-modal devices and forms'. Ugh. Empty and nullifying language like that is the enemy of good writing. And inaccurate too. What's sonic writing exactly? Sonic is a scientific term for sound waves within the spectrum audible by the human ear. So basically you mean writing that's read out loud? So why not talk about audible writing? Or the oral tradition? Or just a 'reading'? Perfectly good words and more accurate than what you propose.”

Fin Kennedy’s report cites Max Stafford-Clark: “2012/2013 is the first year in our history that Out of Joint will not have produced a new play.” It could be said that no-one should expect a living for ever, particularly if every other career is up for the chop. But an observer has trawled through every public funding decision in England and reported, rightly or wrongly, a tilt away from theatre with plays. The demarcation line which David Edgar traces back thirty years back to a Bradford University Conference are genial but marked.

Ian Shuttleworth was at Punchdrunk (22nd July) and sceptical: “I ran back towards the maniac with the chainsaw, just to see what would happen. He stood there, revving sheepishly. I turned and walked away at a casual pace. I still regret not actually advancing on him so that he'd have to move the saw away and reveal the artificiality of the situation even further."

"As soon as you move away from standard models of stage performance and seated audience passivity, you need to acknowledge that you've also freed the audience to move out of those models as well, and that they won't necessarily behave the way you want them to. They won't all run away. They may not even all wear the ridiculous bloody masks you insist on. You need to have coping strategies built into the parameters of your work. In my experience, Punchdrunk are deficient in this respect.”

Lyn Gardner wrote an article from Edinburgh on August 22nd “Are Critics and Bloggers on the Same Side?” which again prompted a lively set of responses. Generously, and realistically, its theme was that any dividing line between professional and enthusiast, paid and unpaid has vanished. There is simply writing with its proven virtues; detail and knowledge, getting the facts down and more or less getting them right, and most crucially knowing who you are doing it for. A writer creates her reader.

It sounds simple but theatre’s commentary is capable of coming up with a comment on the arts: “well, put simply, because they make money. Every £1 invested in Theatre generates £3. FACT. That's a better return than the manufacturing industry. Another fact.” It does not sound likely. If it were, hedge funds would be snapping up theatres in droves. What the statement declares in normal language is that £7m invested in the Sherman generates £20m. Without any sight of the accounts we can be confident it does not.

Theatre really does need better supporters. One of the most interesting areas popped up on a thread on Wales Online: “the arts are crucial to healthy vibrant communities and individuals. They help to give life meaning and purpose and can prevent all sorts of mental and physical health issues, increase well-being and sense of belonging to a community and having something of worthwhile to contribute. This in turn may lead to a reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour, addiction, depression and other health issues. It creates a cultural identity, builds stronger communities and makes a city far more beautiful, exciting and interesting to visitors. A thriving artistic community can mean less dependence on other services like police and health services.”

It is just an online thread without references or verification. But it puts the arts into a new area where there is potential for new quantifiable measurement. It seems such a fruitful area for research, one where scholarship on theatre would rest on measure rather than speculative assertion.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
01 January 2014


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