Theatre in Wales

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

What Can Be Done to Support New Playwrights?

Wales Arts Review 2nd Roundtable: Wales Millennium Centre

An interest to declare: at the first Critics Round Table, 12th November 2012, I was an observer. The report from that four-hour event called it “an ambitious, engaged, wide-ranging afternoon” describing the critical discussion as “context, insight, description and concern.” For this second event I- neither organiser nor planner- made some comments on three current aspects of the critical climate in our digital world. With this over, fifteen minutes after the opening by Adrian Masters, I became for the remaining five and a quarter hours just another audience member.

Eight events encompass panels, readings, book launch and award. There is a good piece of advice to any playwright or maker of any event: “start with the end and work it out from there.” The organisers have devised a truly memorable ending with a plenary session. Siân Phillips is present to read from, and make tribute from the heart to, Caradog Prichard. The occasion is the selection of the greatest novel of Wales. In her response to the choice of “Un Nos Ola Leuad” Mari Prichard has it to perfection with concision and insight in equal measure. Her father would have enjoyed it all, the gathering of new writers from Wales, the tributes to fiction, and not the least of it “Mwynhau yn ennill.”

The events and discussions, prior to this last culminating award, have divided between the WMC's Salvi and Japan Rooms. The two strands oblige choice and decision of some difficulty .So no report on the exit of politics from pop or the future of arts criticism in Wales. Instead there are panel and audience discussion on the performing arts.

“Opera: is opera dying and are the critics killing it?” is an amiable affair joining three critics and an opera-maker. The answer is no, but the dilemma of the critical approach is opened up. Traditional critics of the genre, who have been deeply steeped in musicology, home in on the music. The quality of the conducting, the tone and register of the singing are up for deep scrutiny. Look to the review from “the Sunday Times” this season on “the Trial” as an example. The critical language is one of chord sequences, pulsations and arpeggios.

Michael McCarthy is a panel member. His company, says panel Chair Linda Christmas, does not even refer to itself as opera. The title is “Music Theatre Wales.” Certainly, the review on this site is the reverse to that of Paul Driver. Its assessment is principally in visual and performance terms with the score as complement.

The audience for the theatre discussion bares more teeth and snarl. “What Can Be Done to Support New Playwrights in Wales?” is the title. To participate in the arts is in itself an act of courage but to be a producer in Wales is the bravest of all. Mike Salmon is present as a representative of a truly tiny clan.

The aspirant maker of new plays has a double challenge, an audience that is not large in a culture that offers profusion. A community of three million is not large. As an audience member who does not see the venues from a Canton perspective I can sympathise to a degree with venue managers. Ceredigion has three busily scheduled venues in Mwldan, Felinfach and Aberystwyth Arts Centre. The Theatr Sir Gar circuit is not so far away with Carmarthen's Lyric and Halliwell. Performances pop up at Arad Goch, the Emily Davies Studio, Aberaeron’s Hall, Rhosygilwen, Small World, Lampeter's Arts Hall and Morlan. And we are a population of seventy thousand. It is a culture of profusion. No wonder the piece of contemporary drama has its problem in making a deep mark.

Kate Wasserberg is present to speak of the imminent Other Room. Theatr Clwyd's loss is Cardiff's gain and one potentially of great significance. The compact location is analogous to those venues in London- Hen and Chickens, 503, Red Lion and White Bear, Latchmere- which act as valuable try-out, testing and introducing feeders for Soho, Bush or Royal Court. I myself wonder whether new writing is not a metropolitan activity. No-one is counting new plays but I would hazard that ninety-something percent in Britain takes place in a few square miles of London. Start at the Tricycle, take a circle around Shepherd's Bush, through Battersea Hill, eastward, then northward to the Hampstead. If the rest of Britain came up with five percent of that total I would be surprised. Certainly, there could be no better preparation anywhere for the Other Room than a period of apprenticeship with the Finborough’s masterly Neil McPherson.

“Why are Scots dramatists known around the world?” asks playwright Matt Hartley. The first is geography- if you are part of the audience keen to see whatever is on at Traverse. Oran Mor or Tron that is it. There is no popping over to Bristol, or last train back from Barbican or Donmar to Cardiff. But the second is to ask where their playwrights go. David Greig is a phenomenon all on his own, as much at home dramatically in the Middle East as making a bitter-sweet homage to Edinburgh, for which Cardiff has made no equal.

But Gregory Burke at the end of the day walked into a bar in Fife to talk to serving soldiers. Owen Sheers took on something similar with “The Two Worlds of Charlie F”(reviewed on this site 26 July 2012.). It did not clock up a large number of London performances so its relative lack of coverage belies the fact that its audiences have run to tens of thousands. It came to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in March this year. It makes Owen Sheers the most-performed writer for theatre from Wales of recent years.

The production hit home for a reason. The artists, writer, director Stephen Rayne and others, sought out and opened themselves to an aspect of human experience far from our common knowledge and experience. It is that exposure and personal hazard, that makes me worry when I read of boat trips and rural retreats where aspiring makers of performance mingle mainly with one another. Theatre’s purpose- and moral purpose at that- entails rubbing up against the world.

“There is nothing wrong with the venues of Wales” declares a spiky voice from the floor. Nothing, that is, apart from a desirable wholesale turfing-out of their current managements. It is slightly too easy a solution. A basic point of economics applies. If you want to increase demand, then reduce the supply. Not that, as a viewer, I am going to recommend that the rich weekly offerings of theatre, dance and music be reduced.

One aspect of theatre goes unmentioned. Plays tour and perform in another form. “Garw” and “Y Negesydd” get good houses from a loyal and regular audience. Their audiences do not even make the distinction of new writing. It is simply drama. “Why do you think that is ?” asks a voice. The answer is twofold. Firstly, the bond between viewer and maker is closer. A lead actor is likely to be a familiar face from television. But the second factor is that there is not a lot of it about. Make anything scarce and its value rises, not that I am going to recommend that ACW staunch the glorious spread and diversity of companies under its wing.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
10 November 2014


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