Theatre in Wales

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

Revisiting the Athens of Wales

Ruth Shade on Aberdare, theatre and disenfranchisement

Debates taking place currently in relation to the Arts Council of Wales's (ACW) Drama Strategy concentrate on dominant theatre practices. There is, though, another world of Welsh theatre - that of the unincorporated - the detail of which tells us much the extent of the Arts Council's inability to accommodate Welsh lived experiences.

The discrepancy between what is, ancl is not, funded conveys the power of public theatre subsidy to disenfranchise those who do not conform with the Arts Council's notions of excellence. In this article, theatre in Aberdare, which typifies the unincorporated, serves as a metaphor for a more general disempowerment throughout Wales. During the nineteenth century, Aberdare (in Mid Glamorgan) was described as the "Athens of Wales", for the range of its cultural activities; in the twenty-first - as local band the Stereophonics avers - you could argue that there is "more life in a tramp's vest".

Emblematic of this change is the Coliseum theatre (technically in Trecynon), whose disenfranchisement exemplifies the effects of Arts Council disciplinary procedures on theatre practices. The Coliseum could have been expected to play a larger r61e in the formal history of Welsh theatre because it has been perceived as having an important status. In 1959, a British Drama League adjudicator characterised it as "the mecca of drama in Wales"; and in 1966, The Aberdare Leader contended that, "without the Coliseum the cultural life of the town... would be very bleak."

The problem is, though, that these were "amateur" impressions; and what marks the history of the Coliseum is the growing hegemony of the professionals, for it is that which has marginalised the Coliseum.

So, the stated intention in 1940 of CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts: the precursor to the Arts Council of Great Britain - ACGB) to use the Coliseum as an "oasis in the provinces" was not the encouraging development it seemed at the time. It was, rather, a convenient opportunity for CEMA/ACGB to do theatrical missionary work on its own terms and, eventually, at the expense of the Coliseum when other options presented themselves.

The paradox of the Arts Council is that while it was conceived as an altruistic project, the most disadvantaged have benefited the least from its theatre subsidy. In areas of Mid Glamorgan like the Cynon Valley, the largest socio-economic groups are C2 and D the "working-classes".

Yet, by the mid-1990s, just 4.3 per cent of Arts Council-subsidised theatre companies were based in Mid Glamorgan, yielding only twelve pence per head spending on subsidised theatre there. (An equitable distribution in Wales would have been 1.04 per head.) Furthermore, in 1998-9 only 1.3 per cent of the ACW's Community Touring Scheme performances were given in Aberdare and its environs.

The crux of this matter of disenfranchisement is the dismissive attitude towards amateurs, the problematic of which concerns the fact that it is amateur performance practices which often most engage the Welsh working-classes (who represent the majority of the population in the Valleys). Moreover, the Arts Council's position has been complicated by the fact that although it is suspicious of amateurs, it has needed to use amateur-run venues, like the Coliseum, for its own ends.

During the late 1940s, coterminous with the establishment of the ACGB, newspaper articles appeared in Wales with headlines like: "I Indict Welsh Amateur Acting". Consequently, amateurs were taught to see themselves as deficient and to understand that professional theatre was the exemplar. Hence, the ACGB's practice of encouraging theatres like the Coliseum to present Arts Council product, irrespective of whether it was especially welcome. For instance, in 1948 Huw Wheldon (then Arts Council Officer for Wales) asked the Coliseum to present a J.B. Priestley play, and the Committee did so, even though it considered that it would not "take very well" (which it did not): a situation which has contemporary resonance. {....}

author:Ruth Shade

original source: Planet Magazine #141
01 June 2000

 

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