Theatre in Wales

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

Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

The Arts Council of Wales' New Writing Strategy

It looked like it would be a fine spring for new theatre writing. In Cardiff, Chapter Arts Centre was presenting "Rewriting Wales", a season of contemporary drama, featuring seven productions of new plays in both English and Welsh by some of this country's leading theatre groups. Made in Wales, the Cardiff-based company dedicated to developing new dramatic writing in the English language, contributed a double bill of one-act plays examining the rôle of the artist in society, while its Welsh-language counterpart, Dalier Sylw, was preparing the première of its latest production, Radio Cymru by Wiliam Owen Roberts, at Theatr Gwynedd in Bangor. Y Gymraes were touring Sera Moore Williams's new work, Môr-Forwyn, and Steel Wasp, a young group from Swansea, was offering its fresh interpretations of Ed Thomas's East from the Gantry and Simon Harris's new play, Garageland. Harris himself was overseeing a Welsh production of his recent London hit Badfinger at the Swansea Grand. And the Sherman in Cardiff continued its successful series of Welsh drama cum Welsh music with a re-run of Patrick Jones's and the Manic Street Preachers' Everything Must Go (Planet 134), and a new play by Helen Griffin featuring a soundtrack by Mike Peters (The Alarm). It seemed as if Wales had caught the same bug that has recently been exhilarating audiences in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and beyond: new writing for the stage has been marketed, if not as the new rock 'n' roll, at least as its closest relative.

But some of the most publicised events of recent weeks were of a less celebratory nature: members and supporters of Made in Wales delivered a coffin to the Arts Council's headquarters in Cardiff in a mock funeral procession mourning the "death" of new writing in Wales. A number of prominent British playwrights, including Carol Churchill, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, Willy Russell and Christopher Hampton, openly criticized the Council for its new funding plans for drama. And in its presentation to the Assembly's arts policy review committee, the Welsh section of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain used strong language, calling the Council a "colonial out-post which is outdated and failing Welsh artists and audiences badly" and demanding that the Assembly remove its support for the quango and replace it with "a new, exciting and pro-active body".

It seemed that the Arts Council of Wales had got itself into another embarrassing battle over a key area in its so-called "Drama Strategy" (Planet 134). First the Council withdrew revenue support from a number of theatre companies dedicated to new work with the promise of substantially increasing the project fund for this sector, a promise already spectacularly broken, as recent policy changes demanded a "redirection" of funding which reduced the money available from a projected £500K to a mere £50K. Then the Council was forced to suspend its plans for theatre for young people, which aimed to reduce the number of franchises in this area from eight to five companies, after it had met with widespread opposition from theatre makers, local councils and high-ranking politicians. And now its strategy for new writing, which, according to the Council is "crucial' to its new theatre policy, had come under fierce attack.

The strategy follows the Council's new mantra of "funding fewer better" by offering support to only one company dedicated to the development of new drama in both English and Welsh - "a bilingual powerhouse of new writing" in the current vernacular of arts politics. After a lengthy, and delayed, consultation process the Council awarded the initiative to Dalier Sylw, forcing Made in Wales, who everyone was quick to confirm was still held "in high regard", to close with more or less immediate effect. The widespread criticism of this decision has focused on the problems of merging the often very different agendas of Welsh and English theatre and of concentrating all new dramatic output under one single artistic leadership. The main critique, however, has not been of an artistic nature: Dalier Sylw is a well-respected company, which under its director Bethan Jones has developed interesting and risk-taking work across a diverse range of dramatic styles. The company also has a history of exploring the theatrical use of different languages, most recently with a multilingual performance of Electra, involving Welsh, English, and Croatian-speaking actors. As Jones herself suspects, "I would like to think that they [the Arts Council] were interested in developing a new artistic approach, although I have my suspicions that the first point is that it is going to save them some money." And indeed it will.

The new company has been offered a grant of £170K a year, which, compared with the £260K which the two existing companies received between them last year, effectively represents a cut of 30% in the Arts Council's provision for new writing. The Writers' Guild has pointed out that this cut has been made to an already small budget in comparison with the money that the Council's sister organisations in England and Scotland are prepared to award to this area. The Arts Council of Wales has proposed to make up for the decrease by including a commitment to new writing development and staging in its funding agreements with other clients, namely the new Welsh National Performing Arts Companies in Mold and Bangor. However, the Council itself has expressed doubts over this: its own Drama Strategy paper warns that "new writing within these core clients is likely to be highly specific to those organisations' needs." Considering the cut in project funding and the uncertain future of the Young People's theatre sector, both of which in the past have contributed significantly to the development of contemporary drama, the Writers' Guild's predictions for the future of new writing in Wales are thus bleak.

The Arts Council of Wales claims to have acted in "good faith" and with "integrity" in the face of a decreasing arts budget, an increasing demand from a very disparate theatrical landscape and a changed political agenda in Wales. Yet the embarrassing retractions and half-hearted defences of recent months belie its desire to "move away from its historic rôle as a direct service provider towards becoming a strategic development body" and reveal instead a lack of thorough research, direction and vision essential to any strategic arts policy. The latest crisis also manifests a worryingly deep rift between the Arts Council of Wales and its clients in the artists' community. The Council has attempted to smooth talk this split by turning semantic somersaults generally known as "spin": one Arts Council representative recently claimed that "tough discussions with the Writers' Guild and its members' arguments have given ACW confidence to proceed with the new writing initiative." Little wonder that such blatant misappropriation of openly articulated opposition has led to frustration and despair amongst theatre people in Wales. The Writers' Guild's call to abolish the Arts Council is thus shared by a growing number of artists and politicians. The National Assembly has recently ordered an independent review of the Arts Council's management and decision-making processes. And Ceri Sherlock, the Assembly's "Arts Tsar", has begun to think aloud about alternative models for distributing public funds to the arts. There are also some cautious voices warning us that we may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater - and that by jeopardizing the Arts Council's "arm's length" policy over this present row the arts risk falling victim to political interference in the future. But to prevent this, the Arts Council will have to do some serious work towards restoring the confidence of artists, audiences and politicians in its policies. Otherwise the next funeral march at its headquarters may be dedicated to the demise of the Council itself.

author:Heike Roms

original source: Planet Magazine #140
01 April 2000

 

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