Theatre in Wales

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

Towards a National Theatre for Wales

some questions and answers

There has been an encouraging and positive response to the paper - TOWARDS A NATIONAL THEATRE FOR WALES - A FEDERAL SYSTEM. Below I have endeavoured to provide short answers to the most frequent questions and criticism. Inevitably there is an overlap in many areas. Coincidentally a report commissioned by the government from Peter Boyden Associates on The Roles and Functions of the Regional Producing Theatres appeared in an interim form in January 2000. Their report is backed by a year's research and consultation. I have quoted extensively from the analysis and conclusions as being both substantive and pertinent.

1. DETAIL

'The paper is strong on ideas, short on detail.'

The Introduction and the Conclusion clearly state that the paper is intended as a discussion document only, to kick-start debate. Detail would come later, following the deliberations of the Working Party set up in Phase 1. We have ranged widely and some areas are sketched in more fully than others. We acknowledge the 'dream element' of the vision but a complete analysis of the scope and breadth of the ideas would be both premature and lengthy at this stage.

2. A MINISTRY OF CULTURE / ACCOUNTABILITY

'A Ministry of Culture would be a political arm operated by opportunists.'

'The Arts Council structure may be flawed but its very existence guarantees no political interference.'

'…the arms length principle is sacrosanct. It must be protected at all costs.'

'To whom would a National Theatre be accountable?'

Political interference occurs in all walks of public life (as events of the past few months in Wales, Scotland and London have shown) and is not merely the prerogative of totalitarian regimes (though many of us would have given our right arm for the facilities that existed under the old eastern bloc and which have now disintegrated in the 'free' market). However, there is a much more pernicious 'political' interference that occurs at local level through pressure groups, moral 'guardians of the nations conscience', councilors with an agenda - all of which lead to censorship and political interference by any other name. Theatre is often the prime target, for the stage sometimes has a remarkable capacity to arouse passions in a way that no other art form possesses, and the principle of freedom of speech is upheld in the spoken word often more strongly than in the written. (I myself have stood in the dock of the Number One Court at the Old Bailey in defense of that principle)

No 'arms length principle' saved groups like Brif Gof, Mappa Mundi, Caricature Puppets, Made in Wales, and many other Welsh companies that have disappeared over the past few years. The decision to disband those companies had little or nothing to do with either artistic merit or audience appeal. The refusal of Mappa Mundi to have their policy dictated by the ACW was one of the reasons for the company losing its grant and 'arms length' was no protection for Made in Wales - losing out in an ill-conceived franchise battle to a Welsh language company with no experience of new writing in English.
And lest we forget, the attempt to axe Hijinx, a company that does work for children with special needs, four Theatre In Education teams, and the successful bending of the lottery rules in order to provide more funds for Clwyd Theatr Cymru, were all decisions taken by an unelected quango lacking accountability.

The UK is the only country in Europe that has this unaccountable body dispensing public money to the arts. The system is historic, dating from the inception of the first Arts Council of Great Britain after the war which was virtually a three way carve-up between the privately owned and run Chichester Festival Theatre, The Edinburgh Festival and The Cambridge Arts Theatre. The battle was won by the economist Maynard Keynes, from Cambridge, who parachuted in his supporters, wealthy or privileged members of the British class elite to become the ACGB. The parachuting has never stopped and the system remains open to abuse as long as there is no public accountability. Even the theatre run by the present Chair of the ACW is in receipt of funds from that very council. Who would dare to cut that grant?

Historically the funding system has never been clear about what it seeks to achieve from the process of funding drama, whether building based or touring. Each theatre and company has necessarily developed local survival strategies as the pressures have increased. The result has been the ad hoc development of a geographically skewed regional network applying a range of different processes in premises of varying suitability and with idiosyncratic patterns of public funding. No framework exists to test the relative impact of different approaches and there is no common basis for funding partnerships in which all parties can see the nature and extent of the services they are supporting.

A system should be put in place of a paid panel of experts, non-political, under the umbrella of a Minister and a Ministry whose full time job it is, week in week out, to analyse needs and allocate resources. This panel would be free to call on expert evidence and advice from practitioners in the field at any time. It is a system that works in every other country in Europe, in many instances with demonstrable success. The majority have a far greater support for the arts, and all have a system of counterbalances and checks to insure that there is no abuse or political interference.

The first task of such a Minister and a Ministry would be to draw up a National Charter for the Arts to ensure that there is equal provision and distribution of funds and resources, according to need and geographical spread, throughout Wales. This would dispense with the ad hoc nature of the present system whereby some L.A.'s support the arts and some do not; some favour one art form and some another etc.,. National, regional and local funding bodies would be able to collaborate with transparency, consistency, continuity and clarity.


The Ministry would be accountable to the public and for the public purse and the Federal System of National Theatres would be accountable to the Ministry - financially and artistically. The performance of a particular organisation would be measured against the National Charter taking into account all relevant circumstances. Finally, without a Minister and a Ministry there is no mechanism to fight the corner of the Arts with central government. Witness the failure year on year to secure realistic financial support.

The current review of the arts being conducted by the National Assembly and the proposed investigation into the workings of the ACW will be crucial in determining how the arts are organised, funded and perceived for future generations..

3. MARKET RESEARCH

'…it does not appear to be founded on market research of either existing theatre distribution or a survey of customer requirements.'

Once again this is a task for the working party which we anticipate would carry out a comprehensive investigation into needs and provision. However - market research would not have revealed that a major theatre complex could be built in a small market town in a sparsely populated area and that such a theatre would not only be a success but of such importance that it would be deemed to have
'National status'.(Clwyd Theatr Cymru) .

4. SOUTH WALES

' I have sensed a growing sense of unease at the proportion of resources going to the South East.'

It does not take market research to show that South Wales is the only area in Great Britain of some 2 million people that does not possess a single major adult producing theatre. In any other comparable conurbation the populace have access to at least six major producing houses within a radius of twenty five miles.

Cardiff is a European capital. The majority of the population lives in the south. Swansea possesses, in The Grand Theatre, an ideal venue to base a company with minimum start-up costs. The plan for a Federal system ensures that provision and resources are spread equally and that ultimately no area will go without. (See Phase 2 - Building by Stages.) If the ACW plan survives in any form (and even if it doesn't) Bangor and Mold are already planned to be 'centres
of excellence' for Welsh and English Language theatre. However politically unpalatable the idea of more resources going to the South, logic and practicality dictate that, in the overall scheme of a National Theatre, we cannot leave two million people disenfranchised while only concentrating on the North.

5. WELSH LANGUAGE THEATRE

'Who wants it?'

'Welsh language theatre can't perform outside of Wales - nobody would understand it. And at home it appeals to only a handful of people.'

Not many people understand Rumanian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, or Finnish outside their country but productions in these languages travel regularly to festivals all over the world. Welsh language theatre should represent the world repertoire, in conjunction with new writing in Welsh based on local, national and universal themes. It should be on a par with English language theatre in being able to perform alongside the best companies in the world. Norway, a small country with a population not so much greater than that of Wales, has two official Norwegian languages - a majority and a minority - one spoken by about 20% of the population. Both languages have large National Theatres

The recent decision of the ACW to award a new writing franchise in both English and Welsh to Dalier Sylw, a small Welsh language company with no experience of working either in English or outside of Wales makes no sense at all - unless viewed cynically as political as well as financial expediency. A nation which possesses but one small company to represent its contemporary dramatic output in two languages is a poor nation indeed -culturally, financially and mentally. The contraction of funds and output is short-sighted, counter-productive and indicative of a paucity of vision at the heart of the ACW strategy.

There is of course no reason why the two forms of theatre should not co-exist quite happily under one roof and the paper encourages co-operation and co-production between the two languages.

The statistics for the support of Welsh language theatre are not encouraging.
We believe that a period of positive discrimination is necessary both in terms of finance and facilities in order to raise the status. Large-scale work is needed to travel outside of Wales to other National Theatres and festivals. Films in Welsh are winning awards abroad. Why not theatre? Whether this work should be produced in Bangor, as is currently proposed, or as some people think, in the larger, more accessible(?) Aberystwyth, is open to debate. But a strong link with Welsh language theatre in the south should be developed.




6. NATIONAL THEATRE SITES

'Where would you site a National Theatre in Cardiff? There are no buildings to convert and starting from scratch is too costly.'

The Welsh College of Music and Drama is the ideal location to site a National Theatre, situated as it is at the heart of the capital, surrounded by park-land, the Castle, civic buildings and the National Museum. The advantages for the WCMD to be attached to, integrated with and part of a National Theatre complex would be enormous and would immediately raise its focus and status world-wide. There is already a plan to build a home for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales alongside the WCMD. The addition of a National Theatre to the plan would create a tremendous focus for the arts in Wales.

'The idea of 1,000 seater theatre in Aberystwyth is madness'

The suggestion is not to build a new theatre but to find a way of adapting an existing space, e.g. a cinema, to enable Aberystwyth to receive large scale touring product. We are talking flying facilities here. This will allow the possibility of hosting the companies of the world, not to mention inaugurating and participating in the large scale work of the Welsh and English language National Theatres. Although the on-stage facilities of Theatr-y-Werin can accommodate such work the auditorium is too small to make performances of large-scale productions financially viable without enormous subsidy.

7. THEATRE A MINORITY PURSUIT

' Theatre is a declining art form which in future will exist only in tourist areas.'

'Is this not all too late? Multi-media is the new theatre'

'Are the audiences there?'

'Why should taxpayers money be spent on a bunch of self-indulgent, elitist wankers and poofters?' (A Public House sceptic)

Anything starved of funding will decline. (See the NHS, Public Transport, Libraries…etc.) In the past 20 years the number of theatres and theatre companies in receipt of public subsidy has declined dramatically. Paradoxically the period 95/98 saw an overall increase of 6.5% in audiences attending all theatre events over the period 85/88. Where has this increase come from?


From 1979 the Conservative government introduced the market as a key determinant. The requirement to maintain a plural funding base, to perform at the box-office, to maximise income from secondary spend areas, to attract and retain commercial sponsors and to improve the ratio of earned income to subsidy added further to the increasingly complex management task. The theatre (like the rest of the arts) received about as much sympathy from central government as did local authorities, the nationalised industries and the steel, coal, and rail unions. The long term attritional impact on theatre companies of a series of stand still funding agreements cannot be overestimated. It remains the single most significant contributor to the crisis in these companies as the implied erosion of the legitimacy of their cultural vision has compromised their artistic and social vision.

As the gap between service expectation and public resources widened, the upward pressure on fixed costs continued. Ticket yield was driven ever higher to compensate for frozen grants. Smaller houses followed as market resistance kicked in. Already uncompetitive salary levels fell further and further behind sectoral equivalents. Attempts to re-engage core audiences and attract new ones, while responding to pressure to improve management procedures meant that the resources applied to marketing and administration increased at the same time as investment in productions and creative teams declined. A diminishing proportion of public funding found its way through to the work. People were being asked to pay ever higher prices of for an ever more constrained product. It is not surprising that audiences declined still further and deficits (both trading and artistic) began to increase.

The same time span has seen Drama and Theatre Studies become two of the most popular courses at GCSE and A Level. School, University and Youth Theatre activity has soared. This has had the effect of spawning countless sub-standard Drama schools for all those hopefuls who leave without other qualifications. There are now hundreds of small, experimental and educational groups existing as co-operatives or on a profit sharing basis. These companies are mostly part-time - their members dependent on employment in the service industries for survival. Support for amateur activity, in terms of participation and attendance, is the greatest in Europe. This, plus a greater emphasis on leisure time, has created a hunger for live entertainment, which, despite the belief that we are now a nation of multi-media couch potatoes, has seen attendance at commercial and amateur theatre performances soar. Opera-going has increased an astonishing 16.5% in the last ten years.

We applaud the growth of community participation in performance related activity and the social and educational benefits that this brings to a school or an area. However, the quality of product has to be the apex of attainment and as with any art form there must be standards to which all participants can aspire. The commercial theatre lacks the subsidised sector's duty to the art form of theatre, to the social range of the audience, or to the engagement with local communities. Stand still funding, increased fixed costs and declining audiences in the subsidised sector drive a self-fulfilling prophecy in which fewer resources get to the work on the stage, quality suffers and audiences decline still further. The same stranglehold is exerted on innovation and creativity. Most companies cannot risk alienating their core audience and therefore struggle to attract the younger audiences on which their future depends. If quality and innovation are inhibited in this way then the primary purpose of subsidy is undermined. The cost is frequently innovation, risk taking and relevance to younger people. New audiences are not easily to be found under such circumstances and the old core audiences frequently keep their distance.

The argument for quality theatre affects both the breadth and the depth of the programme. Commercial entertainment follows the market. The tendency to repeat a successful formula and to maximise return on investment by lengthening runs leads directly to diminished choice. A dependence on available touring product imposes an homogeneity on programming which dilutes locally distinctive identities, a major argument in favour of basing large-scale companies in Cardiff, Swansea and the Valleys. Similarly, work that caters to the needs and expectations of minority audiences (whether in terms of communities of ethnicity, of geography, of gender, of sexual preference or of age) requires a subsidy at appropriate levels.

What is lacking is a profession to train and provide a career structure for those whose only outlet is the amateur musical or the poverty line experimental group. A profession to raise the expectations of audiences who, faute de mieux, are becoming used to a diet of stand-up, drag, musicals and pre/post West End runs. A profession that lays claim with pride to the ancient and modern tradition in Wales of story telling and competes successfully with London, New York and Hollywood for the favour of our actors, directors, writers and technicians.

A cautionary tale. The Barbican Centre in London, for so long an audience grave yard (one needs a guide dog, a route map, and a degree in orienteering to find it at all) astonished the theatre world recently with long queues around the block for its Samuel Beckett Festival imported from Dublin. For some this would be an elite event of minority interest or 'a waste of taxpayers money.' For others it provides a cultural lifeline of increasing necessity in a dumbed down world.






8. CO-OPERATION

'Is the paper sufficiently clear about the role of the NT as an avenue for production and co-operation?'

We lay heavy emphasis on co-operation and consultation, involvement and empowerment, and the sharing of production facilities at every stage of the plan. A Federal system of National Theatres is de facto about inclusivity. (See Introduction and sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11.)

9. TRAINING

'There is no point in training more people than the profession has room for'

It is not proposed to set up a chain of new Drama Schools. Using an enhanced Welsh College of Music and Drama as the centrefugal force around which all training would revolve we envisage attaching 20 or so actors, directors, designers, technicians etc. to major theatre centres in order to provide properly co-ordinated and integrated professional training over a 2-3 year period. The training would take place in both the Welsh and English languages and would be regionally dispersed. Objective One funding could be available for such schemes. (See the Liverpool Playhouse 3.2 million plan).

10. MONEY

'There is not enough to go round now - your ideas are pie in the sky.' (Numerous variations)

A new strategy requires new thinking. We cannot continue to plough the old ACGB funding furrow that was based on Wales as a region and not as a dual culture nation. Apart from a larger slice of central government funds - Wales has fared particularly badly in relation to Scotland and the English Regional Arts Boards - new sources have to be found. Objective One is as good a place to start as any but others have to be tapped, including :- business (private and corporate, at home and abroad) Trust Funds, Media Houses, the Lottery, partnerships with other European countries, cities and theatres, L.A's and individual entrepreneurs. (The Sainsburys, Soros, Vivien Duffield, Getty and Hamlyn have Arts and Education trusts which alone gave away over 300 million pounds last year.)


The new ACW lottery programme introduces the prospect of a more strategic approach to distribution (albeit using diminished resources) which sees capital and revenue as part of the same process. For the first time the potential exists to develop social, cultural and economic arguments for investing in theatre in a broader policy making context. The subsidised theatre has no meaning in the public domain unless it is driven by a clear vision. A producing theatre company working closely with its local community has the capacity to deliver significant returns against all four of the DCMS themes (quality and innovation, access, education and the nurturing of creative industries). Lack of resources is seriously hampering the capacity to do so of what provision exists in Wales.

We reiterate. The plan cannot be at the expense of existing funding. A new millennium, a new policy, new money. (See Cost Alarum).


CONCLUSION

The above points are a mere selection from what has seen the beginning of a consultation process. No further development of the paper is envisaged without some official endorsement of the plan, in whole or in part, at national or local level. We thank all those who have commented, some at length.

author:Michael Bogdanov | New York, February 2000

original source: personal communication with the author
01 February 2000

 

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