Theatre in Wales

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

The March of Progress - the Arts Council of Wales

Ruth Shade on the Arts Council of Wales and its Drama Strategy

Raymond Williams contended that, although the Arts Council is an unsatisfactory organisation, "because it is there, it is where the argument has to start. " The problem, though, is that neither the Arts Council's policies nor discussions about them have developed much beyond the starting point: both are trapped by orthodoxies from which neither party seems able to escape.

What is most striking about reactions to the Arts Council of Wales's (ACW) recent contentious Drama Strategy is their resemblance to rejoinders to Arts Council decisions throughout its history. They tend towards three manifestations the call for a proper public debate; an assertion that there is an unprecedented theatre crisis, the consequence of which will be Wales's descent into a "third world " of theatre; and the use of hyperbole or invective to inflate theatre companies and discredit the @arts Council.

These attitudes could have been detected at any point during the last fifty years. Hence, you might assume a recommendation to abolish the Arts Council refers to Gordana Vnuk's statement when she left Chapter, whereas the Federation of Conservative Students argued this in 1980. Then again, views about "quality" have been promulgated for many years: in 1952, W.E. Williams (then Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) Secretary General) stated that emphasis should be placed on raising standards rather than spreading subsidy.

These perceptions are as seasoned as Arts Council objectives. The first ACGB Annual Report (1946) established the basic premises that are still being used to define ideal theatre practice: the need to encourage excellence; the imperative of developing "proper stage facilities"; !he necessity for "well qualified actors"; and the importance of a 'National Theatre". Underneath these altruistic intentions lies a reactionary mode of thinking, which carries a significant responsibility for the current Drama Strategy and its difficulties.

The problem of the ACW is that it has had difficulty in decolonising its mind, the outcome of which is the tension between fostering "indigenous" theatre practices and developing "excellence". Its precursor attempted independent thinking, as in 1966 when it suggested that, "the very absence of facilities... may present positive advantages. " But, in concluding that, "well-equipped theatres are Wales's greatest need," without which Wales would be cut off from "the dramatic heritage", the Welsh Committee confirmed its adherence to the idea that, in order to be legitimised, Wales needed to create a simulacrum of an external theatrical ideal. Indeed, the fact that by the mid-1960s the Welsh Committee had absorbed the terminology of the ACGB meant that the then Welsh Arts Council (WAC) could be created in the confidence that it would not depart from the ACGB's doctrines. Thus, the WAC's declaration in 1967 that Wales's weaknesses included "an uneven tradition", a shortage of "appropriate" accommodation, a lack of "reasonably sized" theatre companies, the unhelpful dominance of amateur standards, and the absence of a National Theatre. These are loaded terms, but the ease with which the WAC accepted this uncritical thinking demonstrates the success of the Arts Council of Great Britain's cultural domination; and we might note here Raymond Williams's definition of hegemony, the true condition of which is "effective self-identification with the hegemonic forms ".

In the 1990s, the Welsh Arts Council continued to accept ideas about Welsh theatre which have never been properly interrogated, as in the assertion that "Wales is a country without theatre traditions". The notion that Wales is marked by an absence of authorised theatre is consistent with the long-standing attempt by the ACGB to discipline the Welsh into producing externally-validated forms of theatre, a project which is held together by the slippery concept of "excellence ". So, therefore, in 1993, the WAC was prepared to re-dedicate itself to encouraging "artistic excellence", in line with the ACGB's assertion that, "quality is the pre-eminent criterion for public funding of the arts," even though the definition of what constitutes "quality" is far more vexed than the Arts Council has been prepared to admit.

Despite the fact that the Arts Council perpetuates conventional ideas, it has been slow to learn from the past; and it is surprising that the WAC/ACW took so long to produce a document as swingeing as the current Drama Strategy, because it had known for many years that its theatre provision was insupportable. The Annual Report confirmed that the status quo could no longer be maintained and, using language which prefigures the most recent Drama Strategy, stated that: "a vigorous re-appraisal of policy and priorities [is] essential". But the Arts Council did not review theatre policy then in response to Welsh concepts of an indigenous theatre practice and only does so now because of Government economic policies. It was the combination of the reduction of Welsh Office subvention in 1996-97, a diminution of local authority monies, a standstill Welsh Office grant in 1998-99, inflation, and an increase of only 2.81 per cent for the ACW in 1999-2000 (as compared with 15 per cent for the Arts Council of England) which motivated the ACW's Drama Strategy of 1999.

An important aspect of the ACW's predicament is that its predecessor's spending policies were not commensurate with the modest resources it was granted. So that, even when the WAC had a sense of a differentiated to distance itself from ACGB funding the impossibility of subsidising new ventures when existing commitments already used up most of the available resources. For instance, the fact that the number of arts centres and regional theatres more than doubled during the 1970s, as did the number of Young People's Theatre Companies and Experimental Groups, should have alerted the WAC to the difficulty of sustaining both buildings and discrete companies. This legacy "the proliferation of companies when there is a lack of resources" shapes the current Drama Strategy, and explains why it is but the latest method of avoiding making radical decisions.

When it faces a financial dilemma, as it does now, the Arts Council meets the challenge in a predictable way: namely, it secures the future of those ventures which most correspond with &traditional concepts of "quality". For example, in a comparison between 1994-5's subsidy figures and those of 1'998-9, Clwyd-Theatr Cymru (CTC) has had a 111 per cent increase over the last five years, as compared with, say, Hijinx's 1.52 per cent. What this suggests is that the most "English", bourgeois, formally-conventional theatre (CTC resembles the quality model offered by ACGB in 1946) has been rewarded to the greatest extent, from which we can deduce that what Clwyd Theatr Cymru does exemplifies "excellence".

The conundrum of Welsh theatre lies in the attempt to reconcile subsidising fewer companies (to produce excellence) with increasing accessibility. The Arts Council of Wales constructs CTC's "excellence " by giving it 11 per cent more subsidy than that received by the whole category of Theatre for Young People: conventional "quality" is more likely lo be achieved on 985k, the sum CTC was awarded in 1998-9, than on an eighth share of 888k, the total sum available for Theatre for Young People in 2000-01. Moreover, in order to compete for this funding, Theatre for Young People cornpanies had to submit details in response to some thirty questions, a level of bureaucracy which allowed the ACW plenty of leeway to obscure later justifications for its decisions. The ACW also compromised the possibilities of accessibility by requiring Theatre for Young People companies to provide in advance the kind of information which could only emerge over a period of time out of continually changing conditions responsive to the influence of the lived experience of the constituencies for whom and with whom theatre practice is developed.

Raymond Williams rightly argued that the "important atmosphere [of the Arts Council] is political", and many of the Arts Council of Wales's difficulties stem from its refusal to acknowledge this. A complication of the Drama Strategy is that it has exposed divergent and incompatible ideologies about the function of theatre, an aspect of which is 'S the question of whose interests are served by the current controversy. We should note that it is the two most senior ACW women whose resignations have been sought, even though their contribution is more recent and the thinking underpinning the Drama Strategy is the consequence of largely male, and often English, ideas insinuated over many years. Furthermore, it is perturbing that discussion seems to be confined to a limited range of voices. If theatre in Wales is to have any point, it really does need to find new mechanisms to ensure that it is more reflective of lived experience; the use of focus groups is a charade of democracy. Instead, innovative methods of re-configuring the means of production are required. It is crucial to consider what relationship socioeconomics have with theatre practice, particularly when we consider that 47 per cent of the audience for plays in Britain comes from groups AB (Source: ACGB, 1991); and that, in 1998, 41 per cent of the-Welsh population (58 per cent of the Cynon Valley) is in groups C2DE (the "working-classes "). Although notions of class are complex and contestable, an effective and appropriate Welsh theatre practice cannot be delivered unless it incorporates the knowledge that, for instance, Wales has the highest percentage in the UK of those on the lowest income.

Spurious business plans and Cultural Reviews, and pointless policies to encourage excellence do nothing for theatre practice in Wales. What would be useful is a radical departure from the procedures of the Arts Council. But we would have then to consider what that might signify for theatre companies and theatre practice. It could mean accommodating the ideas of Owen Kelly, for example, who suggests alternative methods for theatre companies to create income, like the strategies of the early trade unions and co-operative societies, who raised-their own funds despite their poverty.

History tends to repeat itself within the Arts Council; so, in order to make progress, it would be sensible to make some fundamental changes now. Firstly, recognise that premising funding on the basis of "excellence" is unhelpful, because it creates an elite who have the power to define what quality is and excludes those whose work does not match orthodox criteria. Secondly, accept that theatre cannot be made bureaucratically accountable: the performance process is entire of itself and it is unnecessary to support it with extensive documentation. Thirdly, understand that there is no inviolable rule which says that, for Welsh theatre to be significant, it needs to conform to established ideas; and, finally, acknowledge that Welsh, indigenous theatre practices are profoundly connected to class and politics, the substantive detail about which should inform theatre structures and policies paid for with public funds.

author:Ruth Shade

original source: Planet Magazine #139 February/March 2000
01 February 2000


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