Theatre in Wales

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

Muddle of Policy Application

Consultation Submission to Senedd Culture Committee

The continuing part of the submission of 7th August 2017 touched on the subject of the Arts Council of Wales. It recalled the period of turbulence at the beginning of the century & continued “To the observer the board and management in the period that followed gave the impression of having performed the role admirably. The Chair up to 2016 was a public figure who spoke unafraidedly for the arts.”

There was a topical reference of comparison that Wales had avoided the controversy in England. Emma Rice had received a substantial award for her start-up company.

It recalled “An open letter in 2003 signed by 60 directors and writers asked for a strategic approach to theatre. Most of the authors' comments are pertinent in 2017. However, the Council is not a strategy-making body nor is it a venture capital operation picking winners. It has to be added that if it were a winner-picker on a VC model then the sales revenues for theatre would soar. But sales maximisation is not its brief and nor should it be. To its credit the balance of allocation across the counties of Wales, the languages and the art forms invites none of the rancour of comment in England or Scotland.”

“Lastly, the Council is also an outlet for government policy as a whole. Social policy is at its heart but there is evidence of some muddle in its application.” A footnote cites: “A document of advice to companies stresses attention to the most impoverished communities both materially and culturally. It suggests experimental work, the exact opposite of what such communities deserve. The bedrocks of theatre are comedy, musical and drama. An aesthetic of snobbery dislikes these genres, the holders usually lacking in skill to make them.

“It is pointless to make direct comparison with London since the city is a phenomenon out of kilter with the rest of the four nations. However, two factors are relevant. Firstly, its theatre has always had a public-private symbiosis in which subsidised productions enter the commercial sphere. Indeed the record from the 1980s is clear that theatre practitioners acquired considerable personal wealth without putting any of their own capital at risk. The National Theatre in its recent years has taken pride in its capacity to sell, its highest earner having taken £40m at the box office. There is no obvious evidence of a similar aspiration to sell in Wales.

“The ecology of venues is of course vastly different in Wales. However, it is feasible for private-sector theatre to exist with the right product. Frapetsus is evidence, being able to fill theatres from Colwyn Bay to Cardiff. However, since it required extreme financial risk from its entrepreneur-actor-writer it has ceased.

“The second factor is an inquisitive press. Thus Richard Morrison of the Times looked to the subsidy for one mismanaged company and then to its number of performances. He divided the two and published his result, £148,000 per performance. No such exercise exists in Wales.

“Theatr Clwyd has this season broken with a tradition of coyness about revenue. Its brochure contains in large print its record for the year. 158,337 tickets sold, £1.6m ticket sales. It stands out for its very rareness.

“Factors for Revenue Growth. Every industry sector considers itself to be unique which is true. All sectors have their particularities but all have their commonalities. In particular commercial success is about brand-building. In England this summer a new play by James Graham was an instant sell-out with transfer to the West End.

“A play by Graham is a known entity and the audience knows what it is getting. His play “This House”- the only play in theatre to feature a young Dafydd Elis-Thomas- has longevity also being revived last year with commercial success. Revivals are rare in Wales- again Gary Owen is the only example.

“Similarly this summer the National Theatre in England has combined playwright Lucy Kirkwood with the detective from “Broadchurch”, the result an instant sell-out. Brand quality, a repertoire of familiar actors, seasonal regularity are all part of the mix, achieved at Theatr Clwyd and developed with success at the Sherman.

“The irregularity of the appearance of theatre companies is not good for brand-building. A company like Waking Exploits is there for three years and then gone. Opra Cymru builds a franchise with audiences of 150-200 and then is no more to be seen.

“National theatre holds a particular place in the theatre ecology. It sits at the centre. There is no choice in the issue. When the late Rhodri Morgan gave his valedictory lecture for the Wales Political archive he was asked as to the stages of government in Cardiff Bay. The first period, he said, had one purpose that over-rode all; it was the legitimation of the Welsh Assembly Government as an institution.

“So with the national theatre; its first chapter was one of unsurpassed brilliance in establishing its existence. Critical praise for the music of Wales has long been a regular. To open a broadsheet and see a five-star review for theatre of Wales, as I did in August 2010, from Britain's best theatre critic had no precedent. The brilliance has not been sustained.

“The signs of pathology of corporate decline are well-known and the national company exhibits four of them. A public company cannot go bankrupt in the manner of a private company. The view from an outsider at a hundred miles distance differs from that of Cardiff. Regulatory capture is a well-known phenomenon. With sadness it is hard for an outsider not to discern the signals, from the public record at least, that this has been the case.

“The economics of performance are no different from other products. There is a fixed cost that is amortised over production runs with variable cost. In the case of theatre it is the rehearsal and preparation time amortised over the number of performances. At the height of the repertory system the two were merged; the companies prepared the following week's production during the day before performance in the evening. In terms of cost minimisation the system adopted by Cameron Mackintosh, the world's most successful theatre entrepreneur, is the same as that of the Macdonalds Corporation.

“In Wales the non-building company with a regular best ratio of fixed cost to number of performances has been Frapetsus. It stands out as a commercial operation. At the opposite end public sector theatre in 2017 can be observed to have a ratio of five weeks rehearsal and other activities resulting in three performances.

“Theatre is a medium for dramatists and actors. They are brand names. Tickets rise when a familiar name is the draw. Look only to the pantomime offered by the New Theatre each winter whose audience extends to Pembrokeshire. Innately strong products and focus and investment on a selected number of existing and up-and-coming performance names are the routes to raising the ratio of earned income to public sector grant-giving.”

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
02 February 2019


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