Theatre in Wales

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

The Poor Quality of Drama Writing

Carl Tighe: New Writing in Wales (5)

Carl Tighe was active in Welsh theatre as writer and commentator from 1969-1987.

In the winter of 1982-1983 the magazine "Arcade" circulated a questionnaire. Its results provided Carl Tighe with material and quotations for a substantial article on new writing in Wales. Its first version was published in "Platform" issue number 5, Spring 1983 under the title "From Tremadoc to Sketty Hall."

The first parts of the article were posted 1st and 2nd June. The article continues.

"Wales has two main stage professional theatre companies, a number of excellent venues and a wide variety of experimental, TIE and Community Theatre companies, as well as a couple of companies that don’t quite fit into any of these categories. In spite of the apparent strength of Welsh theatre, what passes on the Welsh stage is frequently English. Where this does not mean English plays on tour, or English companies touring or companies whose members are based in England but temporarily employed in Wales, it means plays, companies or management that originates or takes its cultural bearings from England. This extends right through to a preference for playwrights from England, or who have been successful in England.

The use of the English language and the cultural orientation of the large body of potential audiences make this almost inevitable, but it invites theatre managements to define a ‘new play’ as one which has ‘proved itself’ before it is put on stage in Wales. This is one of the most powerful arguments for the Welsh playwright to leave Wales and seek success in England, in order to get work in Wales. A side effect is that many writers feel that to get their work on stage in Wales they need to imitate what has ‘gone down well’ in the past, and this usually means endless re-writes of Dylan Thomas and Emlyn Williams.

The issues that should have concerned playwrights, the central issues of Welsh society over the last 20 years, have hardly figured on the Welsh stage. The language issue, holiday homes, the behaviour of the police, devolution, have hardly been given an airing, partly because managements consider them too parochial and partly because managements consider them too dangerous – a richly ambiguous situation.
Whilst lamenting their inability to stage new work, Welsh theatres have been unanimous in blaming the poor quality of Welsh playwriting. In fact Welsh theatres have done little or nothing to improve the situation; they have not fostered outlets, have not developed what little talent they have found, have not allowed playwrights access to theatre space, stage-time or the financial freedom to come to terms with their complex cultural situation.

Writers, but playwrights especially, can only improve if they have an outlet for their work. The reluctance of the theatres leads to an unfortunate and crippling circle of failure: playwrights often write badly because they lack experience; they lack experience because Welsh theatres are reluctant to get involved in new work unless there is a guarantee that it will be a success; because they cannot gain experience, the playwrights cannot improve the quality of their work; they remain inexperienced, they don’t improve, they don’t gain employment and the theatres feel fully justified in staging Scandinavian, English, even Hungarian works.

The job of playwright, as the name suggests, involves a practical craft. Like wheelwrights, ploughwrights and cartwrights, playwrights need to practice their craft constantly. Unfortunately the playwright needs a large and expensive array of theatrical talents and facilities to bring their work to fruition and many theatres consider this as sufficient reason to prefer the work of writers who are safely famous or safely dead - preferably both. In part this is a problem of geography and a problem of willpower. Since the modern Welsh theatres were built in the 1970s, there has been a large scale failure to create an audience for new work. Even now, with well established audiences for the classics and the standard examination texts, there is still a general reluctance o break new ground.

Viewing the situation in realistic (financial) terms, neither Theatre Clwyd nor The Torch is ideally placed to draw large audiences for new work, and the Sherman, while it is rather better placed to draw on a large and varied audience, has neither a full-time professional resident company, nor a commitment to new work.

The playwrights of Wales, even if they are very lucky, have only a tiny corner of the available theatre space open to them. That is partly their own fault. Welsh playwrights are remarkably ignorant about the potential markets for their work and fail to approach theatres in a realistic way. The Sherman Theatre, a venue only with no resident company to stage new work, receives over 50 scripts per year, while Theatre Powys, probably the largest company in Wales, with an extensive touring schedule covering a huge area of Wales, receives hardly any scripts.

Welsh playwrights have become fixated on theatre buildings, and have forgotten about the rainbow of touring theatre companies operating throughout Wales. This is of enormous importance. Not only are smaller companies far, far more flexible and sympathetic than the larger companies, it is the touring companies who provide the bulk of the new theatre writing in Wales, both in terms of commissions and residencies. It is important to realise the extent of this imbalance. Over the financial years 1982-84 the Welsh Arts Council spent a total of £64,544 on new writing. Of that, The Torch and Theatre Clwyd between them spent only £3,849. That is less than 6% of the total.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
05 June 2020


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