Theatre in Wales

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

Report on a Playwriting Competition

Carl Tighe: New Writing in Wales (3)

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 article ran to 9300 words.

The first part of the article looked at the history. The second part moved to the twentieth century. The third part reported on a drama competition.

Yr Academic Gymreig’s play competition was announced in January 1981 with a panel of distinguished judges and a prize of £2,000 for the winning full length play. There was considerable interest among writers, and the number of entries was high. Sue Harries, one of the organisers of the competition, said that the final count was 159 plays, with approximately 65% of these coming from addresses in Wales. Most of the writers who entered had been writing for some time. The results were announced in September 1981, and it came as something of a surprise that there was no outright winner, and that the prize had been shared between three runners-up.

In the light of this decision it was unfortunate that no provision had been made to inform entrants why their plays had not been more successful. Playwrights like Etta Lewis (Arcade, 18 September 1981) felt they were left in ignorance as to the nature of their failure, and that no matter how desperate they were to improve their work they had been offered nothing that might enable them to do so. What made this even more irksome was that the much less prestigious Drama Association of Wales annual playwriting competition, with a prize of only £50, had for years ensured that every entrant received a detailed judgement.

However, general comment on the entries to the Academi competition made very clear the exact nature of the failure. The actor Ray Smith, at the press conference to launch a new production of The Dresser said:

They were impossible. Casts of thirty people and three set changes. You can’t put that on a stage now. Six people and one set is what we’re after.

Sue Harries said:

Many of the plays were not performable because they had very large casts or impossible scene changes or were just not good theatre…. The comments from the judges on the standard and level of the writing submitted were of disappointment. The standard as a whole was low, showed a lack of knowledge about theatre, about what was possible for performance in the theatre in Wales today, and the plots and characterisation were generally of a pretty low standard.

Geoffrey Axworthy, Director of the Sherman Theatre, said:

Eight of the plays were just readable, but there were no masterpieces. They had nothing to say. No originality. All about writers or painters returning to Wales…. The dreadful thing is that Welsh plays tend to be written by people who have never been to the theatre at all. Dreadfully arrogant.

The failure of Welsh playwrights to come up with the goods would seem to have been total. However, these commentators have overlooked several basic flaws in the organisation of the competition. These comments assume that stage –worthiness was a basic condition. But at no time were TV or Radio plays excluded from the competition – which is a bit like having a competition for animals and disqualifying the mouse because it as the temerity to enter as a mouse. Nor was it ever established who the competition was for – beginners, amateurs of long standing, professionals?
The question of the Welsh-ness of these plays was also rather confusing. It is impossible to judge just how important a Welsh theme should be in a Play for Wales competition – especially when this is the only criterion offered in advance publicity. It would seem that the competition was part of the very amateurism it was intended to circumvent. Whatever the shortcomings, it is clear that if Yr Academi Gymreig had suspected there was no outright winner to be found, or that the standard would be so low, the competition would have been organised differently. The lesson to be learned is that Yr Academic over-estimated the development of Welsh theatre and assumed that Welsh writers had much more experience and expertise than in fact were available.

As if to confirm what most observers feared, at about the same time as the results of the competition were announced, Gareth Jones, at Theatre Clwyd reported on the plays submitted to him in his first 6 months as dramaturg:

Ninety percent were written by retired English gentlefolk of the ‘Look-you’ school, while the other ten percent were by overseas Welshmen salving their consciences in a syrupy linctus of aberrant mythology.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
03 June 2020


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