Theatre in Wales

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

New Writing at Theatre Companies in the 1980s

Carl Tighe: New Writing in Wales (4)

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. The fourth part looked at new writing and the companies.

The appointment of a playwright to the post of writer in residence at Clwyd, with a specific brief to foster new work, seemed cause for rejoicing at the time. However, just over a year later, with the post vacant again, it seems nothing much had changed after all. One writer sent a script to Clwyd, received an enthusiastic response, was then told the script had been lost, that it had been found, that it was scheduled for production, then that the production had been dropped and finally that the script had not even been read yet and that a writer in residence was no longer employed by the Theatre. It is not possible to say what went wrong, but the net gain would seem to be zero.

Yr Academi Gymreig ran a very thorough six month-long playwriting course in 1984, but this was for writers who were already well established in areas other than theatre. The success of the course may be judged from the fact that two of its members have been asked to write plays for Made in Wales Theatre Company. However, writers who were not invited to take part were justifiably critical of the fact that dedicated would-be dramatists, struggling to gain experience were very different from writers who are simply adding another string to their bow.

The Torch Theatre, for about two years, valiantly attempted to run writers’ workshops. They managed to put on an evening of one act plays before abandoning the idea altogether. Milford Haven, it must be said, is in a rather difficult geographical position, distant from the larger industrial and urban centres of the South and South East Wales. For the majority of writers getting there meant a journey of at least three hours. So far, however, The Torch is the only theatre in Wales to have attempted any such project.

Made in Wales is a theatre company formed by two actors with the intention of staging new Welsh plays. The company hopes to offer two or three new plays a year in the autumn season. Given that it is financed by a WAC project grant, that the company has no facilities of its own and depends upon The Sherman Theatre, that the company is offering so few plays, that these plays already show a worrying limitation in style and content, that it is run by ‘resting’ actors rather than writers, all mean that it is unlikely to thrive – indeed its existence can at best be tenuous and its achievements are likely to be very limited.

Without doubt there is a deep and worrying conservatism at almost every level of Welsh theatre. The production of a new play is seen as a terrible risk long before it is seen as an exciting adventure. Even Theatre Clwyd, which prides itself on its go-ahead attitude, chose Jeffery Thomas’ Playing the Game, secure in the knowledge that it had already been a success in New Zealand.

Why is it that a play has to be a success before it can be stage in Wales? Geofrey Axworthy:

It costs about £5000 per week to put a play on the main stage, and we don’t want to lose our shirts. I believe theatre is only as good as its new writers. The best theatre writing is when a writer works with a settled group of actors and directors of authority. This is a luxury most writers don’t have. They tend to be isolated from the theatre and excessively literary. I believe new plays should be put on with the minimum of finance. The place for new plays is the Arena – a sort of low-budget try-out. New writers should band together in groups and read plays to each other. Proper play readings, with actors, are just too expensive. We would be very interested in holding writers workshops if there was only the money and the interest.

Such an attitude is understandable in the case of a large commercial venue like The Sherman Theatre, but it is clear that in spite of protestations to the contrary, new writing at the Sherman is fairly low down on a long list of priorities. Indeed, Geofrey Axworthy was unaware that there was money available from the Welsh Arts Council to support play-readings with professional actors and unaware of the Welsh Arts Council’s Playwriting Awards Scheme.

The Sherman, although titled theatre, is in practice just a receiving venue. While it is prepared to host new work from outside, it has no resident performance company, so it is hampered in doing anything to assist new writing. Unless the student Arena Group or the Theatre Wales actors decide to do a new piece in their spare time as they did with Dick Edwards’ Late City Echo, there is really very little likelihood of any new work emerging from The Sherman.
There seems to be a consensus of opinion that attitudes amongst management and theatre companies towards new writing are favourable, and that the real problem lies with the writers themselves. Sue Harries:

The level of interest in new theatre writing in Wales amongst writers seems fairly low. The level of interest in theatre companies is very high. I think there are enough opportunities for theatre writers in Wales, and I think they are growing.

When Geofrey Axworthy started the Sherman Critics’ Circle he was asked why he had done this in preference to setting up a writers circle, and he replied: ‘Writers have enough outlets. Critics have no outlets at all.’ It hardly needs saying, but most of those who feel that all is well with the world are theatre managers and funding body administrators. There is a large dissenting minority, mostly writers, who believe that there is considerable interest among writers and very little interest from the theatres. Is it possible that the level of interest in the writing community has been seriously underestimated? The Play for Wales competition raised 159 entries; Torch Theatre Writers Workshops managed to run for a second year; Theatre Clwyd and The Torch each receive about 40 unsolicited scripts per year; The Sherman sees a new play arrive on average once a week; the Drama Association of Wales annual competition receives a steady 50 entries. If that is not interest, what is?

It is often painfully clear to a writer that a theatre does not have their interests at heart. Writers in Wales complain that they get a raw deal from the theatres. There are tales of scripts disappearing sent to Theatre Clwyd for over two years before even an acknowledgment is received and The Sherman has earned itself the nickname of ‘The Black Hole’ as scripts sent there disappear unread into a large cardboard box behind the door in Geoffrey Axworthy’s office and are never seen again. It is a legitimate complaint. A script of 30-40 pages may now cost an author up to £10 in photocopying charges, and it is not pleasant to think this is money down the drain.

In December 1981 the magazine Arcade tried to find out just what the level of interest in new theatre writing might be among theatre companies and managements. It produced a short questionnaire on the subject and asked for suggestions for future developments and arrangements. The magazine wrote to a total of 42 professional and amateur companies and play producing venues. By April 1982 it had received a total of 7 replies. Among those who did not reply were Theatre Powys, Gwent TIE, Open Cast Theatre, Action PIE, Swansea Grand, Cwmni Theatre Cymru, Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, Theatre Wales, Theatre Ardudwy, Paupers Carnival, The Torch Theatre… It is of course possible to argue these companies showed a healthy lack of interest in answering questions, rather than a lack of interest in new writing. Betty Williams of the Drama Association of Wales:

The most successful media for our competition have been radio and television. Unless the playwright is involved with a group, stage plays have not received the success they deserve. Regretfully, no other theatre apart from The Torch, has requested further information of this year’s competition. I suspect that this comment is the most accurate summary of the real interest theatres in Wales have in new writing."

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
04 June 2020

 

Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 keith morris / red snapper web designs / keith@artx.co.uk