Theatre in Wales

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

Small World Theatre / Theatr Byd Bychan's submiss

1. Other than providing additional funding, what do you feel the Assembly can / should offer the arts in Wales and how could the Assembly develop it's own definitive Arts and Culture policy? 2. What should be the principle objectives of an arts and culture policy for Wales?

The Arts in Wales could benefit from the Assembly giving the arts a higher profile within Wales and Internationally by recognising its positive effect on the culture of Wales and how the arts are crucial to many sectors of Welsh life. All sectors of economic development are able to be enhanced by and sometimes driven by arts input. Content provision, training programmes with transferable skills capacity building , entrepreneurship all can contribute to creative solutions for civil, community and business challenges. The Assembly will also benefit by using creative arts processes to help inform its Arts and Culture Policy. The failure of the Arts Council of Wales to deliver a coherent arts policy or strategy was partly due to its inability to listen to or act properly on consultation. Using artistic, cultural and development methodologies to help form artistic policy is a wholly appropriate course of action. (See Legislative Theatre for the National Assembly on our web site.) A definitive arts policy for the Assembly is paradoxically one that is ever responsive to the needs of and developments within the arts practitioners community as well as the needs of the people of Wales. To be responsive to these needs the policy has to include mechanisms for change. Not an easy task. A reserve fund for this responsive and even reactive section of arts policy would place the Assembly in an advantaged position.

The areas of arts and culture are seamlessly combined in the two questions above but I feel there is always some danger in conflating these concepts. Although there are many points of contact between arts and culture and both reciprocally inform and feed each other there are points where for the survival of each they must at times separate, challenge and confront each other. Otherwise we will allow a situation to develop where the symbiosis of the two will cause the stagnation and death of both, however mix in a third element of politics and a fourth of transport and you start to create heat and light. Add other elements to taste and turn up the heat. The arts are truly cross sectoral.

3. Should the priority of such a policy be based upon the arts in Wales or on Welsh arts? What should be the balance between the two?

Similarly connecting the words “Welsh” and “Arts” will inevitably constrain and stagnate both concepts . Arts in Wales is a far more positive concept if also linked closely with Arts from Wales which is an outward looking phrase. The balance rests between Arts in Wales and Arts from Wales.

The word “Welsh” is so redolent of significance that it would need a whole country of artists to interpret its meaning.

4. Given a clean sheet “ how would you suggest the Assembly structures its funding and management /development of the arts in Wales.

As far as development is concerned the Assembly should take in to account the unrepeatable opportunity of Objective One funding and concentrate on maximising activity and sustainable development in that area for the next 6 years. The rest of Wales could bumble on developing as it has done under the Arts Council. If Objective one is mishandled and marginalised ( as it has been largely fumbled by ACW) then the only truly transformative process for the arts in Wales will be lost and probably lost forever.

As far as management of the arts in Wales goes it would be a good thing to truly asses the extraordinary artistic talent and arts activity that takes place in Wales . I feel past mis management has been allowed to happen because of the vain search for a few super novas while all around stars have been allowed to diminish or shoot off out of Wales’ firmament.

5. In your experience how open and accessible do you feel the the Arts Council of Wales is and have they been prepared to listen to your views and take on board your ideas? Using the drama strategy as an example, do you feel the consultation exercise was well managed or were there things which could have been done differently?

For the last twenty one years our company has grown from strength to strength and has built up an international reputation for extremely innovative work especially overseas with culture for development projects . We have brought our experiences home and toured Wales performing exciting and highly praised productions often to an average 30,000 people in Wales a year . We have worked on one of Wales most volatile estates in Cardiff since 1994 with intergenerational performance groups . This work has been featured on national news programmes and in journals our processes and methodologies are currently the subject of study by University research projects. We sent out 9 invitations to the arts Council of Wales to view this work at Llanover hall, Cardiff. We had one reply from a an officer who could not attend and the other 8 totally ignored this invitation. We have only occasionally benefited from the touring support schemes but have never received project or revenue funding . The Lottery has supported a capital grant and a touring project via ACW. I feel the Arts Council of Wales is not equipped to deal with or respond to the scope of our views or ideas.

The drama strategy abstracted from responses seemed to be totally unlinked to the consultation process and the conclusions drawn seemed to have been constructed to fit a pre ordained matrix. Unless all the members of other companies that I have talked to are telling lies the process must have been a sham. It’s false complexity obvolving its fundamental flaws. A strategy for development is based on a willingness to seek expansion from a base of increased funding. This last ACW strategy was one of dismantling from the outset. How could ACW not see this strategy effecting their own dismantling. ( Kamikaze, Hari Kari )

6. Do you feel the councils structure and organisation is appropriate to enable it to develop national arts strategies and to manage the distribution of of Assembly funding?

The councils structure and organisation seems to have recently become unstructured and disorganised but as I have not walked through their door recently. I have no real information and can only read the signs of massive discontent in the arts community. I suspect this discontent is mirrored internally. The cost of heavy pruning root and branch within the organisation to appoint a set of talented and able staff would have to be met from outside the present Arts Council of Wales budget , as I fear to do the job thoroughly, would be such a drain on the budget it could totally halt all funded arts activity in the Nation. “ They have drunk from the poisoned chalice and we must pay for their parvenuity” Paul Van Gutenberg.

Monitoring of transparent processes would engender confidence and encourage participation in strategic development from the public, arts organisations and individual artists giving more opportunities to respond and contribute.

Strategic thinking has to be based on what talent is available within the arts community . We must build on what we uniquely possess. Development has to be part of strategic thinking but development should be also determined by the producers and consumers of artistic product. Part of this process has to be educative not only in what it is possible to achieve but also educative in the sense of finding new audiences for performances, exhibitions and participation. Not enough work has reached a critical mass within Wales to encourage support and participation in the arts at community level. There are many companies that do this work but there is room for more supported activity.

Strategies should be developed by individual companies with support and networking with their client base, other arts practitioners and funders. This should happen with all arts companies whether they are ACW supported or not . These individual strategies could act as a basis for networking within shared areas of concern and artistic interest. Where strategies differ, let them differ. Where strategies agree support partnerships and collaborations. As funding has been squeezed off, competitive attitudes have created insular and inefficient development of most art forms. At the risk of sounding unfashionably optimistic we are at year zero and this provides us with a potentially bright future if progress is sought in an inclusive way.

7. In your view how well have the arts supported across all regions of Wales, particularly in promoting the medium of the Welsh language.

From Small World Theatres perspective our productions have been very well supported at the grass roots by audiences and participants. Our Welsh language productions have not been as well supported by audiences as I would have liked . Maybe it is my West Wales vernacular.

As far as West Wales county council support goes, the level of non venue funding has not only been a joke but a scandal.

The ACW regional support for new initiatives is small and therefore non responsive.

The Lottery support is a Lottery but it is the only alternative as business support is as rare a beast as big business in West Wales.

No national or international businesses have seen West Wales as a credible area for raising their profile through support for the arts since the Torch. Our main area of work with communities and the marginalised groups is as yet not seen business compatible.

INTERREG support is a nightmare to administrate for a small company and schemes that do exist need more time to establish contacts and an “artist agency ” type structure before they are fully viable.

Voluntary bodies that support artistic work in Wales are often administered form the parent base in London or are for small amounts of funding, this however is very much appreciated as part of a lager patchwork of match funding. Patchwork funding means getting something like five organisations to say yes to a project proposal instead of wasting time on an ACW request that invariably postures around an answer of NO.

8. Do you agree with the principle of “funding fewer better “ i.e.. concentrating resources on a lesser number of organisations with a view to significantly improving the quality of productions

I feel the emphasis should more be on content than quality as I feel quality will follow content. This “funding fewer better “non strategy is flawed from the outset and locked into inevitable failure as the philosophy has its genesis in cutting resources rather than in a first principal of attaining quality.

As more companies fold as a result of cuts more people will leave the arts for jobs at call centres. The ones who stay will all be circling like sharks around lottery cash or moving into Objective one areas. It may result as the survival of the fattest. Those with fat admin support will devote the dwindling resources to more competitive applications for funding. This is no way to run an arts policy. I also feel that “funding fewer better “ is a smokescreen for the ACW not having the confidence in its client base resulting in them attracting the smallest amount of grant aid in the UK for the Arts activity of Wales. It is ACW’s single most self defeating act and probably the final nail in its grandiose mausoleum. Unfortunately we may have to sit through their pantomime death throws for some time. It is gruesome theatre but already attracting the curious in droves. ACW’s demise is probably the biggest funded theatre event in the UK at this time. Will it transfer to the West End soon?

9. Which body/bodies should play a key role in the management and distribution of European funding for the arts?

European funding especially objective one funding is only given to areas that are deemed to have failed . Lets face it, that also means the institutions that are supposed to have increased employment and GDP have failed . The WDA the Welsh Office the Tourist board the Arts Council of Wales and local councils have failed. European money is a badge of failure. None are these institutions are worthy of handling this money it is implicit in the act of granting it. You know that, we know that, Europe knows that the people of Wales know that.

It will take time to organise the body responsible for this function. New bodies like the Lottery have taken years to attempt to get it right and this process is not yet complete. Openness and accountability should be watch words and appointees with experience of the arts are crucial. Proper consultation via artistic methodologies are appropriate routes to take to achieve creative solutions .

10. What more can Arts International. or others do in promoting Wales’ creative industries abroad.

The link between ACW international arts dept. and the British Council is one of the few positive initiatives where collaboration seeks to enhance the international profile of the arts from Wales. More links, networking and development has to be done now.

Small World Theatre's ( SWT ) international work is a very strong component in its artistic vision. Much of its work in Wales is informed by this work and much SWT’s work overseas is derived from the unique environment of Wales where it was born and nurtured.

In our 21 year history of touring we have found ourselves many times representing Wales in Asia and Africa for instance. Now that we have an Assembly maybe there is a structure to report back to. Our work often intersects with governmental institutions and departments of other countries. Recent work with participatory theatre for development concerning human rights and women's issues in Nepal or drama for peace culture in war torn Sudan are considered to be world class examples of using theatre for addressing life and death issues. Women's participation in the democratic process as voters and candidates in up coming Tanzanian elections is another major project that SWT is soon to undertake. However up till now support for this work has come from outside of Wales. Whilst attending a meeting with Visiting Arts and Wales based arts companies in Cardiff I found myself explaining my work to all assembled . It was all new and exciting and fitted none of the categories for funding. Leaving the meeting in the depressing rain I jumped in a taxi . The student driving it was from Egypt ,we spoke in Arabic and I told him I used puppets in Sudan to help stop desertification in a community forestry project and he said “ yeah ....I heard about that it was in 1985 wasn't it?” Small World isn't it?

Many other companies from Wales work overseas and this is one of the most fertile areas of cultural exchange and international profile raising, enhancing cross sectoral opportunities for Wales. At the present moment it is underfunded and underdeveloped . It is crucial that an exceptionally gifted person is appointed to the vacant international post at ACW. It is deeply ironic that most of the companies profiled on the international web site are currently not funded or under threat, .after all these are presumably the countries best. Support companies at home so they are available to work abroad.

11. How do you feel the arts can contribute to tackling social exclusion in Wales and what what barriers presently exist which hinder progress ?

It has to said that more money is needed . It is of course too simple an answer but a major hindrance to social inclusion never the less. Much can be done if recommendations SWT put to the Assembly about this area of concern in relation to the Objective One SPD are adopted. To summarise it for this committee : SWT’s work is primarily concerned with addressing social exclusion and processes and methodologies we have developed are known to be very effective across all sectors experiencing social exclusion and marginalisation. In the final analysis no political, cultural, educational or artistic group can empower the socially excluded . Only they can empower themselves anything to the contrary is a conceit. However the arts can support this process through participatory methodology.

12. What support should the Assembly be providing to sustain or increase the viability and income of the creative industries in Wales?

The most immediate concern should be to match fund creative industry initiatives in Objective One areas. Having confidence in Artists in Wales is a great step forward. Matching that confidence with financial support and tax breaks when you get those powers. Recognising that transport costs in Wales and touring from Wales are an increasing barrier to audience development .

Recognition of the essential role of artists as content providers cross sectorally.

Practitioners are demoralised and there is no career structure to encourage young people to follow their talent into a working life in the arts. Backing schemes to place arts practitioners in cross sectoral posts within the business, voluntary and civil sectors could be part of an approach.

Arts management should serve the artist and not dictate the terms of reference, creativity should be nurtured.

I often wonder if these widely varying comments from diverse companies and arts organisations are actually read , understood and their divergent views incorporated . I do not envy your task but wish you well in pursuing it.

Bill Hamblett

author:Bill Hamblett

original source: Small world Theatre
28 April 2000


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