Theatre in Wales

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

"Tried and Tested"

Heike Roms dissects The Arts Council of Wales' New Draft Drama Strategy for Wales

The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes between 'strategy", as the art of moving forces into a favourable position following a far-sighted manoeuvre plan, and 'tactics", describing the immediate disposing of one's troops in support of a short-term operation. When the Arts Council of Wales recently published its Draft Drama Strategy for Wales Consultation Paper, one may have expected a policy outline which would help to move Welsh theatre into a position from where it could meet the cultural challenges of the new millennium and the political challenges of a new, Assembly-led Wales. Instead, the recommendations the document puts forward resemble more short-term tactics than far-sighted visions, proposing to sacrifice the revenue funding of half of the Arts Council's current clients in support of one immediate operation: the creation of a mainstream Welsh National Theatre company.

The consultation paper recommends the increase of annual funding for Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold (formerly Clwyd Theatr Cymru) to over 1 million a year to promote it to an English-language 'Welsh National Performing Arts Company", to be joined some time in the future by a Welsh-language counterpart based in Gwynedd. Amongst the companies that will lose their revenue status are Brith Gof and the Magdalena Project; Hijinx Theatre, a company committed to theatre for audiences with learning difficulties, which was recently chosen as the only theatre group to move into the new Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, managed to get their funding reinstated after staging a successful campaign to save the company. Experimental theatre in the future will be funded through a single three-year commitment to one company, this year offered to Swansea-based Volcano. All remaining companies are to apply for one-off project grants, awarded annually on the basis of project applications and a proven partnership with a Wales-based venue. The whole theatre provision for young people in Wales is to be radically restructured: the existing eight Theatre in Education (TIE) companies are to replaced by four new franchises for Young People's Theatre (YPT). Experimental practice, community theatre and theatre for young people - all three once celebrated by the Arts Council itself as being at the centre of a Welsh theatre landscape that is distinct from that of its English neighbour - have become the main casualties of the Arts Council's policy reassessment.

The Council itself calls the strategy a radical and far-reaching, 'painful but necessary" step towards a better theatre service for Wales, which in their eyes can only be achieved by 'funding fewer companies better" - a premise one may or may not share. The fact remains that for a policy document that admittedly digs so deeply into the existing funding structure of theatre in this country, the time allocated for its appraisal has been extremely short. The Arts Council's schedule allowed less than six weeks for consultation, and three weeks for the responses to be evaluated and implemented - barely enough time for the artists affected to call on their boards of management and discuss the implications of the strategy for their future. The Arts Council might argue that the paper is the result of another, more widely conducted consultation process last year, when the Council laid out its general policy for the future of the arts in Wales across all art forms ('Building a Creative Society", Planet 129). However, the results of this earlier consultation are yet to be published, and the new strategy paper only mentions as its outcome a fairly general and ambivalent 'call for change". Most regrettable is the fact that the hastiness in which the consultation has been conducted has not allowed for a proper public debate to develop around it - despite the Arts Council's self-proclaimed commitment to a new culture of informed critical discussion and consultation. This has led to an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, signed by fifteen Members of Parliament, to 'ensure that no irreversible decisions are taken by the Arts Council for Wales before the Assembly has had full opportunity to consider and debate the proposals and any options". Indeed the tight schedule seems to confirm the suspicion that the consultation is a mere formality, and that what masquerades as mere intentions are in fact decisions already written in stone.

The Arts Council's obvious reluctance to subject itself to a thorough public debate over its strategy paper may not result from political arrogance but intellectual insecurity about a policy document that does not stand up to closer scrutiny. Its analysis of the status quo of theatre in Wales, on which it bases its policy recommendation, is incomplete and imprecise, and the vagueness and contradictory nature of many of its proposals have provoked a widespread opposition that ranges from county councils to venue directors, and from artists to trade unionists. Admittedly, not all responses to the draft strategy have been negative: beside the obvious gainers of the new funding structure, some voices have welcomed its commitment to creating a Welsh-language company of national status, others have greeted its intention to restructure its static revenue-client base to include more 'young blood" - artists who may not want to set themselves up as proper ensembles with all the paraphernalia that accompanies it, including vans, administrators and office overheads. But apart from the rise in Clwyd Theatr Cymru's funding, the document contains no concrete proposals as to how these aims might be achieved. The 'substantially enlarged project fund" which is promised to compensate for the cut in revenue funding has yet to materialize, and will probably always remain one of the most vulnerable elements in the Arts Council's budget. A new inclusive definition of theatre is proclaimed, one which ranges from "traditional 'well made plays' created for proscenium arch theatres to performance work that may be multi-disciplinary and site specific" - yet, most of the companies practising cross-disciplinary work have failed to secure a grant this year. Diversity is celebrated as the main strength of theatre in Wales, yet the document calls for a funding policy that will undermine the precarious ecology of different artistic styles. But it is the actual vision of the future of Welsh theatre that is the most problematic aspect of the strategy paper. Indeed, upon reading the Arts Council's revelation of 'Where we want to be - five years on", one may be forgiven for thinking that we were standing at the threshold to the twentieth rather than the twenty-first century. Not only does the policy paper completely ignore contemporary developments such as the rise of digital media which will pose major challenges to all representational media in the future. The strategy puts forward a curiously conservative vision of what theatre ought to look like, as if this were the 'natural state" to which all theatre must inevitably aspire: a mainstream production house, gathering the 'cream" of the profession, run on a staple diet of 'classics - tried and tested", and supported by a general audience. This model manages to ignore the fact that the idea of a 'general" audience has long been revealed as a middle-class fiction which excludes large portions of society, that the classic dramatic texts are fast losing their appeal as cornerstones of a bourgeois education, and that excellence has become a highly problematic concept in a world where skills generally are devalued. The strategy does little to justify why this should be the theatre form that would serve the new, Assembly-led Wales best. Apart from the aspiration for it to be a 'national" theatre, there is indeed no mentioning of the new political situation in Wales and the inevitable changes the Assembly will bring to the culture of self-representation. This is the greatest weakness of the document: its propositions seem less motivated by artistic concerns than bureaucratic expediency, yet it does not allow these propositions to be debated in the realm to which they truly belong: the realm of the political.

The opposition to the strategy paper has recently been given new fuel by the appointment of Sybil Crouch, director of Taliesin Arts Centre in Swansea and an outspoken opponent of the strategy, as new chairperson of the Arts Council.

The Arts Council convened on 19 March to agree on the final details of the strategy, which were made public after this issue of Planet went to press. But whatever the result of the consultation process may be in the short term, it has already had one definite outcome: it has revealed the problematic state of the Arts Councils own position between art and politics at this crucial point in its history. Artistically conservative and politically overcautious, the strategy paper has certainly failed to move the Arts Council itself into a favourable position when its future in Wales is to be decided.

author:Heike Roms

original source: Planet 134 April / May 1999
01 April 1999

 

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