Theatre in Wales

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

Can we avoid the sound of the death rattle

Paul Davies adds his voice to the growing chorus of despair in Wales

VOLCANO is a national and international touring theatre company. We have just finished touring two shows with a combined total of 15 people on the road. The one production about rural Wales is still on tour in England and the other about a dysfunctional family has just completed a 32-date tour of Wales. The latter show won us a Barclays New Stages award. A show that we have yet to make is already booked to be performed in Switzerland, Canada and Poland.

We should be happy. Unfortunately we are not. I used to say, with Italian political theorist Gramsci, that we remained optimistic in our hearts but pessimistic in our heads. Now I just think Grainsci died in prison

Why do I feel like this? Perhaps because I think Dave Clarke is right (The western mail, October 31) to suggest that theatre activity in Wales is in an extremely perilous state

Of course theatre will not disappear overnight

The death gasp will be long (and painful). the patient may revive and sing the odd song. Recite lines from old plays learnt long ago (Shakespeare probably) but dying it will be.

Signs of decomposition are evident in the long-term underfunding of organisations producing and presenting theatre. Within Volcano what this means is that development has invariably been reactive what can we do in these undesirable circumstances

Long tours in England and abroad are necessary to pay staff even minimum Equity incomes. Obviously this has consequences for morale (and marginal costs). Furthermore it is now increasingly difficult to pay the actors, directors, writers and design- ers that one wants to employ.

Rewards are greater elsewhere and it is not untrue to say that an embattled and occasionally embittered atmosphere makes running (and probably working for) a touring theatre company in Wales difficult indeed.

Dave Clarke goes on to say that in a small country like Wales theatre practice "might decline beyond the minimum level of sustainability, to come, at the end, to a point where there is no practice at all".

To put this another way, I would say that never was there a time when there was less reason to commit oneself to a life of making theatre in Wales. This is depressing not just for established companies like Volcano. For new and yet-to-be-funded companies the prospects are at best mystifying and at worst non-existent.

The responsibility for this state of affairs does not rest wholly with the Arts Council of Wales. Nevertheless, the politics of drift and now an all-too-hasty legitimising public consultation process does not inspire confidence.

Much has been said about the Arts Council's lack of vision and strategy. They must be tired of hearing it, people are tired of saying it, someone one day might do something about it. In the meantime and in a slightly more rarefied fashion I would say that at the centre of the current malaise may lie the Arts Council's perception of the nature of the organisations - including themselves - that comprise the world of theatre.

What seems to be preferred and prescribed is a neutral. value-free model of organisation. True the values of advocacy have been rediscovered, but client-council relationships seems to be structured almost wholly around management efficiency and operational orthodoxy. Perhaps this is why we hear so much these days about voluntary associations.

Of course, these associations are vital to our culture but as the socialist writer G D H Cole discovered long ago their logic does not fit easily within a market economy and a social formation cannot assume and can rarely promote degrees of participation sufficient to meet articulated social goals.

If however there are no social goals, particiation can become an end in itself - but participation for what, and why? The history of the socialist movement can be written as a footnote to the beautiful dreams of participation. Thinking about the form, function and legitimacy of organisations like the Arts Council provides the context for the gathering excitement about what kind of impact the National Assembly might have on the arts.

Certainly a more engaged sense of what might now be possible in Wales, a critical court of appeal. a focus from which and to which the question of culture rather than operational accountability might at last be addressed.

In other words, the Assembly will be a fundamentally different kind of organisation: representative. symbolic, certainly dynamic - a place where tension, change and the possibilities of a country in the making are clear and open for all to see.

Within this kind of organisational space theatre may be valued in so far as it adds to our sense of Wales as a difficult, inconclusive, contradictory, even bloody-minded place. This is to see culture - and theatre - as a place of conflict. Conflict that is creative and popular.

Not culture as the kind of arbitrary list assembled by T S Eliot. Pedestrianised streets, theme pubs and jacket potatoes don't count for so much even if they are pleasurable, necessary or inevitable. So perhaps I'm happy after all.

Politics might save us - Chris Smith has made a considerable impact in England, combining excellence and participation. Things might change. If they don't there is always the Mary Celeste of the National Theatre of Wales. All aboard - who knows where we are going and why.

One thing we can be sure of, there won't be any other ships on the horizon. Captains are jealous and national treasuries are small. Whatever we do, the future is uncertain. We can decline to set sail on the icy waters of adventurism and hope that the Assembly will launch a lifeboat to the arts stuffed full of income and vision

Alternatively peraps it is not too late for the Arts Council to practice the kind of cultural diplomacy that will knock some heads together, close some doors and open others. If nothing happens rigor mortis will surely set in.

The funds are there - what we need is an organisation with sufficient political and cultural legitimacy to distribute them

Paul Davies is artistic director of the Swansea-based Volcano theatre.

author:Paul Davies

original source: Western Mail
30 November 1998


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