Theatre in Wales

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

Who has the vision to revive our future?

Terry Hands, Artistic Director of Clwyd Theatr Cymru asks some difficult questions

Across Britain in the 1990-91 season some 13.5 million theatre tickets were sold. Six years later in 1996-97 only 9 million. It is a depressing decline, but at least the message is clear. Whatever we have been doing for the last six years - however well intentioned, however politically correct - does not appear to have worked. Perhaps we should start again

In Wales the decline has been less marked - sadly there was a shorter distance to go - but the message is still the same. The status quo is no longer tenable, nor worth preserving - a message delivered with increasing frequency to the status quango itself - The Arts Council of Wales

David Clarke, in his policy paper for the Institute of Welsh Affairs, accuses the ACW of abandoning support for high quality art in favour of amateurs. Clifford McLucas, joint artistic director of Brith Gof , writing in Planet questions a lack of vision at the heart of public subsidy. Last June in Cardiff a meeting of some hundred professional practitioners argued similarly

The observations, it seems to me , to have all been valid and mostly constructive. What they don't take into account however is the ACW's own awareness of the situation and their declared intention to review their funding procedures. The problem is not one of goodwill or perception. It is which new system to put into place and when. Non-elected bodies are not known for their alacrity and by the time every private agenda has been aired - each one a valid impediment to progress - the millennium may well have come and gone

Surely two basic questions must be addressed. First - do we have thriving professional theatre community in Wales? No, we don't - and thousands of glossy brochures featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins will not prove otherwise. Secondly - do we have an enthusiastic and informed audience? No we don't. How can we with a dying touring circuit and decreasingly funded, increasingly demoralised, touring companies trying to patch their one-night stands into a haphazard programme of community DIY, occasional film and bingo?

Chris Smith , the Culture Media and Sport Secretary, has offered a new professional contract for England. It might be a useful template for Wales. First he wants standards raised and excellence pursued and provided. Might this be achieved in Wales by establishing properly funded producing houses. Four already exist in Bangor, Milford Haven , Cardiff ad Mold, but they are too often seen as aberrant receiving houses and funded accordingly. Personally I would add a fifth - Swansea. Could not the Grand Theatre (with the Taliesin Centre as its studio) house a resident company incorporating Theatr West Glamorgan as it TIE/Welsh language unit and Volcano as its experimental wing?

Last year at Clwyd Theatr Cymru we introduced a company and repertoire system. It increased our overall audience by 11%. This year Leeds, Scarborough and Newcastle have all followed suit. Already our audiences are up on last year. It might be a way forward

Chris Smith's second demand was for each organisation to double its educational outreach. Essential if we are to develop an audience for the future -less useful of the work is only educational. TIE companies need homes. Ideally they should operate from mainstream producing companies, but in the short term might not one or two of the companies be housed in some of the better mid-scale venues?. The public and the young people are more likely to respond to a home team than to increasingly desperate administrators and increasingly disparate programming.

The third point covered accessibility - but that is and always has been, a direct result of subsidy. Higher subsidy means cheaper tickets. At present all our theatres are too highly priced. We are not competing with the cinema in either quality or cost - and we could be.

So where is this money to come from? Well - not from Chris Smith obviously. Wales is always part of England until it comes to actual benefits - then we are suddenly independent. But the present Grant-in-aid of 14 million were it to be united with the present lottery allocation of 13 million could provide a considerable new start - provided the funds were primarily concentrated in bringing the best to the most.

Smith also advocates a reduction in bureaucracy. Here again I sympathise with the ACW. For years they have been asked to fund every shortfall in community provision, education, social welfare, even health care. And every new training scheme for a non-existent industry or development agency with no discernible end product requires further officers, managers, umbrella organisations and glossy brochures - to the point where as |Clifford McLucas writes it is none possible to make a career in Wales in the administration or teaching of the arts than in its practice. It is all expensive but money invested in the professional arts comes back to the State in VAT, NI contributions or income tax. Arts money spent on social therapy is not investment. It is deficit funding, placatory and artistically unproductive

There is some money available for new investment and there might be more if a Chris Smith style bonus were used to kick-start a revival of the Welsh professional arts economy. Meanwhile the beleaguered ACW - while probably hoping much the same as everybody else - must also wait and see and possibly in the short run have to go it alone. A professional arts revival needs partnerships.

The ACW needs local authority support. They need more Flintshires. We all need leadership. It was Aneurin Bevan who first advocated a 6d rate for the arts and it was his wife Jenny Lee whose political will laid the foundation for the post-war arts revival across Britain.

Do we have politicians of their own vision and stature to lead the arts/us into the new millennium

author:Terry Hands (Artistic Director, Theatr Clwyd)

original source: Western Mail
14 November 1998


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