Theatre in Wales

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

Healthy frictions of Past V. Future

CHARMIAN SAVILL on the acting and performance environment in mid-Wales

What is the relationship between the art which people make and their environment?
What does art have to do with life anyway? What is the 'community' artists purport to serve?

I suspect that some of the answers reside in Helen Iball's vision of a Theatre of Excess:

the current docility of bodies is the consequence of 'endlessly more intensified self-regulation self management and self-control' (Grosz, E 1995 Space Time and Perversion : Essays on the Politics of Bodies, London: Routledge). An inevitable result perhaps of the transmogrification of western society in terms of the shift from a preoccupation with the health of the soul and the hope of eternal life to one which is obsessively body driven
'Never has power been so deeply subjective and localized as the body is now recycled in he Ianguage of medieval mythology. Not sin this time, however as a sign of the body in ruins, but a whole panic scene of media hystericization of the secreting, leaking body (Kroker, A. & M., 1988: Body Invaders - Sexuality on the Post Modern condition, London: Macmillan)
The more society seeks to sterilize and cosset bodies against risk anxiety and blemish, the more theatre needs to be a space for the resurrection of bodies as risky and imperfect

Theatre and Dance still demonstrate a fascination with risk and imperfection. Much of the experience of theatre is the confrontation with the imperfect world, the wrong action, the wrong language rubbed up against a variety of surfaces, this friction is what fascinates and appalls. Theatre and Dance are risks which involve a leap into the dark, and a profound investment of body and mind in the moment. The language and action of theatre/ dance are chosen for their difficulty, challenge and difference. Stage life is heightened energy, where all expression is expanded, distorted, unbalanced and changed, if only because it is witnessed. This 'phenomenon of tension.. is the seed for growth' (Janet Adler, 1985, unpublished essay) for both audience and performer.

The starting point for much theatre/dance is how the artist imagines metaphors for his/her own experience. The imagination stretches, mutilates, energetically enfuses a life that has been lived or dreamed, and in the process often makes it visually and aurally unrecognizable in terms of its original state. 'The theatrical exploration of life imagined, and the social effects of the admission of its consequences is compelling because it opens up a surprising and encouraging volume of possibilities. It should work like good music and deep contact, hitting some surprising notes on top of some surprisingly recognizable chords, to show that you're capable of more things than you think you are, and than you are told you should be.'

Thus David Ian Rabey, Machynlleth-based artistic director of The Lurking Truth Theatre Company, describes the theatrical experience that jerks the performer / spectator out of time, history and their own expectations. Art catalyzes or allows for new beginnings because 'the splendour of the actor's courage.. helps the spectator refer it to their own lives: what they choose to risk and invest in the moment'.

Vital drama involves this level of mutual engagement. Working in an environment where members of the audience and the performers often know each other can be a hindrance as well as a help, in matters of commitment to the moment of performance.

Jeremy Turner is artistic director of Arad Goch, a community and young peoples theatre in Aberystwyth: he speaks of 'the need for a special etiquette' and 'going into the performance space on the audience's terms.' On the other hand, Margaret Ames, a dancer and movement therapist, in Aberystwyth acknowledges that:

a small nation like Wales, under threat from greater powers, tends to play safe. The suspicion of the new is understandable, but also a dangerous regressive response to what could be positive factors for growth. New ideas can help negotiate change and development and strengthen a sense of identity for the 21st century. The tension that exists between the pull back of tradition and the pull forward of the future is the essential factor of creativity.

For actor and director Roger Owen, it is his native dialect, 'the inherent dynamic of the mother tongue', that provides the reality and impetus for his creativity and some of the answers to the recognition and question 'here we are, now what are we going to do about it?'. The idea of belonging (perthyn) is deep in the mix of his artistic aspirations and inextricably linked to his own speech patterns, as is 'the notion of a world seen through the terms set by a very particular and unique dialect'. His interest centres around the question as to whether the language has the power 'to resonate outwards'. Owen also sometimes works with The Lurking Truth, where his enthusiasm is kindled by 'the unreasonable momentum and commitment demanded and expressed' by director Rabey, together with 'the friction involved in the pursuit of the creative moment and its licensing of difficulty'.
Owen sees theatre as a political necessity: 'Culture's being privatised, to a point where you can spend your whole life at home. The facility is there to stop talking altogether but the "Lurkers" demand that you stand on your feet and speak out'.
Owen represents that dichotomy of being an artist between two cultures: he works in the Welsh language with Eddie Ladd whose performances explore tradition, environment, politics and social structures, interfaced with technological imagery and stories of invention in space or other distant worlds; he also performs with The Lurking Truth whose plays are all imaginary trajectories of the heart and soul, with the main creative thrust being the reclamation of the power of the body and of the word to reflect possibilities for change.
There is the sense that Rabey works for imagined spectators whilst Owen, Ladd, Ames and Turner have a sense of who their audience are, and on what terms they wish to prepare performances for them.

Richard Downing of U-Man-Zoo is interested in 'ambushing people who don't normally attend theatre' with shows that have a powerful visual impact: Dome (September 1997) was performed on a huge dome-shaped scaffolding structure, from which actors were suspended.

Eddie Ladd, like Owen, expresses an interest in the concept of belonging (a form of being connected with, known and understood by a particular group of people) but says this is 'complicated by a need for privacy'. This countertension is played out in her performances which explore the penetrations of more public worlds: American Western films, artists, the private world of her childhood, the farm, the chapel and the Welsh language. Lla'th (1997) juxtaposes milk and beef production in Cardiganshire with space exploration.

Andy Cornforth, the director of Slush, a film and theatre company in Aberystwyth, welcomes the freedom he finds in a rural university town to try out complex and challenging theatre by 'creating a disturbance, a ripple, with words and pictures that clash, things that jar, that you cannot entirely relax with'. Cornforth, a native of Brecon, uses his familiarity with Welsh rural towns as a stepping stone to creative freedom and imaginative ferocity, the stability of rurality propelling him into the risk and chaos of theatre.

Sera Moore Williams, founder member of Y Cymraes, and a freelance writer and director living in Aberystwyth, has had her work described as a 'liberationist's parable' (Tony O'Connor Morse, The Independent 17/6/97). Williams accepts that this is an apt description for most of her writing which focuses on 'breaking rules, questioning social values, freeing oneself from all kinds of shackles'.

Dave Blumfield, artistic director of Castaway Theatre in Aberystwyth believes he provides an important service to the community, that also 'allows the performer to grow through the work; theatre stimulates a feeling of being different, it is also a reaching out. I enjoy making people more ~'isible'.

Richard Downing sees Aberystwyth as 'a strange place which cradles many cultures' which he considers has been recently advantaged by the incorporation of the Centre of Performance Research within the university: 'it acts as a conduit for bringing people in, giving a focus and spiritual home to theatre work where any style or any field of performance can exist'. Actively working to create new audiences, Downing hopes that UMan-Zoo 'will not be exclusive, but like a gallery of paintings, widening the eye and imagination'.

Downing's work is inspired by collaboration with other artists, including sculptors, dancers, artists and musicians; so is that of Georges Dewez and Jane Lloyd Francis of Equilbre in Machynlleth, (a fusion event involving horse, theatre, opera, poetry and dance). Both U-Man-Zoo and Equilibre create international communities by their choice ,of working colleagues; they bring a sense of worlds elsewhere into their creative processes.

Jeremy Turner of Arad Goch has made a virtue out of the isolation he feels as a community and children's theatre director by organizing international children's theatre festivals in Aberystwyth, and offset it by making regular contact with companies in Dublin, a capital city which is more important and pertinent than London to the needs of his company and himself. Rabey describes his sense of how some artists in mid-Wales work out the relationship between where they live and how they create their work:

People who choose to stay in this area evidently think it's preferable to scrabbling about in the professional and cultural marketplaces of London, and that constitutes a defiance of centralist terms of significance, calling the dominant discourse into question, not on its own terms by challenging them in the capital, but by developing a more personal expression in more personal space and time-scale, which might be the beginning of their own terms, at least. At best, there is a respect and space accorded to persistence and individuality of initiative here.
Portmeirion's a good example of something that the priorities of metropolitan, utilitarian municipality (the terms under which art is currently expected to justify itself bureaucratically) would never permit to flourish: a place which demonstrates the power of the symbolic over the systematic. It is also a demonstration of how something which goes against the general Welsh aesthetic of the natural can be given a chance to develop its own power, which is that of the artificial.
Portmeirion is, in Baudrillard's terms, inspiringly seductive: triumphantly artificial in its ability to play on appearances, turn them in on themselves, foil systems of power and meaning by the play of perspectives, it shows the reversibility of what is supposedly "real" and what is supposedly a "game".
The collapse of the "real" is immensely defiant: Baudrillard says seduction 'is never an economv of sex or speech, but an escalation of violence and grace'. I think that is profoundly theatrical, and what I want theatre to be.

author:Charmian Savill

original source: New Welsh Review # 40, Spring 1998
01 March 1998


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