Theatre in Wales

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

Facing the End of Experiment?

Heike Roms discusses the "Training Experimentation and Process" seminar at Chapter Arts Centre

The rain had stopped for the first time in this wettest of Aprils, and on a warm and sunny afternoon a group of theatre practitioners, programmers, tutors and funders gathered in Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre for a panel-led seminar on "Training, Experimentation and Process".

The gathering, however, was less concerned with the weather conditions outside their windowless meeting place than with the cultural and political climate in which they are making and presenting theatre in Wales today. These are difficult times for the inde- pendent, innovative theatre for which Wales was once internationally renowned. Companies are struggling with grant cuts, a lack of appropriate venues, a scarcity of training opportunities and the need for a serious critical debate about their work.

The agenda for the seminar thus proposed focusing on "how we can develop contexts for developing practice in performance, particularly with regard to support for innovation, experimentation and process", whilst "recognizing that there are limits on current resources". The three panellists, representing the perspectives of artists, tutors and programmers, all shared their assessment of the current state of affairs in Wales.

Simon Thorne, co-founder of the theatre company Man Act and now an independent performer, teacher and researcher, described the country's once vibrant theatre scene as being on the "point of exhaustion". He spoke about the need to counteract the growing invisibilitv of theatre in the public sphere, to find advocates for new work and to stress the intrinsic worth of artistic practice. This point was taken up by the second contributor, Firenza Guidi from the ELAN European Live Arts Netw'ork, which has won an international reputation for its theatre work with non-professionals. The Italian-born director criticised sharplv what she believed to be a typically British concept of art as charity', for which 'service to the community' is put above aesthetic concerns. Gordana Vnuk, theatre programmer at Chapter, related the problem back to the lack of a clear vision of the future of Welsh theatre on the part of the makers of cultural policy.

Unfortunately, the Arts Council of Wales was not represented at the seminar. In this absence, chair Lois Keidan invited the participants to a "moaning" session to vent their opinions about what was widelv felt to be a crisis in the funding system. Though there were voices from the floor which demanded the abolition of the present Arts Council - "the largest surviving quango in Wales" - in favour of an organisation that will be answerable to a future Welsh Assembly, the meeting did not satisfy itself with mere complaints about funding policies. Instead it drew up constructive strategies for all parties involved. Regular meetings between artists, venue organisers and funders were proposed in order to change their relationship from one of mere economic dependence to one of co-operation and partnership; and first steps towards the formation of a network of theatre practitioners (which it is hoped will provide artists in Wales with a forum for collective representation and advo- cacy) have alreadv been taken.

If the seminar failed in any respect, it was in explaining sufficiently the link between innovation, training and funding that served as its premise. This was probably because no causal relationship exists between them, and neither training nor funding will guarantee the future of an experimental, risk-taking theatre. Both can contribute to a wider theatrical environment, however, which 'ill provide artists with a framework in which to realize their aspirations. What the seminar made obvious was the need to change radically the way we think and talk about theatre. It is high time we rid ourselves of the language of economy and its concomitant thought patterns of cause and effect, and utilitarianism. Over the last decade, the dominant commercial accent in artistic pol- icy has turned art into a "cultural industry" whose value is measured in aesthetically c(u- bious but quantifiable units of bums-on-seats, numbers of performances, or community out- reach.

In times of limited resources, the discourse of ecology seems a more appropriate vocabulary for thinking about art and the nature of innovation. I do not want to go as far as declaring the artistic experiment an endangered species in need of protection. However, the question of how to sustain and resource the fragile ecosystem that is theatre ought to be put high on the agenda of w'hat could constitute a new form of theatrical "geopolitics". Only then may we be able to reverse the end of experiment.

author:Heike Roms

original source: Planet #129 June/July 1998
01 June 1998


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