Theatre in Wales

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

Development and innovation: the other sides to the

Theatre is not only about performance: in an era of shrinking funds, other things are necessary to keep it vital. JENI WILLIAMS reports

Though it's the time of year that carnival, youth groups, samba bands and street theatre move out into the open, the summer seems a lean time for conventional theatre-going .But, as evident in at least two events this summer, theatre is not only about performance.

I wish I had been able to attend the Magdalena Project's 'Raw Visions' earlier this year, a brilliant opportunity to meet people and discuss ideas, but unfortunately I was away at the time. However I did attend Volcano's 'Voices in Opposition', the latest in a series of week-long events (Revolutions) which bring together established practitioners with those who are interested in specific issues or aspects of theatre. These have been held every summer for the past six years or so.

Past events include drumming, wrestling, flamenco, mime, theatre, dance and massage (!) with workshop leaders ranging from Test Department, and Nigel Charnock to V-Tol, the Cholmondleys and the Jiving Lindy Hoppers. The workshops this June were led by Fiona Sampson, Liz Lochhead, Peter Finch, Claire Dowie and Ed Thomas, and produced in conjunction with the Dylan Thomas Centre.

The final day consisted of a writing surgery run, with his customary intelligence and care, by Nigel Jenkins. The workshops were supported bv evening events open to the public: readings by Lochhead and Finch, a stand-up performance from Claire Dowie and a showing of Ed Thomas's film, House of America. The event closed with a panel of theatre practitioners, academics and critics considering the implications for Welsh theatre of an ever-increasing reliance on Lottery funding, with its demands for a popular rather than an experimental drama. With the publication of the Welsh Arts Council's consultation paper, Building a Creative Society, this has been a recurrent topic for discussion throughout the summer.

The Arts Council of Wales's latest strategic consultative document Building a Creative Society may stress the importance of theatre's 'involvement with the community', but it doesn't make clear what defines either term. It's as if the two elements are set in fixed binary opposition when, of course, they are fluid, including communities of interest not restricted by geographical boundaries and theatrical communities. Volcano originally set up Revolutions to provide informal fora for practitioners and teachers. It was partly done to sustain their own innovation and partly with an eye to future collaborations across disciplines based variously in text, dance and dramatic performance.

In relation to Revolution '98, Volcano's Fern Smith commented on her excitement in recognising links with the working practices of artists from different fields, particularly regarding Finch's cut-up/assemblage method: 'it is interesting to see how a violent, destructive, apparently arbitrary process can be used to create both poetry and performance.' At a time when there is increasing pressure on the artistic community to compete for shrinking funds, events like Raw Visions and Revolution are centrally important in keeping theatre vital. As past movements demonstrate, no art takes place in a vacuum but emerges out of a confluence of different ideas and influences which cross disciplines rather than standing in isolated competition with each other.

Another perspective on the relation of art and communities was in evidence in Hendrefoilan House when the Swansea University's Adult and Continuing Education Department hosted the first of a series of projected conferences. Rob Humphreys opened the conference bv introducing the idea of theatre as 'social capital' which can generate a sense of cohesion in places where an economic centre had disintegrated. He argued that theatre could be seen as the Third Sector of a community, functioning in much the same way as the rugby club or the WI. With Blair's espousal of the politics of the 'third way', this sounds like an argument that will be heard more frequently in the future.

As Anna-Marie Taylor pointed out, there has been a long tradition of community plays in Wales, and thus the idea of 'social capital' sounds seductive. The example of Canolfan Rhys, where theatre is only one of a raft of (brilliantly successful) measures designed to create a sense of community in the dysfunctional Penrhys estate in the Rhondda, may point up the advantages of this approach, but it also exposes its limitations. Is theatre only a medicine for the disadvantaged? And how is 'disadvantage' quantified? What about town-based theatres such as Brecon which have no 'natural' community a factor brought out by Chris Ricketts, director of Theatr Brycheiniog do they 'deserve' funding? The confusions that result from a failure to recognise the plural functions of theatre can lead to productions aimed at the lowest common denominator.

This is not, I hasten to add, community theatre. In the past there has been a real snobbery about community theatre, and I do not share that attitude: it is essential that the creative work of Canolfan Rhys and of Dic Edwards and Spectacle Theatre (Llwynpia, Rhondda) are recognised.

The problem is that the climate of competition can set the different kinds of drama against each other, rather than seeing them as performing different functions for that elusive entity, the 'community'. Raymond Williams comments on the difficulty of defining the word by' pointing out that, unusually, it attracts no negative connotations, and thus can mean anything to anybody. Pointing, on the one hand to the different Ianguage communities in Ceredigion and, on the other, to the problem of rural transport which drastically reduces the potential audience for even small-scale theatre, Gill Ogden highlighted issues that are often unrecognised in an uncritical (urban/English-language) understanding of the word 'community.' That it's not an insurmountable problem was demonstrated by Alvson Jenkins of Community Dance Wales, who gave a useful overview of the administrative\'e problems of such a diverse and changing dance community and yet managed to be upbeat. As a forum to meet others and exchange opinion a place to develop the artistic community this conference was both useful and interesting.

author:Jeni Williams

original source: The New Welsh Review #42 Autumn 1998
01 September 1998


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