Theatre in Wales

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

The Theatre Crisis

Anne Marie Taylor reflects on the critical state of welsh theatre

I am very fond of fresh air, so fond that when I worked in the university at Aberystwyth, I would always keep my window overlooking the Old College wide open

I'm not sure when it was - I guess sometime around 1989 and 1990 - but I remain convinced that some strange miasma floated over from the university registry which infiltrated my then exceedingly student-centred self, causing me to talk in very odd terms. Students became all of a sudden "FTEs" (full-time equivalents), my teaching was transformed into "provision", and soon I had learnt an alternative pedagogic vocabulary of transferable skills, learning out- comes and quality assurance mechanisms.

This drizzle of bureau-speak has now spread beyond Cardigan Bay to all public sectors from the health service to planning departments. A group that remained immune for a long time were arts managers, but a particularly concentrated dose of this quasi-business speak seems to have blown in their direction, causing once articulate people not to talk of "decent plays" but "quality product", to shed the humane (but presumably woolly) concept of "attracting people into the theatre" in favour of "building up an audience base" and "satisfying performance indicators".

And what are the meanings of this brave new bureaucratic talk? It occurs to me that its abstractions are in part self-protective and arose, in the case of education, to distance ourselves from the massification (horrible word!) of the academy, from the reality of over-crowded lecture rooms and under- funded educational programmes. Perhaps this new vocabulary is also an attempt to dignify activities which, in the case of teaching and making art, have been regarded as less important than the more hard-edged activities of business management and legal practice. However, I suspect the answer is more obvious, that the Thatcherite legacy of the valorisation of business and management has thoroughly permeated the public sphere. I don't wish to be labelled a Luddite, totally hostile to innovative and more efficient ways of managing what had been an elite educational svstem, and of organising an unruly arts sector that had developed in Wales in an un- predictable and undemocratic way.

But when you take a disinterested look at the theatre in Wales, all this streamlined talk of accountability, quality indicators and heightened efficiency barely hides the fact that there is an untidy mismatch between various groups' expectations; and a pronounced dysfunctionality about the way theatre is organised. Thus even with the plethora of new venues that have opened with Lottery funding, it is still really difficult for Welsh companies to tour across the country. Venues offer little in terms of financial support, or encouraging rec- ognition of home-grown work. In response, some venue managers claim that "there is not a sufficient product" out there.

A common worry amongst venue managers is that middle-scale touring by Welsh companies has all but disappeared, particularly after the recent withdrawal of funding from Mappa Mundi and reduced funding for Cardiff's Sherman Theatre which has meant that its popular tours of Shakespeare have been shelved (in favour next year of the minimalist Talking Heads by Alan Bennett). One manager of a leading arts centre refers more forcefully to the mismatch between the needs of audiences and the aspirations of theatre groups in Wales, a situation akin to Stalinist times when factories churned out goods no-body wanted, having failed to get information about consumer needs.

Other anomalies include the dislocation be- tween the many who wish to write plays - creative writing courses are booming - and the few who would wish to be part of an audience to see this new work. Contemporary writing (especially that of the "Shopping and Blasted" generation of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, and Jez Butterworth) is well attended in Scotland and England. Why, despite numerous schemes, is new drama still so overlooked in Wales?

For Paul Davies of Volcano Theatre Company (which recently hosted a successful series of writing events in Swansea's Dylan Thomas Centre under the banner "Revolution 98") the answer might lie in a mismatch between a certain older type of literary drama and a more contemporary notion of theatricality. For Davies, the attachment to a highly word-bound theatre in Wales has meant that though it may "inhabit parameters of good literature" it does not necessarily "exists within the parameters of good theatre". Davies sees a lack of confidence in writing for the stage in the persistent use of narrators - not used in a Brechtian politicised sense to disrupt the action, but standing as a buffer between the act of theatre-making and the audience.

This was evident in some recent and rare "middle-scale products" (i.e. with more than three actors on stage). Theatre West Glamorgan's wistful and gentle Cider with Rosie (adapted by James Roose-Evans) evoked the nostalgia of Laurie Lee's account of his child- hood, but the limited dramatic action was played out through an omnipresent narrator, resulting in that very Welsh thing "a play for voices". Similarly, Ed Thomas's tale of hobgoblins, fairies and a shrinking nation, Ga5 Station Angel, sacrificed theatricality to the word more than in earlier plays. On occasion these were glorious words, as with the Lear-like paean to the power of the sea recited by the old man, Manny, as his house collapses over a cliff. Rather like Manny's house, the structures of Welsh theatre seem precarious, whether in the underpinning provided by a regular audience, stability of funding, or innovation.

The Arts Council of Wales's on-going review of drama has recognised there are problems that need to be addressed urgently. However, as with dysfunctionality in families, the healing of past behaviour can be a drawn out, inequitable and painful process. It may be a long time before those in the arts - on the artistic and management sides - can develop a language that allows them to say what they mean directly and productively

author:Anna-Marie Taylor

original source: Planet #130 August 1998
01 August 1998


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