Theatre in Wales

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

Mapping the Future

Anna-Marie Taylor on the uneven distribution of theatrical activity across Wales

A curious and possibly quite incidental feature of the electoral map in the September devolution referendum was that, with the exception of the area served by Theatr Gwynedd, the further away you lived from a housed repertory theatre company, the more likely you were to vote "Yes". Now, as the man in the stylish Guinness cinema advert tells us, "you can make up anything in black and white," facts and statistics can be made to mean whatever you wish. However, in this case such an eccentric piece of information might reflect the associaion of the theatre with more Anglicized, urban parts of Wales. This snippet of information might also indicate the imbalance in inward investment in certain parts of Wales in the last eighteen years which clearly made a "Yes" vote less attractive in many areas, particularly in the more privileged south-east.

Certainly the level of theatrical activity in and around Cardiff seems to parallel the favouring of this region within the country, for although there are complex reasons to explain and even excuse it, there is very little parity in levels of theatrical activity across Wales. The result of funders' and individual artists' decisions means that the majority of companies and practitioners are based in Cardiff, increasingly in Canton around Chapter Arts Centre. In contrast, Powys supports one professional company and there are only two groups (both touring companies) in Swansea that receive any Arts Council funding to speak of. Even if you are not particularly interested in going to the theatre, such an imbalance compounds the view that Cardiff gets everything.

This year there has been some shifting of ground to make the map of dramatic activity less biased towards the capital; the Centre for Performance Research has settled itself in Aberystwyth and the Magdalena Project, the international network of women in performance, is also planning a base in Ceredigion. Similarly, Mike Pearson, founder-director of Brith Gof, has moved from Cardiff to the company's origins in Aberystwyth in the University's Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies.

Yet, although such changes will no doubt benefit the flourishing theatrical scene in Aberystwyth and be of great value to undergraduate and research students, their impact within a wider Wales is less certain. In many ways, such moves create a theatrical axis between Chapter Arts in Cardiff and the rural heartland of Ceredigion, enabling exchange between two audiences who are highly literate in modern performance.

Within this coalition, experimental work can be nurtured, dramatic and sophisticated international conferences can take place. Unfortunately, despite democratising efforts this year by organisations such as the Magdalena Project which attempted to set up a network of women performers across Wales, and has tried to keep its meetings and events as inexpensive and inclusive as possible, this axis remains one which is largely sealed off from other theatre audiences across the country. In the minds of many, it appears, even if erroneously, to belong to a free-floating, seriously "arty" and, as far as conferences go, well-heeled coterie.

Now, I realise i'm beginning to sound like a petty parochialist, or like that splenetic scourge of the Welsh avant-garde, Dedwydd Jones, who in his 1980 Black Book on Welsh Theatre railed against the exclusivity of the Cardiff experimental scene and its promotion of an internat ional avant-garde over indigenous talent (including his own). However, after the electoral results of May and September this year, it appears a pressing necessity to consider the question of democratic allocation of resources in all areas of economic and cultural life. As far as Welsh theatre is concerned, this consideration must include looking at the relationship between popular and art theatre, between local and international performance, in order to open up and develop wider channels of theatrical communication across Wales.

I'm speaking of course as if this has not been contemplated before, and am aware of the wobbly balancing act that arts funding agencies have had to practise in the last two decades in order to promote a vibrant and cosmopolitan theatrical culture based in Cardiff and to establish some semblance of dramatic democracy across the country. However, with the opening up of a divide in Wales after the September referendum- brought about to a large extent through a sense that parts of Wales were unfairly served by the Tories' policies - it would now appear timely to reassess subsidies for, and levels of artistic activity across Wales as a whole.

This year there have been encouraging signs that such a process of re-evaluation of the relationship between popularity and art, between local audiences and internationalist ambitions, has actually begun. Tim Baker, long-time director of Neath's Theatre West Glamorgan, moved to Clwyd Theatr Cymru, and his lively, popularising style of performance which draws its inspiration from local politics and histories should be well deployed in north Wales to continue former artistic director Helena Kaut-Howson's attempts to impart a Welsh character to the programme of this venue, often dubbed (in view of its audience) the National Theatre of Liverpool. Wales's theatre-in-education programmes, with various companies' budgets under threat after changes to unitary authorities, have thankfully survived in 1997 against the odds. Here the involvement of Wales-based dramatists in work for younger audiences has continued to prosper; with writers more associated with an "art" theatre such as Dic Edwards and Sera Moore Williams working for Porth's Spectacle Theatre and Aberystwyth's Arad Goch.. The Centre for Performance Research was also involved in youth work, hosting Bernadetje, a highly energetic example of young people's theatre from Belgium, complete with real dodgems. However, with no disrespect to CPR, it is a sobering comment on Welsh theatrical structures that it appears easier to get international funding to tour Belgian young people's theatre than to stage the equally vital performances of Greg Cullen's mid-Powys Youth Theatre across Wales.

Other pointers towards a new Welsh theatre were Gordana Vnuk's appointment as theatre programmer in Cardiff's Chapter Arts, which gave us amongst other innovative bookings an excellent season of work from Japan and a promised willingness to set up projects and artistic dialogue across Wales.The opening of Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon under Chris Ricketts' management also promises the hope of establishing a wider and more op en network, and exchange of activities, across and within Wales. Such a network seems a priority as, apart from Theatre-in-Education work and lone companies such as Bara Caws's and Theatr y Byd's efforts, perilously little new writing was seen outside of Cardiff this year.

This speaks badly of theatrical democracy and access to all types of theatrical activity acros's the country. To return to September's electoral map, as far as drama goes, it was precisely those areas that voted "Yes" that had least access to challenging and new theatrical performances. Here in Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot all unambiguous "Yes" areas - we seem to be constantly left off Arts Council touring schedules but this autumn we can see well over half a dozen entertainments stuffed full with Freddie Mercury and Abba looka- likes. Perhaps then the way to Welsh independence is a steady diet of rock tribute shows

author:Anna-Marie Taylor

original source: Planet #126 December 1997/January 1998
01 December 1997


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