Theatre in Wales

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SCOPING STUDY: POLICY REVIEW OF ANGLO-WELSH CULTURE: PRESENTATION PAPER: SIMON HARRIS (ARTISTIC DIRECTOR -SGRIPT CYMRU)     

The history of drama is a history of new plays.

The new plays of classical Athens and the new plays of Elizabethan London became, with time and addition, the canon of established world drama that shapes much theatrical experience today. From the nineteenth century onwards, the presentation of new plays was placed consciously at the heart of the project of national identity. In the last century the work of the English Stage Company at The Royal Court and, particularly, the formation of the Abbey Theatre as a national theatre of new Irish stage writing and The Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh as a national theatre of new Scots writing exemplify this approach. The wave upon wave of Irish, Scottish, American and English writing that has dominated the history of theatre in the last century was recently chronicled by Sir Richard Eyre in his acclaimed book and television series "Changing Stages: A History of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century." The challenge for all of us concerned with theatre in Wales is that it does not contain a single reference to a Welsh play or playwright.

Influential theatre director, Dominic Dromgoole recently produced a book entitled "The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwrights," which includes thumbnail sketches of over one hundred living dramatists, many of whom are not necessarily established. There is one Welsh playwright – Cardiff-born Peter Gill, who is in his sixties and who has made his entire career outside of Wales.

In 1999, when we were drafting Sgript Cymru's application to The Arts Council of Wales to become a national and bilingual producing company for contemporary drama in Wales. I came across a letter from 1948 by the poet Harri Webb in which he writes, "A Welsh theatre is necessary to reveal us to ourselves." His passionate analysis of the situation regarding theatre in Wales is still relevant today. However, one comment in particular is as pertinent now as it was fifty-five years ago, "For a theatre there are only two real necessities: people and money."

In many ways, the creation of Sgript Cymru in May 2000 was taken by us as an opportunity to begin to address the range of unique circumstances and needs that have contrived to make the Welsh playwright such an allegedly under-achieving and unheard voice.

The incentive behind Sgript Cymru, at its most fundamental, speaks right to the heart of this study today by The National Assembly and to the entire basis of a distinctive endeavour in Welsh arts in both languages. Indeed, many question the validity of art in Wales that does not engage with the traditions, vernacular, imagery and cultural diversity of modern Wales, setting it apart from its near neighbours and making it unique in the world. Clearly, the playwright in Wales is one of those expressive artists best placed to attempt to fulfil this role and to mediate representations of Wales to audiences amongst our own communities and also beyond the border.

For the last two and a half years, Sgript Cymru has been a source of major success in Welsh theatre and has established an enviable reputation for itself as a respected and fast-growing component in British theatre with ten premieres of new plays to date. For two years running, Sgript Cymru has received by popular vote the Best New Play Award for our productions of Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco by Gary Owen and Franco's Bastard by Dic Edwards in the Theatre In Wales Awards. We were also recipients of a major ACW Audience Development Award for work in the Welsh language to produce a stage adaptation of Bethan Gwanas's Amdani and this year we were highly praised for our production of the commissioned play for The National Eisteddfod – Dosbarth by Geraint Lewis. With Crazy Gary and Art and Guff, we broke new ground for Welsh theatre by performing both plays side by side to great acclaim at high-profile venues in London. We have also taken work by Meic Povey to the Traverse in Edinburgh, where Tair was performed in Welsh and English. Subsequently, we introduced the play to The Royal Shakespeare Company, leading to it being translated into the majority languages of Europe for wider theatre production under a prestigious European Union of Theatres award. Additionally, our partnership with The Royal Court saw their involvement in our work at the grassroots in Wales through our ground breaking Community Writer scheme and our involvement in The Royal Court's 2002 Young Writers Festival. Building on our relationship with Scotland's Traverse Theatre (which refers to Sgript Cymru as "our sister company in Wales"), we will be returning to Edinburgh in June to perform Meic Povey's first English language play Indian Country as part of a wider tour. In a Guardian profile on the state of drama in Wales, the journalist wrote that as a consequence of Sgript Cymru's efforts, "New Welsh work was no longer insular."

While Sgript Cymru's work has unquestionably given new direction and refreshed focus to the work of playwrights in Wales, one still has to wonder why a culture that has produced, amongst many other talents, the likes of J.O. Francis, Richard Hughes, Caradoc Evans, Saunders Lewis, Emlyn Williams, Gwyn Thomas, Gwenlyn Parry, Dic Edwards, Meic Povey, Ed Thomas, and now Gary Owen, Kaite O'Reilly, Meredydd Barker and Sera Moore Williams, can still be considered by some to be a wasteland for playwrights. Given the obstacles and lack of opportunity these and other playwrights have faced, one begins to wonder if Brian Friel, Harold Pinter and Sarah Kane had been born in Wales whether anything would ever have been heard of them again. Indeed, the answer to this paradox lies, not with the lack of talent of our playwrights, but, unfortunately, in poor strategy and an unmistakeable lack of will, investment and infrastructure.

Turning away from Wales, one looks to Ireland and sees a hundred years of new writing growing out of the nationalist dreams of W. B Yeats and Lady Gregory and creating through The Abbey Theatre a major force in contemporary drama in the world. In Ireland, the work of living dramatists now predominates on many stages across the land. In Scotland, the forty-year history of The Traverse is pre-eminent, but it is one among a large number of other new writing organisations. Last year, it received £676,300 from the SAC, while other companies received substantial support for new writing. Indeed, in the late nineties, the SAC responded to just the kind of arguments that we believe in and made a wider strategy of new Scottish writing core to its drama policy, leading to a heady flowering of new work right across Scottish theatre and the emergence of dynamic talents such as David Greig, Zinnie Harris and Gregory Burke while articulating their vision of the new Scotland far and wide. In London in 1956, the work of The Royal Court transformed the landscape, but it's easy to forget that before that time there was "no continuous or unbroken" tradition of presenting new plays in England either. Now every major regional centre of note has its own dedicated new writing space and in London alone, while The Royal Court receives £1,680,414 per annum in core funding, new writing companies and venues proliferate, at such places as The National Theatre Studio, Hampstead Theatre (£474,394), Soho Theatre (£466,479), Out of Joint (£451,356) Paines Plough (£190,000) and The Bush Theatre based above a pub in West London seating just seventy, which receives core funding of £321,678 per year. By contrast, in Wales there is not a single, dedicated new writing venue in existence and between 1999 and 2002 the ACW budget for new writing was slashed by a third, leaving it the only element of the discredited Drama Strategy to actually receive a cut in funding.

As an organisation, Sgript Cymru would like to pay tribute to the work of The Culture Minister and the members of The Culture Committee for their efforts to redress the under-funding of the arts in Wales. Last year, Sgript Cymru gratefully accepted an increase to its funding which all but reinstated the money that was lost to new writing in 1999. However, the unpalatable reality we face is that it is almost impossible for contemporary drama to flourish in Wales with the same vitality as elsewhere without considerably increased funding and a coherent strategy that places at its heart Sgript Cymru as the national, strategic organisation responsible for new writing, a dedicated space for premiering contemporary Welsh drama, and support for work by playwrights in the wide variety of other companies and theatres across Wales. Given the inflationary increase in funding that the vast majority of ACW revenue funded drama clients are facing next year, this possibility seems remote.

In Harri Webb's letter published with the heading A Theatre For Wales, he makes the point that, "national identity and consciousness reside in the language. As nowhere else I can think of, the language is the nation." While the rich and growing reality of bilingualism in Wales is for so many "a jewel in our national crown," it is also true that for many non-Welsh speaking Welsh the equation of language and nation presents a difficulty. Many of the so-called Anglo-Welsh are uncomfortable with the idea that somehow they are perceived to be "not Welsh enough." Indeed, even the phrase "Anglo-Welsh" itself presents some difficulty. The truth of many people's lives is that they feel themselves to be simply and uncomplicatedly "Welsh," whatever their linguistic character. Undeniably, however, bilingualism represents the future of this country and the invisible fault-line that is cast by linguistic difference must not be allowed to fester into cultural disenfranchisement and intolerance. When we celebrate Welsh identity, we must also find a way to celebrate the diverse range of cultures and identities contained within it and engender an inclusive sense of belonging that can be shared by all. This process, of its nature, must not simply be about affirmation and accessibility, but it must also involve the courage to face up to difference and to engage with challenging and alternative viewpoints. Such a dialogue is at the heart of our democracy and our freedom to be who we are. By good fortune, it is also the essence of drama.

On the ground, the living reality of bilingualism in modern Wales is complicated, so perhaps, finally, it is unsurprising that, in the practical delineation of his theatre for Wales, Harri Webb proposes, "An organisation capable of putting before the public original work in both languages that will hold the mirror up to our national life and heritage." At Sgript Cymru, we are encouraged that we are witnessing the creation of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru to stand alongside Clwyd Theatr Cymru as a respective National Theatre of Wales. It is clearly necessary that the producing work and identity of all three companies will be different and yet complimentary, so, as time progresses, we look forward with optimism to working with both organisations in equal partnership to develop the scope of new writing in Wales and to contribute to a healthier future for our drama than we have hitherto witnessed
wales assembly government  
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Simon Harris
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Saturday, March 08, 2003back

 

 

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