Theatre in Wales

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Does Wales need a National Theatre?     

Does Wales need a national theatre? Terry Hands, artistic director of Clwyd Theatr Cymru, reveals his plans for a "people's theatre" crossing the north south divide......


THERE used to be a sign hanging in the foyer of the old Theatr Clwyd. It read, "The nearest thing to a National Theatre of Wales - The Sunday Times". When I became director in 1997 I took it down.

For a start, the theatre was not Welsh, nor did it have a national remit. And what was, or could be, a national theatre in a country with neither a mainstream theatre tradition nor a producing-house infrastructure?

Still, the compliment was well-meant and worth having. My associate Tim Baker and I set out to earn it.

Quality had to be the key. We needed to set standards of production and performance that at least equalled anything to be seen on the other side of the border. Which meant forming a company. One-off productions rarely attain the levels that ensembles can achieve. And the company had to be Welsh.

It was not easy. So many Welsh actors, without producing theatres in their own country, had left to work in England and they were hesitant to return. It was understandable. They had seen too many false dawns.

Eventually we put together a company of 45 actors, 80% Welsh - half of them Welsh-speaking - in a repertoire of modern classics and new writing and kept them together for nine months. This first company would form the core of future ensembles and the numbers would grow to over 70 a season.

We needed to develop a new audience so we tripled our schools work, enlarging both the repertoire and the outreach. We needed to raise our national profile so we quadrupled our touring, introducing a residency in Cardiff (six shows in the first year) and the Mobile Theatre. This latter was and is our most successful touring initiative to date.

By taking everything - stage, sets, lights, even seats - we could create a complete theatre in a leisure centre or school hall, maintain production values and introduce a new, socially inclusive audience to the best we had to offer.

At the end of our first season in 1998 we won the Barclays/TMA Award for Theatre of the Year. At the end of our second in 1999 we were designated a Welsh National Performing Arts Company. CTC was now officially "The Nearest Thing to a National Theatre of Wales".

We still did not reinstate the Sunday Times board. The problem was the word "national". It is used a great deal in Wales. We have a national stadium, a national opera, a national orchestra. I even saw a sign in Cardiff recently for a Welsh National Body Piercing Centre.

All these titles provoke little comment, but when we come to theatre then the debate is waged with a ferocity matched only by the debaters' previous inertia.

Most theories centre on touring - either large-scale or fleets of coracles - despite the proof in other countries that you need flagships for quality and "homes" for audience development. Touring as a raison d' tre is largely a management concept and like most management concepts usually leads to less art and more management.

But committees can't build national theatres, nor can they run them (witness the recent failures in Scotland), nor can theatres be invented overnight. They need to evolve.

For too long in Wales administrators, bureaucrats, expert advisers and committees had been constructing expensive management haystacks in the mistaken belief that they were thereby creating artistic needles. And it hadn't worked. Cardiff, Swansea, Aberystwyth for instance should have had their own producing houses long ago. But this was the "old" Wales, the Wales of the Welsh Office and the quangos.

Perhaps the new Assembly would make a difference. It has. Whatever party divisions may affect other fields, culture has received constant cross-party support.

The benefits of flagships have been recognised and there are now homes planned for opera, music, dance and contemporary art. Even the Assembly itself has seen the need to move from its present office block to a real home, the masterpiece proposed by Richard Rogers. Here in the north we had long wanted a second home in the capital - it was a declared aim from '97 onwards - partly to fill a vacuum, partly to confirm our national remit.

Now we also wanted to be part of the new Wales. We didn't re-hang our board but we did change our name to Theatr Cymru. We waited for an opportunity to put our case. It came with Cardiff's decision to bid for Capital of Culture 2008. Clearly any such bid would need a mainstream year-round producing house. Perhaps that could be us.

There would, of course, be problems. First Cardiff itself. There are those who have difficulty with the idea of capital cities in general and Cardiff in particular. Which is silly. Cardiff has been the capital for nearly 50 years and a city for nearly 100. It is also the city making the bid. The second problem was greater. There is no suitable venue.

Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff promotes experiment and new writing, the Sherman Theatre is a dedicated young people's theatre and a link in the mid-scale receiving-house chain. The New Theatre is a number one touring house. All are necessary. It would be pointless to compromise one to provide for another.

So in December 2001 we went to Russell Goodway, the leader of Cardiff Council, and asked for his help in finding a new venue. This he gave and after a three-month search we settled on the Ebeneser Chapel in Charles Street.

In the autumn of 2002, again with the help of the city, we carried out a feasibility study undertaken by Michael Reardon, resident architect for Hereford Cathedral and creator of the award-winning Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon.

The new venue could provide a stage, seven metres wide by 15 metres deep, for an audience of approximately 450. It is an epic space but the proximity of the audience would also allow for intimacy. It would be a people's theatre in a people-space. A modest proposal, but it could develop an audience of 65,000 in the first year.

The costs of conversion would be low, certainly less than building from scratch or humanising the New. More importantly the running costs would be less than half those of a stand-alone operation.

The whole scheme is conceived as one organisation with two homes: Clwyd and Cardiff. Four productions would begin in Cardiff and then travel north, four productions would begin in the north and then travel south.

There are advantages to CTC, both financial and artistic, in extending the life of a play. There are advantages to Cardiff in the workshops and facilities of Mold, the extended touring and education, all well established and all potentially available 52 weeks of the year in the capital.

It is, of course, not dissimilar to the Stratford/London axis operated by the old RSC. Our aim would be to create a national organisation linking north and south.

So would we then be able to put up our Sunday Times board? Well, probably not, for the reasons previously given, and in any case there is a national theatre already proposed working in the Welsh language.

But if that initiative grew to realise its full potential and if that led (as it would) to a need for a metropolitan base and if we could provide that link, then - perhaps - yes, we could drop the word "national" and re-hang our board.

"The nearest thing to a Theatre of Wales". We'd be happy with that.
Western Mail  
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Friday, July 04, 2003back



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