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Theatre in Wales: Comment

Comment on Theatre , Wales and England , January-07-15
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Comment on Theatre It is the art that matters. The talk counts for little beside it, but it matters in a different way. Arts funding is capital allocation and all capital decisions come under pressure from a range of influences. In the case of the Arts there is the perennial question as to what distinguishes the good from the not-as-good. And there is no one answer. A veteran theatre-goer, whose judgement I respect, left “War Horse” at the interval for the reason, he said, of its sheer tedium. Most projects and applications have worth to them- a proposed solitary walk around the North Pole with a camera, perhaps not. Talk is not just talk. It is also a battle of ideas.

Theatre-makers express confusion, wishful thinking and plain silliness over the novelty of the presence of the Internet. The subject is large enough to invite a response in another place. The people who understand theatre’s relationship to cyberspace are, of course, the creators. Tim Price is Wales’ strongest voice and James Graham the most adventurous in England.

The dominant mode of cyber-opinionating is unedited narcissism. The opportunities for fakery are considerable. The top earner behind the writing of fake reviews makes twenty thousand pounds- that is a month. This solipsism of the web has made the jump into print publishing. The author of a recent book on theatre remarkably manages to get the word “I” into her introduction ninety-nine times, on top of “me” and “my” a good few times.

There is hardly a place on earth where a population of three million creates so much or so wide an array of performance. Talk happens, but the amount that is of interest and insight and spread to a wider audience is not great. Most of the cyber-activity is advertising, overt or covert. The advertising copy, although it obviously varies by company, is on average not up to much. There are scholars in Wales of honour and diligence. We should be grateful in 2014 to Alyce von Rothkirch for her thoughtful resuscitation of J O Francis. But higher education is equally capable of harbouring commentators whose ambition is “to create a heteroglossic, multi-vocal publication that could blur unhelpful binaries between self and other.” As comment it is not just devoid of much meaning but, given that “binary” is an adjective, is also illiterate.

The items of most interest that came my way in 2014 were from England. The most significant was the report “Critical Mass”. Part of a large research project by the Arts and Humanities Research Council its purpose was the definition of cultural value or in plain terms- “what people get from the arts that they can't get anywhere else.” The methodology was a survey over ten months of audiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, the Young Vic in London and Plymouth's Drum theatre.

The full report of 125 pages is accessible on http://britishtheatreconference.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Critical-Mass-10.7.pdf Its conclusions include the influence of early experience. Sixty percent of the sample had been to the theatre before the age of ten and many had performed at school. “The theatre-going habit starts with early theatre visits and participation in drama…the later you start, the less likely you are to place theatre at the centre of your life.”

The key attractor is shared experience "you can talk about, and reminisce over in years to come" and the most valued element by far theatre’s “liveness". The analysis of the impact of performance is intriguing. “Asked what they got from a show immediately after a performance, most people mentioned sensual aspects and specific dramatic moments. Two months on, what they remember is meaning – 67% of our respondents connected what they had seen to events in their own lives, and 84% to contemporary events, from Korean purges to Plebgate”

These findings are promising for Wales given the strength of children’s theatre. “Gwyn”, “Scrunch” and other productions featured among the best of 2014. As a report researched in England it looks pessimistically at primary schools. Its authors have had neither sight nor knowledge of the thousands of children, right down to the tinies of Derbyn, who sing and recite singly or collectively on stage year on year. As for the sketches which school pupils write themselves and in which they act out their teachers, the authors- David Edgar and Dan Rebellato in the lead- would probably be as astounded as they would be delighted.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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