Theatre in Wales

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First Book on National Theatre

National Theatre: Comment

Kirsty Sedgman , Locating the Audience: Value in National Theatre , May 21, 2017
National Theatre: Comment by Kirsty Sedgman This is a book of interest on several counts. Firstly, it is an evocation of a good summer of a good year. 2010 was the year of the National Theatre of Wales' inaugural season and the core of the book summarises audience responses to two of the peak productions. Marc Rees' “For Mountain, Sand and Sea” in June at Barmouth and Mike Pearson's “the Persians” in August on the Sennybridge training area were reviewed in glowing terms on this site. These two chapters for those who were there awake memories of affection and respect.

The framing is an academic study. The bibliography is extensive covering two hundred and fifty references. It ranges back to Carl Tighe and David Adams in the last century. Dedwydd Jones is given a respect that is not really deserved. His was a voice that was idiosyncratic but being neither a theatre practitioner nor a scholar it was a voice of self-publicity.

Chapter two is a comprehensive survey of the intellectual and cultural setting that preceded the foundation of the National Theatre of Wales. Roger Owen, Heike Roms, Anwen Jones, Gill Ogden, Ruth Shade and many others are all brought into the narrative. As a matter of record the company was incorporated on September 8th 2008 as a result of a coalition agreement in the Assembly. The company is a result of government decision.

The Wikipedia entry “founded by a community of theatre makers and practitioners in May 2009” is an alternative fact. The authorial tendency can be seen in the low-sense “with no permanent theatre building, but instead based on an accumulated body of practice.” As a whole the entry with its incompleteness, misspelling and unreliable punctuation is not a good piece of cultural reportage for Wales.

Kirsty Sedgman describes a challenging methodology. Marc Rees, Mike Pearson and the company did not wish that response forms be distributed prior to the performances. It was a right decision. The data was collated from a mix of questionnaires after the event and face-to-face interviews. The audiences were too small to generate samples of high statistical validity. The interviews were not guided in a formal Bayesian manner. Nonetheless, these chapters make for intriguing reading not least for the questions and ambiguities that they present.

Around two hundred inhabitants from Barmouth and its locality saw the production. One interviewee expressed dissatisfaction in wanting a more formal history. She was confused by what appeared to her to be a structural disjointedness. But that is to do with expectation not being met. For those with prior knowledge of Marc Rees and his collaborators the experience was joyous. Overall the residents as a whole were less impressed than the visitors and theatre-going regulars.

While Sedgman herself borrows the rhizome analogy from Deleuze and Guattari the voices she captures have their distinctiveness. “I felt guilty about the merched y wawr serving me tea and cake” says one “and still wonder whether they got paid and hope they did from an ethical standpoint.”

The book provides context to “For Mountain, Sand & Sea”. Marc Rees spent a period of time running what were called “Story Shops.” Residents were invited to share their memories and images of Barmouth. The information was then used as inspiration for the action on hill and alley, beach and railway. The results were highly visual such as the performer in an ape mask brandishing a bone in slow-motion to the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme.

To some of the interviewees the treatment of their town was oblique. In a later comment the writer has added “they tended to be those with little experience of this kind of avant-garde event. A cluster of audience members came precisely to see known stories performed in understandable ways.” The conclusion is “that when local expertise conflicts with NTW’s professional theatrical expertise, it often loses the battle.” But that raises the question of who the company was aiming primarily to please.

The book records a reaction to “the Persians” that is quite different. By definition the location had no residents and the book states that there was small local advertising. In an article afterwards she adds “So what’s really interesting is why “the Persians” was so popular. How did people articulate the value of this event? It was clear that most people saw “the Persians” as having little national cultural relevance.” “Here, NTW’s capacity to engage with ideas of local identity was less important than the ability of theatre generally to tap into a kind of essential humanity. Instead, what audiences appreciated was the sense that The Persians had looked beyond Wales to the “universal”.

The least involving part of the book is the preliminary chapter prior to tackling the subject. The scholarly method requires a review of the literature. The coverage is admirably exhaustive but much of what the author is obliged to report is not inspiring. There is the inevitable sub-Derridean wordplay.

“Audiencing the Audience” is to any discerning reader hideous phrasing which an editor with a respect for language would throw back at its author. This class of writer loves its neologisms. “Vocacity” turns up in connection with the propensity to watch television in excess. But then Segdman cites John Holden from 2004 on a cultural climate where aesthetic values including beauty are all suspect.

The flaw in some of this treatment- the literature not Kirsty Sedgman- on the subject of audience is that it has no primary data. It is neither aesthetics nor does it have the empirical base of the social sciences. To witness a piece of theatre is anyway an activity of serial cognition that is unreproducible. Sedgman refers rightly to Bruce McConachie and his encouragement neuroaesthetic approach. Whether declaration is scholarship at all is debatable.

There is an unusual postscript to this book in that the author has distanced herself from it to a degree. There is nothing wrong with that in that all authors mature over the course of doing it. A more revealing part is “To other academics my writing often seems too accessible. This is because it focuses on people’s lived experiences of art rather than relying on abstract philosophical theories. For some people it’s too dense; for others, not enough.”

There is the paradox here of authors drawn to theatre for reasons antithetical to those that draw in audiences. The description of her own role in theatre ecology comes across as more worthwhile. “My job is to listen to audiences: to pay attention as they reach for words to describe the ineffable, to hear not just what they say but how they say it, and to consider how people’s reactions are inflected by the subject positions they take up. By doing this, I believe we can get a sense of the meaning-making process in action.” As art is a meaning-making activity for a symbol-making species that sounds a mission worth the pursuing.

She also in retrospect writes of small-sample attributions of “excellent” or “average”. “By themselves these numbers are admittedly pretty meaningless: after all, my ‘Excellent’ may well be someone else’s ‘Average’.” The later writing also throws down a challenge. “This all boils down to a question about legitimacy. Who believes they have the right to speak about theatre and in what ways?” Indeed.

Those founding years were ones of astonishing accomplishment for the National Theatre of Wales. A full written record has to be assembled. “Locating the Audience: How People Found Value in National Theatre Wales” is an intriguing beginning, its parts cumulatively illuminating.

Two quotations are apposite. Terry Eagleton is persuasive in his view of culture as “a way in which we could sink our petty particularisms in some more capacious, all inclusive medium.” Up on Epynt Sedgman finds an audience member vocal on the topic of relevance “relevant is an entirely bogus notion in relation to theatre. Just do good stuff.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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