Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Towards a National Theatre (1)

National Theatre: Comment

Michael Bogdanov & Phil Clark , Theatre of Wales , December-08-99
National Theatre: Comment by Michael Bogdanov & Phil Clark 1 . INTRODUCTION

In 1994 we launched a paper setting out a federal vision of a National Theatre for Wales. It was an attempt to raise the profile of theatre to match that of music and opera, place the debate on theatre provision for Wales in the public and political domain, accord theatre the prominence and importance as an art form that it receives in other countries, and take advantage of a new energy building up in both languages. It was produced in the belief that a National Assembly was just around the corner. It was a vision for the new millennium.

In the interim the Arts Council of Wales has produced a plan that effectively halves what provision currently exists - already too little in relation to the rest of Britain and continental Europe.

This paper sets out to examine the possibility of an alternative drama strategy for Wales. We begin by accepting the status quo, provide an initial basic provision for South Wales, then broaden out to include the whole country through large, medium and small scale professional output, in tandem with an educational and training infrastructure. At this stage the paper is merely an idea for discussion. It is written in the knowledge that the National Assembly is currently formulating a cultural strategy for Wales and that no plan can hope to succeed without the intimate involvement and co-operation of that Assembly and of the Local Authorities, who shoulder much of the financial responsibility. It also recognises the not insubstantial amounts of money that will have to be found to support such a plan.

A new beginning is needed. An old country is becoming a new nation, a contemporary nation. It needs a theatre that reflects that newness and contemporariness. There is a new mood a-foot, a new energy, reflected in the explosion of creativity in young people led by our popular music groups who have taken the name of Wales world-wide. We have a National Assembly, soon to be housed in a modern context. Our state-of-the-art Rugby stadium is the envy of nations. The Barrage is complete, the Millennium Centre is under way. We have a National Opera Company, a National Orchestra, a National Dance Company, a National Youth Theatre, a National Museum - why no National Theatre? There has never been a better time in our history to unite our two languages and our orally rich and multi-culturally diverse society under one banner. The starting point lies with the National Assembly and the Local Authorities.

National does not mean 'nationalist', for the National Theatre of Wales should not be limited by national or linguistic boundaries. Output and training in both the Welsh and English languages will be on a basis of mutual co-operation and equal development, providing opportunities for the exploration and propagation of both cultures nationally and internationally. Such thinking is in line with the policy of the National Assembly of Wales.

A diverse creative environment must be established which allows for cultural cross-fertilisation and encompasses individual voices engaged in a particular strand of work. Smaller companies should be affiliated, where desired to larger bases, Young People's theatres to existing Theatre in Education teams and parent companies. It is vital that the individual working practises of existing artists and groups be respected and maintained and that the National Theatre be seen only as a resource to enhance the output of such artists and groups where and when this is appropriate.
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The process should be an organic one. Consultation should take place, and should be seen to take place, with all parties at every stage. The intention is to build on what is already there, enhancing facilities that exist, providing where they do not. Co-operation and the sharing of output and facilities within the framework of a National Theatre should be the order of the day.

The vision set out below is one way of achieving these aims. It is deliberately ambitious. None of us underestimates the difficulties of achieving it, in whole or in part, but the entire artistic community, as well as a wider public, must be mobilised behind a more focused vision for theatre in Wales to make it a dynamic and relevant force in our society.

This vision is not about power, but about the blossoming of Welsh talent and ensuring that the diversity of our culture is celebrated in large epic form alongside the work that currently exists. The National Theatre of Wales is not about threatening the work of the artists currently pursuing their craft, but creating an infrastructure for development and co-operation. A federal system would allow all the people of Wales to lay claim to their national theatre with pride, ownership and empowerment.

2 .THE SERVICE - A NEED FOR THE ARTS. A NEED FOR THEATRE - A MISSION STATEMENT

We believe that the arts must be seen as a service and not a luxury - a basic need. A mature and civilised society recognises, through its education system and its societal provision, the inalienable right of every woman, man and child to be present at, or participate in - regardless of race, colour or creed - events and activities that enrich their lives and release the full creative and expressive potential that exists in each and everyone of us. The National Theatre of Wales will be dedicated to realising that potential.

We believe that the arts are an instrument of social change, leading to a better understanding of the way we live our lives, examining the problems of the present, finding solutions for the future.

We believe that the arts are concomitant with the economic and cultural health of the nation.

We believe that the theatre is a natural debating platform for the community, reflecting its aspirations, angers, hopes, despairs. We believe that theatre is all-inclusive and should be accessible to everyone.

We believe that theatre begins and ends with education.

3. THE OPPORTUNITY

Theatre in Wales is a relatively new phenomenon. English Language theatre, with rare exceptions, is less than fifty years old. Although Wales has a long history of great actors their reputations have been forged mainly outside of Wales, lacking historically the large scale spaces on which to develop their craft. (When the Arts Council of Great Britain provided funds to establish a repertory theatre movement post war, Wales was bypassed due to the lack of an identifiable town or city of a sufficient size - an arbitrary decision from which it has never recovered.)

Over the last twenty five years a number of small performance spaces have been built and groups have sprung up, criss- crossing the length and breadth of the country. This movement has lead principally to the creation of a dynamic Theatre- in-Education provision but has failed to meet the larger needs of the population particularly of the urban areas in the South.

The development has been sporadic and unfocused and, lacking larger, more comprehensive spaces, facilities and challenges, many artists have been either forced to leave the country to further develop their talent or opt for a career in television.

Gaps in the producing structures and in the provision of larger scale facilities have also meant that, with some notable exceptions, we have consistently failed to bring a theatre of contemporary relevance to large audiences right across Wales. We have failed to build audiences in the way that orchestral music and opera have managed over recent decades. If this is so, a National Theatre must address the problem of building new audiences, providing access for the entire population. A system is needed that facilitates that access. A theatre without an audience is no theatre.

A National Theatre would give the people of Wales a chance to celebrate their own talents on home ground in a sometimes epic form, involving them in large scale theatre events that give a sense of occasion. Large gatherings - the Eisteddfod, Llangollen, WNO seasons, visiting musicals plus the trips leaving Wales on a weekly basis to theatres in Stratford and London - are proof, indeed, that our audiences do not just need but demand a series of larger theatrical and cultural events.

The arts and theatre are about empowerment, enrichment and involvement. In a rapidly changing, global, mechanised, economy where material values overtake and outweigh spiritual and cultural, where leisure time is on the increase and life expectancy is growing, theatre has a vital role to play in helping the population affirm its right to citizenship. This will be particularly true of Wales with its emerging international identity in the 21st century. A National Theatre would help the people of Wales affirm and reaffirm their cultural roots and future.

Finally, if we are to trade in the world theatre market, then Wales must be able to produce such events to sit happily alongside the large scale work that exists very successfully in Europe and the rest of the world. Theatre could and should be a cultural ambassador for the nation, a celebration of our heritage and a means of inventing our future.

This plan sets out to -

Establish a working party to carry out a feasibility study into a federal system for a National Theatre for Wales

Establish as a first step a Touring Theatre Company , initially to provide for South Wales, based at the Grand Theatre Swansea.

Develop a new theatre building for a company in Cardiff as part of the bid to be Cultural Capital of Europe 2008.

Develop permanent companies in Swansea, Cardiff, Bangor and Mold as four centres of the National Theatre for Wales.

Redistribute the Theatre-in-Education, Children's Theatre, Community and Youth Theatre provision throughout the 22 Local Authorities to ensure that every child and young person receives a service.

Provide a career and training infrastructure for artists and technicians.

Link towns across Wales to large, medium and small scale theatre output by developing existing resources and creating new ones.

Achieve a federal system for a National Theatre for Wales within 10years.

Reviewed by: Michael Bogdanov

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