Theatre in Wales

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A Plea for a Digital Commons

Theatre in Wales: Comment

Common Space , Arts of Wales , October-25-19
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Common Space Former Cabinet minister Leighton Andrews is author of a report on digital democracy. In it the Assembly was urged to see itself as “as a content platform which should reflect the nation’s conversations about the issues which are of most concern to it”.

The words in tribute to Keith Morris in these last weeks have been wide-ranging. “He was a compulsive chronicler, from the miniature to the monumental.” That was Marc Rees in the Great Hall in Aberystwyth on 17th October. “The arts in Wales has lost one of its most important archivists.” More than one commentator recalled with affection the forum on this site.

Sometimes things happen together. A couple of weeks earlier, October 2nd, Guy Standing, a professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies was at a public event in England. His fellow panellists were from parliament in the form of Caroline Lucas and David Lammy. Standing was the first to speak, his subject his new book “Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth.”

He reached back to the beginning of the concept of the Commons. It is there in Magna Carta but just as importantly in the Charter of the Forest, a document dating from 1217. He deplored the shrinkage of public assets, the neglect of parks, the sell-off of sports fields, shopping zones where private rules take precedence over rights and freedoms under Common Law.

In Wales Mike Parker has written about the need for voluntarism to protect common rights. Bramble and barbed wire lay siege in his phrasing to the 150,000 miles of off-road rights of way in England and Wales. “Britain's network of paths is unique”, he writes in “the Wild Rover, “Nearly all countries have their waymarked trails and designated tourist routes, but we have something so much better: a filigree network of rights of way that snakes through every landscape and connects every town and village. Our paths, bridleways, byways and green lanes are threads of common land that in an increasingly privatised countryside, hidden grooves of peace and beauty through the chaos, short cuts into our history and identity.”

In London David Lammy extended the theme to an urban landscape. In his constituency, troubled by crime, he castigated the loss of facilities for young people. Caroline Lucas declared with modesty that the Charter of the Forest was wholly new to her and paid thanks to Professor Standing for bringing it into wider public currency. Her polemical broadside had many topics but ended with the threat to shared digital space. The fragmentation, of no concern to the great commercial platforms, placed civil society in peril.

The forum on this site, whose loss the writers on social media regretted, was once to the left titled “the green room.” Click on it today and a “script compilation error” notice comes up. This has a history to it. It ran into a software problem, as happens, but it happened at a particular time, in 2010.

As often I met Keith on the street and asked whether it was easily remediable. At the time that he had built Theatre-Wales it was as new as it might be. The coding was done with a first-generation server-side script engine for dynamically generated web pages. The engine had been launched in December 1996 and by the early years of this century it had been superseded. In programming terms it is antique.

Restoration for the forum was not easy and he had small inclination for the work. But another reason was elsewhere. “They've all migrated” he said. And it was true. The new National Theatre of Wales came with a forum attached to it. It had a flexibility way beyond his site. Keith viewed it as he viewed most things, with wryness and a smile. He left the sub-text unsaid. The developer in Cardiff was on the arts of Wales' public payroll. The developer in Aberystwyth was just a member of civil society, working in a voluntary capacity.

There is a coda of irony. John McGrath had a genuine vision for theatre, that the forum mattered alongside the production. Over the years the company site comprised much trivia and the everyday, but on occasion it ignited into something serious. But it had not been designed as a place of record, the architects having opted for an off-the-shelf platform

It ceased to be a forum of any substance with McGrath's departure. The first place to search for what it contained of any longer interest is on this site. Data would be scraped at year's end off the company site, aggregated and recorded on this site. Thus, below December 2012 a summary of “Where are the Stories?” or December 2014 a discussion on dramaturgy and a plan for the Playwrights' Studio Wales.

The Agora was the common space where citizens gathered to meet and to share. Two millennia on and humans have the greatest communication mechanism ever. Its fate has become very human, division into an infinity of private fragmentations. In place of the Agora the citizens of Cyberia gather in limited clusterings of the like-minded. Thus I listen to Radio Wales' Review Show, hear the presenters say how one item or another has soared on social media, and I have not a clue.

It is not up to a theatre company to hold dominion over a forum. Indeed we can only wish the third artistic director well. But the arts of Wales would be the better for a recreation of common space.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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