Theatre in Wales

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In Our Own Words

National Theatre: Comment

The Feedback Fallacy , National Theatre , October 20, 2020
National Theatre: Comment by The Feedback Fallacy Euphemisms have their place. But the pains taken not to call a lockdown a lockdown is aggravating. The metaphor of firebreak sounds good but the effects are just as dire. In a time of nothing there is not a lot in the digital cupboard to rummage through. National theatre is the exception; it has left much in its trail.

Companies are artifices. But they share a feature with organisms in nature. They are complex adaptive entities that operate within a environment. Two years ago national theatre demonstrated its instability. The Board is responsible for the lack of stability although other factors, peculiar to Wales, assisted.

Cybernetics are not often aired in arts commentary. Nonetheless, the Arts Council of Wales, whether it knows it or not, takes a cybernetics approach to its beneficiaries. Its handbook for national companies of January 2017 has this mandate: “seek feedback and critical review to test how well it’s doing, use this intelligence to shape and inform future activity.”

The essence of cybernetics is that systems maintain equilibrium by looping external information back into their operations. National theatre did not get this. It is unique in the arts in giving its own opinions of itself such a high value.

The instability that resulted was inbuilt.

Look to the track record: A company makes productions for the benefit of its audience. Some, with luck, may have greatness in them. But makers have more grace to them when they display modesty.

This sample of five statements, a selection from many, is remarkable for its strain of immodesty.

“We have created work of lasting significance and global reputation, garnered critical acclaim, opened up new possibilities for theatre and for theatre-makers in Wales.

“...helped create history, a chapter in the story of our nation.”

“We create productions that question the role of theatre in our society, and push the boundaries of what can be achieved through the arts.”

“A three-year programme of work called The Big Democracy Project...explores how art and creativity can play a part in helping ask big questions about our democracy...help Wales re-engage with the democratic process. We’ve already started asking Wales what the big questions for the future are”

“Sell-out smash-hit shows like “Good Night in the Valleys” and “Tonypandemonium.”

Language can be used to reveal but can be used to conceal. The grandiose phrasing is used awkwardly. For instance “Big democracy” involved numbers of people that nudged into three figures but not hugely. “Sell out smash-hit” is absurd. The audiences for these productions were vastly limited, the number of performances running to ten or eleven. Neither were good enough to be ever revived.

These words, and others like them, had their inevitable consequence of creating instability.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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