Outside the box in Bangor

Elen ap Robert heralds a new arts and innovation centre seeking to bridge the gap between students and the wider community

After nearly seven years with Galeri Caernarfon, I am take up post from April as Artistic Director for Bangor University’s new Arts and Innovation Centre Pontio – eight miles to the west. I’m moving on with some trepidation, a feeling of intense excitement and knowing that an immense challenge awaits me. I am leaving a unique organisation, the security of a familiar team, having developed an artistic vision and 23 seasonal programmes of events, to step into the unknown.

Cultural Entrepreneurs

In a series of articles through this week we hear from the people in charge of some of Wales’ leading artistic and cultural organisations. Tomorrow, David Anderson puts the National Museum of Wales’ contrasting philosophies into context. This article appears in the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda

I leave behind a physical base for something virtual – yet to be built. There is a feeling of déjà vu nevertheless as Galeri also existed only in plans alone when I first joined. Yet whereas Caernarfon was without a focus for the arts until Galeri opened its doors, Bangor is rather different. Up until 2008, Bangor was home to the much loved Theatr Gwynedd. Six years will have passed by the time the long-awaited Pontio centre opens its doors in 2014 – and expectations are high.

On a national level, Pontio will raise the profile of the arts in Wales, and on a local level it will provide a focal point for the community. Pontio will be at the very heart of the city. I look forward to ensuring that Welsh is its language of operation. Pontio, from the Welsh word meaning “to bridge”, is the working title for both a physical building and a wider concept. The new building will house a flexible, 450-seater multi-functional theatre. It will be a mid-scale receiving theatre primarily, and the emphasis will be on staging performances across the arts spectrum of a high quality.

There will also be a 120-seat studio theatre, a 200-seat cinema, a state-of-the-art Design Studio, new lecture theatres, Students’ Union facilities, and a variety of social learning spaces. It will be a place for people to meet, eat, learn and be entertained.

The secret to the success of Pontio will be to identify and engage with different audiences – the 11,000 strong student population and staff of the University and the local community. Consulting with these groups about programming will be crucial. For example, the increasing number of overseas students could see a demand for greater cultural and linguistic variety in the programming over time.

Pontio must also work meaningfully with hard-to-reach communities in imaginative ways and ensure that residents feel that the centre is relevant to their lives. Engaging with Maesgeirchen, the socially and economically disadvantaged Communties First area in Bangor, will be a priority. This is an area which falls within the 10 per cent of the most underprivileged areas of Wales. Pontio will explore possibilities of adopting the successful Pas Peblig model developed by Galeri Caernarfon recently recognised by the Arts Council of Wales as a model of good practice.

Pontio will explore barriers to access such as transport, cost and deep seated issues to do with the perception that a theatre is not a place for them. To reiterate the words of Heritage Minister Huw Lewis, “the arts must be accessible to all”.  We will offer tickets free of charge, or at reduced rate, and explore apprenticeship possibilities, demonstrating commitment to the Welsh Government’s child poverty agenda.

I am struck by a danger of investing all our energies in ‘bricks and mortar’. As we consider the construction of a £40 million centre, we still need to think outside the theatre building – and outside the box –  as we attempt to entice new audiences and those with little or no experience of the theatre. One way will be by presenting work in unexpected locations. The National Theatre of Wales has been staging productions in unlikely and imaginative places. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru will stage their adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest, Storm in a circus tent later this year, and Theatr Bara Caws will take Gai Fod… to wood clearings in north west Wales.

These companies are not turning their backs on traditional performance spaces. On the contrary they are exploring new stages and contexts in our locality, and they are hungry to do this with venues like ours.

As organisations I wonder whether we are guilty of expecting everything to come to us. Pontio may be a brand new ‘receiving’ venue, offering inspiring performance spaces and possibilities, but we have more to offer.  I will ensure that we are open to collaborating in innovative ways which resonate with our communities and our artistic vision – both in and outside our new building.

Elen ap Robert is Artistic Director of Galeri Caernarfon

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