Maisie Allen talks to theatremakers in Wales and beyond to understand the challenges facing creatives working in the industry.
From Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s upcoming collaboration with the Welsh Ballroom community, to Richard Mylan’s Sorter and National Theatre Wales’ three-part production The Cost of Living, the Welsh theatre industry is wrestling with contemporary issues from identity to the current economic crisis.
These are just some of the productions that have recently been challenging the notion of what theatre can be, and can give to its audiences in a politically, financially, and creatively precarious time.
Numbers from the Arts Council estimate that cultural audiences still have not fully returned to pre-lockdown levels, and are currently hovering around the 60-70% mark. Coupled with the cost of living crisis which has seen energy bills soar, this situation is leaving many small cultural venues and freelancers clutching on to emergency grants and crowdfunding as a means of survival. While financial austerity halted many of the radical artistic experiments of the early 2000s, we are now witnessing a wave of efforts from various theatre makers to speak to the issues of the day in new ways.
Funding the Welsh Stage: A Challenge?
Rhiannon White, co-founder of Common Wealth theatre company, which is based in both Bradford and Cardiff, laments the effect of funding on theatrical exploration and access: ‘There’s a fear of losing funding from public bodies…there is less incentive to explore the artistic landscape’. This context is largely linked to the pressures of commercial viability and Wales-specific challenges. White references the history of the arts in South Wales, Chapter, the Cardiff Lab, and Howard Gardens as hubs for radical and experimental ideas, but she adds that in the aftermath of economic austerity, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the cost of living crisis, theatrical curiosity has become less of a priority for producing theatres and funders alike.
‘There’s only a handful of freelance producers based in Wales’
Much of contemporary Welsh theatre has explored the ins and outs of the nation’s cultural identity, with critically acclaimed works such as Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen. This approach is now bolstered by institutions that support the development of new writing, such as the recently re-established Literary Department at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. The venue also renewed their investment in Welsh writing through the creation of two new Literary Manager and Literary Associate roles, and its pilot writing groups held a recent showcase after working virtually together for a year.
Beyond writing schemes, there are few development opportunities for theatre makers. Both National Theatre Wales and Wales Millennium Centre offer support through free mentoring and use of their spaces, but there is little formal training outside of universities and colleges.
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The Skills Gap Behind the Scenes
‘I had to go to London to train as a director, ‘ says White, reflecting on her training at the National Theatre in London. According to freelance director Duncan Hallis, who most recently directed The Lion, The B!tch, and The Wardrobe at the Wales Millennium Centre, the issue extends to other professions within the theatre industry: ‘there’s only a handful of freelance producers based in Wales’.
This skills gap makes it difficult to create work and train up skilled technicians. While fringe nights are often used by theatre makers as a way to try out new work across the theatre spectrum in front of an audience without having to fund a whole production, Hallis notes that ‘There aren’t really any anymore’ in and around South Wales. Those experimental spaces can play a crucial role in ensuring theatre exists on stage and not just on the page.
Telling Welsh Stories Outside of Wales
Wales does seem to be having a moment on the London stage at the moment. Gary Owen’s new retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Julie, a co-production with the Sherman Theatre and the National Theatre, is soon to appear in Cardiff after premiering in London, hot off the heels of Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Iphigenia in Splott. Diana Nneka Atuona’s Trouble in Butetown recently premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, London. There is a cultural gratification in seeing more work by Welsh writers or about Wales platformed in London, often seen as the place to ‘make it’ in UK theatre. However, when the Welsh theatre sector does not benefit from the same budget and development, it risks dividing the Welsh and English theatre scenes further. Unless productions and creatives are backed by big theatre companies, such as the 2019 co-production of On Bear Ridge between National Theatre Wales and the Royal Court Theatre in London, there is little chance for people from across the UK to bring more experimental work into and around Wales, but also for Welsh-based theatre makers to showcase their work outside the country.
Navigating Devolved Funding
There is an ongoing debate about what it means to show Welshness on stage and what this looks like, and whether Welsh theatre-makers feel bound to portray their identity in specific ways when creating work.
‘I thought because I’m mostly based in London, and VAULT happens in London as well, ACE seemed like the best way to apply for funding but that proved difficult’
Actor Marina Johnson, originally from Caerphilly, who recently performed in the Welsh play Cynefin at the Bread and Roses Theatre in London, says that she ‘wasn’t really aware of [my] Welshness until leaving Wales’. Johnson is performing in the production Decommissioned, loosely based on the village of Fairbourne in Gwynedd, which is likely to be home to the UK’s first climate refugees. The play was written by London playwright Molly Anne Sweeney and has definitely resulted ‘in a lot of interesting discussions about how you show Welshness on stage, especially to an English audience’ . It is due to premiere in London on the 10th of April.
However, Welshness and its incorporation into new work can cause confusion when it comes to funding. The limits placed on funding from both Arts Council Wales (ACW) and Arts Council England (ACE) can prove tricky to navigate for Welsh creatives looking to take their work elsewhere. For Grace O’Brien, whose play The Welsh Lxdies had its recent run at the VAULTS Festival in London and explored themes surrounding Welshness and womanhood, unclear guidelines caused her to lose her ACE bid a month before her play was due to perform: ‘I thought because I’m mostly based in London, and VAULT happens in London as well, ACE seemed like the best way to apply for funding but that proved difficult when faced with questions about how such an inherently Welsh show fits in England…. Even though of course we think representation of our culture is so relevant!’
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O’Brien’s bid was intended to cover rehearsal spaces, access requirements, transport and accommodation for Welsh actors plus other festival costs. However, her application was rejected and this outcome caused immense stress for O’Brien, who explains ‘it almost felt like it was too Welsh for them to fund’. ‘It was very disappointing that it didn’t feel like there was a funding body that fused both places fluidly, particularly for a show which discusses Welsh dual-heritage and mixed identity’, but she is optimistic for a future in which this is possible.
The complex relationship between ACE and ACW has come into sharp relief over the past few months after the Welsh National Opera (WNO), which routinely tours its productions to cities in Bristol, Liverpool, and Southampton, lost its National Portfolio Organisation funding (NPO). When WNO dedicates a specific amount of its programming to work that distinctly highlights aspects of Welsh culture, the loss of funding means WNO will no longer tour to Liverpool and will likely in the future have to reduce performances outside of Wales, as part of ACE’s levelling up strategy to promote the arts elsewhere in England. As a result, Welsh stories, including those in its current production A Blaze of Glory, which follows a mining community, will no longer be able to access as big a platform.
Bigger institutions have been increasingly expected to deliver high-profile exposure of the whole Welsh theatre community, as seen with productions such as Galwad, which was produced by Collective Cymru and led by National Theatre Wales as part of Unboxed. This has however resulted in a gap between programmes available for emerging and new theatremakers, and those who are more established, but not yet part of larger institutions. One theatremaker regrets the lack of opportunities suited to their experience as an established creative in Wales, having worked on substantial productions in England, forcing them to find work in supermarkets, schools, and on construction sites. ‘I simply can’t afford to scramble around in black box theatres with people in their early twenties’. Many theatremakers of a similar stature have had a similar experience, forcing them to leave the industry altogether or move out of Wales.
Tokenisation and the Brain Drain
Izzy Morgana Rabey, a theatre director from mid-Wales who is now based in London and trained at Royal Court Theatre, says that their ‘income has increased hugely’ since moving to London. She references the large drama school scene that exists in London, in contrast to Wales where most training is supplied by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where many directors are able to work on student productions to supplement their income alongside external projects. Drama schools are seen as invaluable training grounds, especially for professionals wanting to work in production. In Wales, there are few such outlets for creatives who do not go down the acting or writing path, and technical creatives end up feeling left out of opportunities in the Welsh theatre industry.
The scene also runs the risk of tokenisation, with directors like Rabey feeling pigeonholed for certain work. Rabey comments that prior to their move to London five years ago, she was given ‘very little opportunity to direct anything outside of my two companies’, as she was one of the few female Welsh-speaking queer directors based in Wales at the time. Representation is a key part of experimentation, and fringe theatre enables more voices to be heard and developed, and to expose audiences to new ideas and perceptions of what theatre can be and represent.
There is a wealth of creativity in Welsh theatre and a desire to push artistic boundaries and keep telling stories that matter to audiences. However, with complexities surrounding devolved artistic funding and the economic precarity for creatives and venues alike, the Welsh theatre industry is currently putting lots of its creatives at a disadvantage. Unless funding guidelines become clearer, and easier to navigate between England and Wales, the Welsh theatre industry risks losing out on opportunities to promote its work on wider stages.
This article was amended on Wednesday 12 April 2023 to reflect the fact that Galwad was produced by Collective Cymru and led by National Theatre Wales.
This article was written by Maisie Allen thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.