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Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Writing in Wales' - my thoughts


When I left Wales in 2007, with thirteen years of Welsh TV production experience under my belt, and having set up my own successful youth theatre group when I was thirteen, I was faced, for the first time in my life with this detrimental condemnation of Wales as being a ‘parochial, amateur, kitsch and quaint’ nation, who were a bit dim, and not of the Oxbridge caliber. The fact that I had dared to venture down from the mountains of North Wales, made my quest even more questionable, and having written to well over 200 companies – received only a handful of human replies – including the highly respected Josie Rourke, who was then at the Bush. Once I entered via the ‘intern / experience’ door, the ‘industry’ were shocked that a) I knew so much, b) I had common sense and c) I could do actually do the ‘job’ to the extent of my employers being scared that I was after their own jobs! 

The same naïve knowledge of Wales, was alive and well at Youth Music Theatre, when I joined them in 2008. ‘We can’t seem to get the Welsh kids in’, they cried, and it was clear to me, from day one, that the approach was totally wrong.

Eisteddfod yr Urdd
In Wales, from the age of five, or even earlier in some cases, we are almost forced to sing, dance or act in schools in preparation for the annual youth, International and National Eisteddfodau. These are the cultural highlights of the year, held either in North, Mid or South Wales respectively, in order for different areas to benefit both culturally and financially. Newly commissioned musical theatre is created for the festivals, with companies of up to four hundred young people, from local schools, performing at a local venue or on the main festival stage. Taught and rehearsed by aunties and uncles, teachers and preachers, past winners and competitors, all born into ‘our musical nation’, to quote Dylan Thomas!  Past winners include Daniel Evans, Rhys Ifans, Cerys Matthews, Ioan Gruffudd, Matthew Rhys, Duffy, Siân Phillips and Bryn Terfel, to name but a few! So, this FREE tradition is there, in the blood, the passion, the determination and also the talent.  The last thing these proud Welsh people wanted was an ignorant Englishman calling them, asking for over a £1,000 for a two week course on how to sing and dance! Most of them wanted to run away from it!

Double Olivier Award Winner Daniel Evans
Guidance and experience was the training they needed, to cross the so called ‘golden bridge’ from Wales, to the West End, and beyond. To recognize and build on their talents, rather than showing them how to do it. Using their natural skills in a different way, to enable a different sound and thought.

The same applies, in a way, to the writing. Every year, in the Eisteddfodau, we have high profile literature competitions, for prose and poetry, drama, music and even for Welsh learners. Having won the short drama writing award (30/40mins), three years in succession between 1995 and 1997, (the only person ever to do this in succession!), it always angered me when people criticized Wales for not having ‘new writers!’ In September 1999, I wrote a very passionate answer in the Welsh publication ‘Barn’, in support of Welsh playwrights stating that we were alive and well, the numbers competing at the eisteddfodau proving it – 24 short plays in 1999, 10 in 1998, 11 in 1997, 17 in 1996 and 8 in 1995. But who was responsible for nurturing these ‘new writers’ and what happened to the ‘new works’, after the eisteddfod week? As a past winner, I knew that you instantly became the ‘flavour of the month’ and everybody wanted you to write, even if you didn’t have anything to write about!

Daily Post 1996
You were expected to churn out hit after hit. I was even asked by one well known director, who will remain nameless (for now!), if I’d be willing to ‘forget everything you know about writing and start again?!’ What utter nonsense! To be FORCED to write large scale, semi-educational, ensemble led collaborations, just in order for him to be called the auteur of the piece!

Another fringe company, who’d obtained a grant for me to spend a few months, writing a new piece for them, also treated me appallingly. I was being ‘mentored’ by a soured actor come pop star who declared that my first idea was ‘a child’s fascination with death’ and asked me to write a play about a current issue. Having submitted the second idea, weeks later, I was told it was ‘too issue based’! I lost complete trust and respect for them, and later completed my first idea, which won me my third, and final award at the eisteddfod that year!

One successful play, does not make a playwright! 

That’s a big painful, lesson that we writers need to learn. The same goes for a director. You can study from books till the cows come home, but the best education is seeing theatre, morning, noon and night. From a single chair in a Porto cabin to a £20 million pound revolving stage! From Shakespeare to Sondheim, Pinter to Neilson, Kane to Rattigan, we learn from everything we see. What works, what doesn’t work, what moves and bores us, what dazzles and disheartens. The same is true for a writer – all you need is a pen, characters, an interesting location and a question that needs an answer! The stronger the story, character and dialogue, the more appealing the play.

To date, I’ve probably seen over 500 productions, and I’m STILL learning! That’s what drives me. The ideas, the vision, the simplicity and complexity of theatre. How to structure a story, how to live the life of the character, how to feel and how to say what you want, and need to say? What drives your passion, anger, frustration or happiness?

Due to the lack of financial funds, (and maybe more worryingly) the lack of artistic vision and support to promote and encourage and build on individual strengths, many a Welsh playwright in the late 1990’s, turned their stories into novels, which were later published, and in some cases, adapted back for stage and screen!

After being in London for a few years, I then looked back on Wales, in a completely different way.  

I am extremely proud of my Nation and language, and want to see it survive. Wanting to return, one day, with the knowledge and experience to educate and introduce a different way of creating theatre. Yes, I was amazed at some of the decisions that were made, the people appointed to the wrong jobs, the petrified fear of being connected or even seen talking or agreeing publicly with any outspoken individual (such as myself) who dared question them, and raise a storm. I could understand the fear – everyone needed to pay their mortgages and rent, everyone needed to work within Wales; people were related or had been coached by so-and-so, so it was a case of ‘shut up and put up’, fanning a small flame rather than fuelling a burning bonfire.

The bilingual nature of Wales has also caused much debate with the first language Welsh citizens and creatives being understandably over protective and in many ways, paranoid, about ‘our culture’ and ‘our theatre’ with a very strong theme of ‘this is how we’ve done it over the years, which has been fine and therefore, this is how we’ll continue’. It was very much a culture of ‘jobs for the boys’, and in some cases, seeds were planted in order for certain leading figures to grow and become established, keeping out the more radical and experienced voices. 

Then came the ‘it all takes time’ argument, ‘its only been four years, we are still in the early days’ which I now know the truth to be ‘we didn’t know what the f*&k we were trying to do!’.  ‘We have to be so careful, ‘ I was warned, ‘or we’ll lose everything we’ve worked hard for’, with the threat of a combined bilingual National Theatre. ‘If that happens, then we’ll all have to share the blame, even you as a critic’, I was threatened! The idea and essence of collaboration scaring the living daylights out of everyone, needing to protect their own wages and companies.

Pethe' Brau - Theatr Cymru - 1972 
Sadly, the reality was, and in some ways still is, the lack of experienced individuals who knew or know, what they were doing, and what needs/ed to be done. We are a waiting room Nation, looking out for our creative Glyndŵr, to come and save the day! Too scared and proud to ask for International assistance, in case the truth be known, and the castles on the clouds, falls.  Too ashamed or even proud to collaborate with English companies, fighting the oppression and detrimental beliefs of the ‘alright boyo?’ Taffy culture.  There is also a common belief amongst the older, more protective generation, that ‘we’ve done all this in the past, we don’t need to do it again’.

Y Gelli Geirios - Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd - 1991
Back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s the Welsh theatre scene was alive and well. Companies and creatives were popping up everywhere; actors came together to form companies from agitprop to alternative, from festivals to farces  which planted in me, not only the passion for live theatre, but also the electricity of our theatrical tradition. Although the closest relation we ever had to the current Theatr Genedlaethol, (founded 2003) called Theatr Cymru back in the 1960’s to 1980’s had retired by the time I was old enough to care, the newly opened theatr at Bangor, in North Wales, gave birth to Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd (circa 1986).

Wilbert Lloyd Roberts (1926-1996) meeting Ionesco 
Under the leadership of Wilbert Lloyd Roberts and later Graham Laker, this company staged Welsh and International Classics, from Molière to Saunders Lewis, and their stunning production values and unique theatrical vision, excited me greatly. I was so proud to accept the invitation to be the youngest member of their artistic board, after my graduation, up until the company and theatre were forced to close, due to the lack of funding circa 2008. In both South and Mid-Wales, other fringe companies were producing physical and educational theatre in farmyards, old industrial units and swimming pools, way before Punchdrunk or NTS! Many a fringe company was founded in a rebellious fight against the ‘classical hierarchy’ of Cwmni Theatr Gwynedd, which added greatly to the variety on offer. 
Graham Laker ( - 2001)
Even during my visit to Port Talbot to experience the once-in-a-lifetime Sheen spectacle ‘The Passion’ by NTW, I was confronted with this attitude of ‘why the fuss?, we were doing this kind of thing in Welsh, with Brith Gof, years ago’.  So why stop? The stubborn, protective Welshness, that needs to embrace the world, not fear it.

So where are we these days?

New ‘companies’ set up by actors (mainly) to ‘promote’ and ‘produce’ new writing. Whilst welcoming them, with one hand, I worry about the self appointed ‘leaders / directors’ of these groups. Dirty Protest seems to be churning out new ‘writers’ in Cardiff, on a monthly basis, which worries me slightly. We are now in a culture of – ‘I’m an out-of-work actor so I’ll start writing or directing, and then create work for my out-of-work friends!’. This has resulted in a mass of monologues and a sea of soliloquies, that some would argue is the easiest form of writing. I disagree. To create a truly brilliant monologue is more of a challenge than sticking two characters in an interesting location, and letting them talk!  It’s a tough one to find the right balance, and the danger of going down this route is that we’ll create a nation of ‘writers’ all aiming high, but having their hopes crushed not only from the competition, but also from the limited companies and resources.  I would urge these new companies to be creatively careful and to think up a strong support strategy, maybe a traffic light system, rather than the current ‘jobs for the boys’ attitude and approach.  If not, I do believe it could have a disastrous affect on Welsh culture and identity.

I'm with the Band - Traverse / WMC - 2013
I was furious when I saw Tim J Price’s latest offering at the Edinburgh Fringe this year – ‘I’m with the Band’. To think this was meant to be a co-production between Scotland and Wales, to clearly promote Scottish Independence, we as a Nation came out of it as "the cowed” according to the Independent’s (unbelievable) 5* review! To portray the Welsh as babies, being pushed in the flight box pram, unable to speak our minds or stand up for ourselves, angered me greatly, never mind the half naked rolling on the floor under the oppression of the English, towards the end, whilst Scotland enters, over the monitor mountains, to save the day. 

I'm with the Band - Traverse / WMC - 2013
If this is the Wales that Price is ‘proud’ of and wants to pass on to his first-born son, as noted in the programme, then he should hang his head in shame. The distinct lack of Welsh roots and cultural identity were painfully obvious. The sad truth is that the music industry appears to be one of the few stages we, the Welsh, HAVE actually conquered between the Manics, Stereophonics, Tom and Shirley, Duffy, Catatonia, Siân James, Anrhefn, Ryland Teifi, to name but a few! So the musical band analogy made the whole plot even more of a sore and very bad, sad joke.

Land of Our Fathers - Theatre 503 - 2013
This lack of Welsh identity was painfully obvious in another recent London ‘hit’ – for some – ‘Land of Our Fathers’ at the 503. Despite the brilliance of writing in parts, and the pit of artistic license clawed through in the darkness, the Welsh identity was non-existent. Between the swearing, the singing of musical theatre songs and the sun chair, all below ground, in the face of death and pit disaster – the horror of which would be routed deep in their family history, made the whole scenario a complete joke. I, being a child of the 1970’s hadn’t even heard of musical theatre in Wales, never mind knowing the words to ‘The Sound of Music’ and dreams of escaping to London! It was like Butlins, after five days of facing death, with limited food, water and the stench. Not one mention of an Eisteddfod, Chapel, Male Voice Choir, Band of Hope, and the most detrimental treatment of Welsh women, I have ever heard!

These newly created companies / collaborations between actors that came about whilst waiting for the Theatr Genedlaethol, and later National Theatre of Wales, to try and find its feet. I was often told, quite matter-of-factly, that the Theatr Genedlaethol’s role was NOT to promote new writing, but its brief was to ‘stage three full scale, mainstream productions a year’! My heart sighed. No wonder these smaller companies staged readings with their friends, hyped along by the well wishes of their families, in desperation, not only for work, but for ‘new exciting edgy theatre’.

3D, again based in Cardiff, will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year. Whilst again welcoming these projects, having witnessed a recent presentation of new work – three pieces, developed over a few years at Sherman Cymru, I was saddened at the same faults being amplified in all them. The first scene being a voiceover or sequence of images, or a ‘leader’ / ‘minister’ addressing their people / audience, in order to set the context of the play, rather than allowing the context, plot, story to arise naturally from the dialogue and characters.

Llwyth - Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru - 2010
I’ve also been horrified at the ‘years of development’ that some of the Cardiff based recent projects have been subjected too. Passed from writer to director, from company to company, and with each passing and person, the initial idea of the writer has been killed, culled or potted into something that the director or company wanted to produce, rather than the initial idea the writer wanted to share! We are left with a ghost, an empty shell of something that could have been truly magical. When the shit hits the fan, the delight of delegation and the ‘nothing-to-do-with-me’ comes conveniently into play. On the rare occasion of success, such as with Dafydd James’ play ‘Llwyth’ a very personal journey of gay sexual exploration, which premiered in Wales, and then went on tour visiting Edinburgh and Taiwan, many will relish in its praise, which sadly affects the confidence and rawness of the production.

‘I’m out of work, so therefore I’ll write’ - complete and utter nonsense.  

Failed actors’ egos seeking a news stage, rather than being led by their pain body or baggage, anger or distress to tell the world how they feel. That voice needs to be controlled nurtured and comforted.

I started working on an idea for a film about twelve years ago! It was taken from festival to festival, from workshop to workshop, from company to company. Commissioners, Producers and fellow writers all had their say, and slowly but surely, my idea drifted away from me. I was carried by an empty balloon, blinded by the story and ‘international appeal’ without actually having somebody simply ask me, what was I trying to say? A simple question, one that many of us are still unsure about the answer – such is life! But when you are finally made to face that answer, the results can be truly fantastic. That’s what makes a writer, not the necessity to tick a box, find work for a friend or fulfill a funding application. That process needs the right people to ask the right questions, to listen, to assist, to suggest, to support and also to have the courage to say, ‘listen mate – you’re not ready to write this yet, because you’re not sure what you’re trying to say’ or simply ‘you have nothing to say, its just a story’.

For me, I had to try and commit suicide, determined to end my life, before being made to realize, that I was suffering from severe depression, lost in loneliness. That’s what makes me want to write, to share, to warn, to educate to help me come to terms with who I am.  Only now, almost thirteen years later, do I truly understand what MY film was about, and what I’m now ready to turn into a stage play. Being a writer, like life itself, is a journey, not a destination.

Aled Jones Williams
Another recent important and influential Welsh voice is ex Church of Wales Reverend Aled Jones Williams who’s been battling with alcoholism and troubled by the emptiness of his Faith, for years. His theatrical vision and writing has been truly exciting. Kane meets Beckett meets Pinter. A raw, honest, sadomasochistic and often troubled look at what it means to be a survivor in the twentieth century. 

When you read his plays, you truly see the vision, derived from years of experiencing theatre and films, from Edinburgh to Stratford East. A vision, sadly, far beyond the ability of any director to date, who (I fear) tends to opt for the easier, cheaper version rather than trying to match or even recreate what is written. Many a time I have shuddered with embarrassment, as an actor/director too scared (or ignorant of the power of nudity on stage), exits in a pair of Donald Duck boxer shorts, completely ruining the intended theatrical moment. Other examples are key props being conveniently found on stage, rather than dropped from a great height, as the vision requests, or the body of a female Jesus hiding in a tip of a world, rather than being dumped from the trunk of truck, as requested.

Iesu - Aled Jones Williams - Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru - 2008
Having accidently met him recently, during a matinee of the new McPherson play at the Donmar, he confided in me that he hadn’t been writing in the last few years, as he simply had ‘nothing to say’.  He also agreed with me that he was still waiting to work with a director who actually challenged his vision, and even delivered what he’d written on stage! A comment which I’d quoted in a recent article in Y Cymro, and was attacked by one fringe company member – who cheekily asked me if I had seen their previous productions! Yes, I answered, I had seen their attempts to convey his FULL vision on stage, but failed due to the lack of funds, or maybe even experience.

Dirty Protest - Almeida Theatre 2013
Filling the stage at the Royal Court or the Almeida Festival with half travelled half imagined creations about ‘cat & partner killing, blow up doll abusing, fishy smelling gits’ (as I apologetically tweeted after the Dirty Protest showcase in London, assuring everyone that this was not a reflection of the Welsh people!) - will get us nowhere. The heart shaped Welsh cakes handed out at the end of the Sunday matinee at the Almeida, sweet as it meant to be, saddened me. Imagine being handed a thistle shaped haggis at the end of an NTS London show?! So the whole PR package seems lost and without control. Twitter Facebooking images of dressing room names at the Court and group t-shirt shots on Sloane Square, drowns the pride of achievement under an embarrassing eiderdown of childish passion.

Care is needed; both in the writing, planning, control and staging. By all means head to Edinburgh, experiment, join the thousands that share the passion and dreams, but come back having seen, listened and learned what truly makes quality theatre. A theatre that we can, and should be, proud of.  Stage the best, not the rest.

Salt, Root and Roe - Donmar - 2011
Yes, there are many names in the Welsh writing ether at the moment – but we need to be careful. I’m slightly worried about Tim Price who seems to be turning any recent news story into plays – from Bradley Manning to Scottish Independence, to his upcoming monologue at the NT about the ‘Occupy London’ movement. They are all a far cry from the quiet beauty of his inaugural, lyrical ‘Salt, Root and Roe’ which I adored during the Donmar season a few years ago. Rushing after any recent newsworthy plots may be a warning of a lost voice, not knowing what he truly wants to say, sacrificed by the PR machine of success, bullied by stronger co-producers, as was embarrassing clear to me, after ‘I’m with the Band’.

Blodeuwedd - Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru - 2013
As far as NTW and ThGen goes, I think its been a great influence and inspiration on current theatre goers. The only worry I have is the current tendency to keep away from the main playing houses, which are desperately dormant, especially in North and Mid Wales. The Theatr Genedlaethol have now, (finally, but alas, so late in the day) started to follow suit with site-specific productions. This style of performance is now influencing the writers too, so we are less likely to see more classic three-act structures coming to the stage. The dreaded television influence is also very apparent, in a sea of short scenes, rather than fuller, bolder, braver scenes, we can get our teeth into. The danger / worry again is that the little true talent there actually is, will be spread so far and wide, it will lose its flavour and power.  Sadly, this happened with the wonderful Hugh Hughes residency on Anglesey via NTW this year. Having fallen in love with his Welsh wit and warm character in Edinburgh over the years, his ‘show’ on Anglesey was a complete flop, owing to the essence and quirky props being scattered too thinly over the island thus weakening the final product.

In my fortieth year, twenty seven years since I wrote and staged my first short play, sixteen years since I won my last award, I am finally finding my voice, having experienced life at its most cruel. The plays (note, not monologues!) I read by young people aged between 16 and 26 for the drama writing competition at the eisteddfodau in 2000 and 2010, all entered anonymously, were far more inspirational and unique, than anything I’ve seen to date by Dirty Protest.

We need to be honest with ourselves, and think about what we are trying to do, rather than rush in all directions, with half-baked, tasteless Welsh produce.  We are not a cowed nation. We have the talent to dazzle and debate, to shock, question and to mock, without having to make complete fools of ourselves. I’m sorry to state the blooming obvious, but any failed or out of work actor, is not a potential, or even worse – a self proclaimed – writer or director. The same current argument about audience members being experienced critics. Yes, we can all have a go, have our say, a chance to express our thoughts, but unless we have respected and experienced, educated  leadership, to question, suggest or share with us a new possible way of looking at things, then we are destined to fail, to scare away and to lose support. Hobson’s support of Pinter, and Pinter’s support of Kane, leaps alarmingly to mind.

Sarah Kane (1971-1999)
Too much weak and badly created theatre can have a much worse affect than the lack of quality material. Audiences will get bored, money will be saved, and theatres empty. Collaboration, patience, and respect is the key, not a loose creative cannon shooting shit in all directions!

I was very disappointed to learn recently that Arts Council Wales refuses to fund and financially support Welsh writers without a base in Wales! What good comes from that? Surely it’s the voice and ideas of these brave, souls, who have managed to make a success of it, outside this protected, unhealthy web of Welsh who’s who, that should be given a chance to suggest, explain and promote Wales, with an unbiased, unconnected opinion?

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