01 Jul Simon Harris: “while the present is challenging, the future will probably be even more so.”
This week’s blog is from our Wales representative board member, Simon Harris.
There was a moment in the SDUK meeting in Cardiff a fortnight ago when a young director spoke about his frustration at feeling like he was “forever emerging.” What was interesting was that four other voices in the room replied immediately that he could “join the club” – interesting, because they were all well-established, mid-career directors.
I returned to Wales from London about fifteen years ago. I’d been an actor, but set up my own company that led to opportunities to write and direct at places like BAC and The Donmar. Eventually, I was invited to return home to set up and run Sgript Cymru – the national company for playwrights – before it eventually achieved its goal of securing a permanent home for new writing at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre.
The situation was challenging to begin with, but, aside from taking Welsh work to venues in New York, Edinburgh, London and across England and Wales, we helped launch the careers of Gary Owen, Tim Price, Alan Harris, Bethan Marlow and Dafydd James. In retrospect, it seems more significant now that – of the thirty or so productions we put on – we could offer about a third of the company’s work to freelance directors, as well as supporting directing talent such as Adele Thomas, Alex Ferris, Tessa Walker and Arwel Gruffydd. Although not indicative of the general trend, the situation does currently seem much more bleak.
In his brilliant lecture at Hay festival a few weeks ago, SDUK member and former Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales – John McGrath – revisited this theme as he set out his hopes for an exciting vision for culture in Wales at the start of a new government in the Senedd. As part of this vision, John spoke passionately about the value of support to emerging artists and many directors can testify to John’s personal support in that regard. But, unlike directors making their start in London, directors in Wales can be doubly afflicted – both by the exclusivity of metropolitan attitudes and by the negatively reinforcing idea within Wales itself that, if you’re not in London, you can’t be any good. Little wonder then that voices were raised collectively to express frustration that directors in Wales are “forever emerging”.
It is one thing to assist emerging directors coming into the profession, but quite another to support those directors into sustainable careers and pathways. Often, when opportunities become available, it is a mystery as to how people get their chance at a time when most freelance directors subsist on low incomes. No wonder many people – both young and old – feel theatre is a closed shop.
While these feelings are by no means unique to stage directors in Wales, it is hard not to see directing in subsidised opera and theatre as the thin end of the wedge of a harshly market-orientated system, perpetuating inequality, limiting opportunity to people with money and driving out diversity in all its forms. If you doubt this, perhaps you should read Rhiannon White’s excellent blog on this subject and how it relates to artist development: http://commonwealththeatre.co.uk/gets-developed-diversity-question-isnt-able-become-professional-artist-can-change/
Lack of opportunity is endemic in Welsh theatre. Wales has no MA in Theatre Directing. There are assisting opportunities, but many are unpaid or poorly paid. Assisting here rarely translates into that important first production. There are no awards for directors or prizes that facilitate productions. Most directors become poorly paid producers of their own work, directing on a shoestring and applying for project grants of a maximum £30,000 in an extremely crowded and competitive field. There are very few Associate Director positions. Some Artistic Directors have been in the same post for twenty years or more and, even if they wanted to, would find it hard to move on. Most of the producing venues and companies are constrained in the work they can offer. When they do have work, it often falls to the incumbent Artistic Director or is offered elsewhere. To challenge this is to risk accusations of insularity and provincialism, but is it unfair to ask what should become of the growing community of talented stage directors here? Should there be no support, opportunity or infrastructure if you base yourself in Wales? Or is it simply because directors in Wales aren’t any good?
Part of the problem is the low base of funding that Wales has traditionally suffered from. While theatre in England benefitted from big uplifts in the early part of the century, nothing remotely comparable happened in Wales. Although much of that funding has fallen away in England, the disparity is still vast. The view within ACW is that the situation with local authorities is “deeply worrying” and that the proportionally greater amount of funding that theatre has received – mainly through national lottery – has not translated into wider audience reach. The bleak truth is that while the present is challenging, the future will probably be even more so.
It seems obvious to me that organisations must become more co-productive and collaborative, harnessing resources and working together. As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” It seems to me that we are desperately in need of the kind of fresh thinking and design that is contained in Topher Campbell’s recent idea that theatres should abandon the single vision of an Artistic Director. Topher commented: “Even though I have been an artistic director myself, we should see the end of artistic directors. The idea that one person has the knowledge, vision and know-how to create all the necessary work that a building needs in terms of output is a bit old-fashioned.” He added that one person’s vision for a venue resulted in a “repetition of work based on an idea of what people think people should see,” resulting in fewer opportunities for new voices to emerge.
It certainly aligns with the view of the Executive Director of Manchester’s Home – Sheena Wrigley – that we need to “upend hierarchies.” She recently said, “It is time we considered dismantling our regional theatres. I say that because I think they are a critical part of the ecology of our industry. Dismantling them creates the opportunity to reassemble them and that is what is really interesting – we can reassemble them with a more collaborative, diverse and less hierarchical mode.”
Being a director in Wales can be testing, but great work gets made in spite of the difficulties. Wales has a proud, radical and collectivist tradition. Its artistic community is characterised by interconnection. Its people talk to each other, know each other and see each other’s work. It is a sector built on strong, personal relationships. At the same time, the very geography of the country encourages a community that is both networked and de-centred. Is it too much to suggest that Wales with its languages, geographical diversity and rapidly transforming communities has a traditional affinity with fluidity, hybridity and change? Or is the real Wales the one that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit as a self-harming protest against elites, experts and immigrants? Perhaps it is time – at least, in the context of its theatre – that this question was put to the test.