Erica Eirian: Theatr Pena, An Unexpected Journey

November 4, 2016 by

Theatr Pena recently completed a 10 day period of production development for our proposed 2017 production, Woman of Flowers, with a performance and presentation of work in progress for of an invited audience. This was only the second R&D project we’ve undertaken and by far the most adventurous and challenging.

Now as I divide my time between writing the Completion Report, making notes for our application for the National Touring grant we intend to submit to the Arts Council of Wales in January and ironing, I ask myself will we succeed in bringing the production to fruition or will we be left with just a tantalising glimpse of what might have been? A miserable prospect given how much we want to share this play our production of it with audiences.

But such is the lot of us project companies, never knowing whether or not your last project is just that – your last. But then I think how amazing it is that Theatr Pena is here at all – after all we only intended to stage one production to satisfy our love of language and Lorca.
Theatr Pena was born out of a love of words and a desire to create opportunities for women in theatre, in particular older women – if only once. Now here we still are 8 years, 6 productions and 2 R&Ds on. We are not an all-female theatre company by the way, although 14 of our 16 members are women, and we do not stage only all-female plays, although 3 of our productions happen to have had all female casts. But when choosing a play we are mindful of the opportunities for growth and development offered by the female characters to our 10 actors (who are given first refusal of appropriate roles and make up at least 50% of each cast) and of the opportunities presented by the play to me, the Director, Holly McCarthy, our Designer and Kay Haynes, our Lighting Designer, to really challenge and stretch ourselves.


Eiry Thomas, Rhys Meredith, Rosamund Shelley, Gareth Pierce in THE GLASS MENAGERIE 2016

To date we have staged productions of modern classics, Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, Jean Genet’s The Maids, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie; a 1960s ground-breaking comedy drama, The Killing of Sister George; two adaptations, Brendan Kennelly’s The Trojan Women by Euripides and Sion Eirian’s The Royal Bed, an English language version of the Welsh language classic Siwan by Saunders Lewis. Each play has allowed us to explore a new direction and our working practice, shaped by the experiences of those of us who emerged from the 1970s collaborative theatre tradition, has continued to evolve with each production. But the unifying thread which runs throughout our work is the emphasis we place on the text and the actors – the play drives the production and we always strive to put the word and the acting of the word centre stage.


Eiry Thomas in THE ROYAL BED 2015

With this in mind, in autumn 2015 we took what was for us our biggest change of direction to date and commissioned Siôn Eirian to create a new English language work for Theatr Pena drawing on the ancient Mabinogi myth of Blodeuwedd and Saunders Lewis’s Welsh language verse drama of the same name. Written with specific Theatr Pena members in mind for three of the six characters, Siôn has created a new version of the legend of the woman made from flowers from two iconic Welsh literary sources but which we believe will subvert audience expectations. With the introduction of one new character (the goddess Arianrhod), the re-invention of two (the wizard Gwydion and the maid Rhagnell), this is not an adaptation (albeit Saunders Lewis’s authorship of parts of the text is fully acknowledged and credited) but a re-imagining of an ancient tale which offers to English speaking audiences the opportunity to experience something of the earliest prose literature of Britain, the poetry of Saunders Lewis and the craft of a contemporary Welsh dramatist. What it offers Theatr Pena is a pathway to real development.


Hannah O’Leary and Christine Pritchard in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE 2014

Our original intention was to tour our production in spring 2017 but we had to revise our plans when the application we made to the Arts Council of Wales last January for a National Touring grant was unsuccessful. Although disappointed we accepted that in a very competitive arena our proposal as presented in our application was simply not as compelling or as deserving of financial support as other more persuasive, artistic proposals. Nonetheless as the person who wrote the application I couldn’t help feeling responsible for its failure and was thrust into a crisis of self-doubt – albeit of my own making – and at the same time, like my fellow Theatr Pena members and Directors, I retained a steadfast belief in the play and our artistic proposal and a resolute determination to bring the production about. So we agreed that we should re-apply for a National Touring grant in January 2017 with a view to touring Woman of Flowers in autumn 2017 and in the meantime apply to the Arts Council of Wales for a Research and Development grant with which to begin the process of developing the production.
In July we received the good news that our application had been successful. Our disappointment at the enforced postponement of our spring 2017 tour had been turned into an artistic opportunity! Isabella Marshall in WOMAN OF FLOWERS October 2016 Research & Development Work in Progress
The R&D, in the words of Peter Knight our Composer, allowed for “a collegiate response to the text” and became the common ground upon which collaboration could be based and the relationships between the collaborators – Director, Composer, Movement Director, Designer, Lighting Designer and cast – could be deepened as we responded to hearing the text at the same time and at the same stage
We were able to take inspiration from each other in a way we would not have been able to had we been able to proceed with the production in the spring.
Failure has unexpectedly proved to be a catalyst for greater creativity leading us to a new type of production for Theatr Pena and one which I really hope sees the light of day and that this time next year we will be touring Woman of Flowers to audiences across Wales.


Women of Flowers by Siôn Eirian after Saunders Lewis
Theatr Pena │ Taliesin Arts Centre Co-production

Hopefully on tour autumn 2017

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