Publicity surrounding the most recent Wales Theatre Awards ceremony was dominated by a row over the lack of diversity amongst the nominees, and creative choices made by some nominated companies, which were perceived as questionable.
Speaking as a theatre reviewer who, in common with dozens of other arts writers and bloggers, had input into the nomination process, I felt that criticism of the Awards themselves was a tad misplaced – reviewers can only review shows which exist. Blame for deficiencies in terms of representation should surely be laid at the feet of funding bodies.
Fio, the Cardiff-based theatre company whose recent productions in Wales have included Katori Hall’s Martin Luther King drama The Mountaintop and Ariel Dorfman’s political chiller Death And The Maiden, were instrumental in highlighting these issues.
In a more positive vein, however, they recently organised a three-week program called Declaration, in which applications were invited from theatre artists of various backgrounds and with various levels of experience, the aim being to create new work, and facilitate the forging of new creative connections.
I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate, and was part of a group of creatives who were treated, firstly, to a week of masterclasses from professionals in a number of disciplines: writer and storyteller Eric Ngalle Charles, actors Lisa Zahra and Cathy (“Mona Lisa”) Tyson, and director Ryan Romain. At the end of Week 1, we were divided into groups, each comprising a writer, and director, and a number of performers.
The writer was then tasked with coming up with the idea for a performance piece tailored to those particular actors, the intention being to spend a week writing it, under the mentorship of playwright Kelly Jones (Winner of the 2014 Wales Drama Award).
Week three would then involve the three ad hoc companies working on the script, culminating in a performance on the final Saturday evening.
I was fortunate enough to be gifted with a powerful script, entitled Three Lost Souls by Connor Allen (currently better known as an actor), and a talented cast comprising Mid-Wales-based performer Kama Roberts and recent graduates Hannah Lad and Aly Cruickshank.
The play consists of three interlinked monologues, dealing with the prelude and aftermath of a small-scale tragedy. It was impressed upon us by Fio that since this was a research and development week, the focus would be not on preparing a polished performance piece, but collaboratively mining the text for clues as to methods of presenting it in a visually arresting manner.
We thus decided that our task would be to use physical theatre techniques to portray grief and loss. As director, I largely deferred to my cast’s greater experience in this area, mostly intervening to ensure that our focus on the central narrative was not lost.
The culmination of our efforts came on the evening of Saturday 24th February when, in Cardiff’s Sherman Arena, Three Lost Souls was performed, alongside Nazma Ali’s Words That Leave Wounds Around The Heart, a fable about migration; and Leah Byrne’s Compass, about three lives defined by on-line interaction.
Speaking personally, I found the experience hugely educative (if occasionally a tad stressful), the idea of putting a bunch of creative people in a room, giving them a deadline, and leaving them to get on with it being an extremely seductive one.
In terms of diversity, no-one in the audience during the post-show discussion was able to recall another occasion on which three Welsh writers of colour (two of them female), had had their work performed in a major Welsh theatre. Inevitably, the broader debate touched on funding, gatekeepers and audience development.
I would argue that as with all seemingly intractable issues, the problem is not the absence of workable solutions, but the will to implement them. Artists in all disciplines, and from all backgrounds want the same thing – to be paid to create. Fio are to be commended for shifting the inclusivity debate in a direction which foregrounds professional practice.