The rambling thoughts of a reviewer on the Cardiff/Wales arts scene in 2018.
I’d just like to preface this lengthy article with a brief explanation. I’m not (and don’t pretend to be) a professional writer or reviewer. This page was started back in 2014 as a hobby, and since then I’ve written reviews about a huge variety of things from television and films to restaurants, live music and books. I find the process of writing critically about things a useful way of deciphering my own thoughts about what I’ve experienced and putting it down in a concise way. There are those in the Cardiff scene who write much more eloquently than I do, or have a much more in depth knowledge of the arts. I’m not pretending that my opinion is definitive, or indeed always right.
Hopefully my reviews are fair, and where I have found problems I can justify them to a reasonable level. Over the last 12 months the audience for my blog has expanded hugely, and have been lucky enough to have been invited to review a huge range of different productions, from those at the Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival, to huge events at the WMC, to full production runs at established theatres or Fringe theatre venues. To all those producers, press officers and reviewing sites that have given me the opportunity to do this, I am eternally grateful. I am always willing to come along and give my thoughts on a production or event, and I hope to carry on doing so in 2019.
This article aims to give my general thoughts on the state of the Cardiff art’s scene (especially in relation to reviewing), as well as addressing some specific issues encountered over the last 12 months. I will, where appropriate, discuss specific events or companies involved but want to stress that this is not with the aim of criticising individuals or companies, but instead of opening up the conversation about the arts scene with the aim of improving things.
Cardiff is a small capital city, yet has a vibrant creative arts scene. We attract world class talent through the BBC and ITV studios in television and film production, and we have some big nationally recognised theatre producing venues whose work tours the country and wins national awards. We also have some excellent small fringe theatre companies who work incredibly hard and produce brilliant work on an incredibly small budget. It is the mid-size work in Cardiff which feels like it is currently lacking – that which is too big for a cafe/bar venue, but not quite big enough for the Sherman or WMC. It could be that there is a lack of infrastructure or established ways in which small companies can expand and find a larger audience both in Cardiff and in the areas around them.
Places like the Sherman are attempting to redress the balance with schemes such as “Get It While It’s Hot”, which gives a larger stage to emerging theatre companies. Their work with Clocktower Theatre Company on Shed Man in November as well as their work with Spilt Milk Theatre’s Five Green Bottles next April will hopefully demonstrate there is an appetite for emerging companies to gain a larger audience. Similarly, Big Loop Theatre Company’s productions in both Chapter Arts and The Other Room in 2018 are hopefully a sign that the Fringe Theatre scene in Cardiff can provide a springboard to small companies to get a foothold in the medium sized venues in the city. We have a great network of small fringe venues who are incredible at supporting the city’s arts scene: AJ’s Coffee House, Little Man Coffee & Jacobs Antiques to name but a few. But honestly, we should be getting to the stage where emerging companies are regularly performing in actual theatre venues, rather than coffee shops (no disrespect to those coffee shops, we love you).
One of the benefits of Cardiff being a small city is that it is easy to make work, collaborate and market your shows in a way that’s much more difficult to do in London or Edinburgh. The small size of the arts scene can however also be a disadvantage. Having only a small arts scene means that finding an audience for your shows can be a challenge. As a critic I often find myself seeing and speaking with the same people before/after shows. We turn up to support our fellow producers, writers, directors, actors and designers. Now there is nothing wrong with this – it’s incredibly important for creatives to support their colleagues in their work. It is when the community starts to feel insular and self congratulatory that problems happen. If you are only making work for your friends, or others in the artistic community, then you will struggle to expand your audience and find success.
Part of what needs to happen is for there to be a more honest dialogue between the creators of the work and their creative colleagues. Throughout 2018 I have seen some productions which, while good, were far from perfect. Yet reading fellow critics raving about a show and giving them 4 or 5 stars, I sometimes wondered if we had seen the same production as each other. It is of course difficult when you are asked to review a show in which your friends or colleagues are closely involved. There is a desire to want your friends to succeed, and it is tempting to gloss over any issues and give them a brilliant review. This is likely in part to avoid upsetting them, and partly because you know that a good review can boost ticket sales and make their production a success.
I’m going to be blunt. If you don’ think you can give an honest and unbiased review about a show you have seen because your friends are involved in it, then you shouldn’t be reviewing it. Yes, we all hope our review will help a show sell, but the other side to a critique of a show is to suggest what could be done better. How can we expect the arts scene in Cardiff to improve, if the very people we are asking to review our shows aren’t honest about what can be improved?
I will give two examples over the last 12 months where I have written a review and received wildly different feedback from it (For reasons of professionalism I won’t mention names or productions). In one instance I wrote a review for a production which I felt had potential but was lacking in some areas. The review offered constructive feedback on the areas which could be improved, and the areas which I didn’t feel worked. The next day I was messaged on social media by someone involved in that production telling me that I was wrong and demanding that I change my review. In the other example I wrote a review for a different show which again had real potential, but needed some work done to make it great. Following the publication of that review I was messaged by someone involved thanking me for the feedback and stating they had taken some of it on board and would make some changes.
I hope the above examples demonstrate my point. The creative scene in Cardiff needs to be open to criticism, and reviewers need to be willing to give that feedback. If we pretend that everything we see with our colleagues in is great, or if we deny the fact that what we have created could have been improved, then the arts scene will stagnate. The opinion of a reviewer is exactly that – one persons opinion. But as long as they can justify that opinion then it is a valid one, and if you are putting on a production to the paying public then you should be willing to accept feedback both good and bad. Of course if there are factual inaccuracies in a review (mis-spellings, mis-credits etc.) then as a creative you absolutely should contact the reviewer and ask for this to be changed. As a reviewer we have a duty to ensure we credit the right people, and are accurate.
Telling someone you know as a friend or respect as an artist that you have problems with what they’ve created isn’t going to be an easy conversation. It’s much easier to pat them on the back in the bar afterwards and tell them how great you think it was. There is of course a right way and a wrong way to give that feedback – I’m not suggesting you go up to someone in the foyer after the curtain call and bluntly tell them how terrible you think their show was. That’s likely to end in a bruised ego and possibly a black eye. But if we are more open with each other about our work, and open up that dialogue in a constructive way then the Cardiff arts scene can only get better.
I want to take a second to commend one particular company for their stance on receiving criticism. Big Loop Theatre Company wrote a post on social media asking for all feedback good and bad for their current production of Cheer, admiting that “It’s always lovely to see glowingly positive tweets and posts but, for a new company like ours, honest and open feedback is equally valuable! Tell us what has worked, what hasn’t, what made you nauseous. We can take it. We promise.” Since then, they have posted and shared links to all reviews regardless of rating and having had conversations with the team personally, it’s clear they want to learn and progress from the criticism they have received.
Now that I’ve delivered my general thoughts on reviewing, I will delve into two specific issues which have affected the Wales art’s scene over the last twelve months. I will caveat this discussion by stating that I’m no expert on either case, and am writing from the perspective of an outsider who passionately cares about improving the scene. I will also state that I’m not aiming to discuss the issue itself as they have already been covered extensively by others, but instead the organisation/scene’s reaction to the case. I am of course talking about the open letters submitted by writers and actors to National Theatre Wales, and separately the controversy surrounding the (now disbanded) Wales Theatre Awards.
Lets start with the National Theatre Wales issue. In September of this year a group of 40 writers penned an open letter to its chair Clive Jones, in which they criticized the output of the company and in particular the fact that they have in recent productions used non Welsh/Wales based artists in their work. This was followed by an open letter from 200 Welsh/Wales based actors who aired similar grievances but from the perspective of performers. If we want to have a high quality national theatre which nurtures home grown talent and represents Welsh culture, then these are vital conversation to have. As a nationally funded arts organisation NTW have rightly responded to these letters by inviting those involved to discussions regarding their concerns. While I don’t know the outcome of these discussions I commend NTW’s transparent response, and in particular their artistic director Kully Thiarai’s blog on the issue. Only by addressing and discussing issues with those creatives involved in an honest and transparent way do we stand any hope of learning from the mistakes of the past.
This response contrasts hugely to that of the Wales Theatre Awards when they became embroiled in a racism row this year. While many are familiar with the background of this, I will briefly and clumsily explain for those who are not. In short, a play nominated for the 2018 Wales Theatre Awards called “Golden Dragon” featured white actors portraying Chinese characters in “yellowface”. This led to an open letter (we seem to like these in Wales) criticising its nomination on the grounds of the companies casting decision, and to NTW and others boycotting the awards. Rather than engage with the issue or accept any responsibility, awards organiser Mike Smith stated the accusations were “so obviously plain silly they do not deserve a response”. More recently, respected critic Jafar Iqbal wrote an article in which he spoke about the controversy, and rightly stated that the whole episode was somewhat swept under the carpet. While some did boycott the night, it went ahead and (until recently) there were plans for another event in 2019.
So the organisers of the Wales Theatre Awards had not one, but two chances to meaningfully engage in debate; to apologise for what happened, to discuss issues relating to race and casting in the arts. One after the original open letter, and again after Iqbal’s article. On the first occasion this criticism was swept under the rug. But on the second chance, the organisation contacted Iqbal’s organisation via Gary Raymond threatening legal action. That’s right, legal action. Rather than meaningfully engage, WTA felt it necessary to threaten Wales Art’s Review into silence. After this erupted on social media, WTA abruptly decided to cancel next year’s ceremony with the message “Wales Theatre Awards 2019 has been cancelled and the annual awards have come to an end”. Ironically, still available on the website is the following sentence about next year’s (now defunct) awards which says “The Awards are now also a catalyst for a wider conversation in Wales such as this year when it opened a debate on diversity and also ethnicity matching in casting.”. So the organisers of this event claimed that the awards have opened up a debate, despite denying themselves the opportunity to discus the issue on two separate occasions.
What can be learned from the different reactions to these two issues? In the example of the conversation about NTW, a group of artists and creatives asked to open a dialogue, with the organisation itself responding and opening up the debate. While there is an argument to be had as to whether an open letter was the right way of doing so, it is clear that there was strong feelings about the issue. Certainly the format of an open letter allowed the signatories to gain enough publicity to catapult the issue into the consciousness of the creative industry in a way which private conversations would not have done. As mentioned before, these conversations are apparently still ongoing, and here’s to hoping that in 2019 NTW takes the feedback on board. We want world class theatre here in Wales, and by engaging constructively in this type of debate we will hopefully advance our cause.
On the other hand, the Wales Theatre Awards controversy leaves no-one looking good. WTA look bad for their initial AND subsequent handling of the controversy. Those arts organisations who attended the awards look bad for not standing up and boycotting a ceremony which actively celebrated a production who’s casting decisions were racist. And the rest of us look bad for ignoring the issue for nearly a year, until it took a brutally honest article from Iqbal to launch this back into our conversations. If you were one of those who boycotted/brought up this issue at the time of the 2018 awards, well done. But don’t congratulate yourselves too much. This issue deserved to be shouted about as loudly (if not louder) than the NTW issue. If we can’t get the basics right about race, then any more nuanced conversations about Welsh theatre and identity are doomed to fail.
So what do I hope next year holds for the Cardiff/Wales theatre scene? Here’s to hoping 2019 see’s more small/fringe companies moving on to the next stage of their progression. To see them creating more work in medium sized venues, and to those venues being open to helping nurture their talent. If these companies are to be the future of the scene, they need to be given the space to showcase their work. I also hope that we as a scene can be more honest with ourselves about what is good, but also what needs to be improved. I hope that we can be more vocal in calling out issues when they arise, in a constructive and timely fashion. Most of all I hope that we can learn the lessons from what”s happened in 2018, and get back to what we should be doing. Working our socks off to create amazing theatre, or supporting those who do.
Happy Christmas/Holidays, here’s to 2019!