Saturday, 19 February 2011

Something Special Well Worth Preserving: Keeping The Community

There is something absolutely wonderful about rural theatres. They exist for the perfect reasons.

The other month I blogged about rural touring,

whilst we were taking Octavia around Yorkshire and Cornwall, and how wonderful it is to take shows to a community, to people who are ready and willing to come and enjoy themselves. For me, time seems to move so quickly and that Octavi

a tour already seems quite long ago. Since then we have run in London with The Boy James and run at The Lowry with Odyssey and Quasimodo. I have also spent a lot of my time thinking about The Beggars Opera for York Theatre Royal and Macbeth for London in April. But this week we have been performing at Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells, South Wales.

Our few days here have been one of the most enjoyable times we have spent in a theatre. There is something about the intimacy and the scale of the place, the way the whole theatre is run. And it’s not just a theatre, it’s a cinema, an arts space where the community gather. We have been wholly received as part of the Wyeside family, or so it feels. We have been here for four days, but I feel like I am friends with all the staff, like I belong a little to this community, such is the welcoming and appreciative nature of the p

lace; people seem really happy that we are here, and in turn we are very happy to be here. They are so bloody lovely. They have let us sleep in their theatre, kept the bar open for us, brought us tea and coffee, let us watch a private screening of Black Swan. And why? Because they pride themselves on being lovely, giving and offering everything they can, which is so much more than money.

As with everything arts related these days, there are dark times ahead. Wyeside Arts Centre are struggling under loss of funding, their youth theatre is struggling in response and so might their outside programming struggle and their cinema programme struggle. If this place shuts down, or has to cut back, then it is a disaster.

Places like Wyeside provide the cultural hub for such a widespread community. We had 100 primary school children from about 5 different schools in Octavia. For them, this is the only theatre around. They have had to add extra screenings of The Kings Speech because of the demand for cinema, where the next nearest cine

ma is about an hours drive away.

As I said in my previous blog on rural arts, a community is so much more involved if you bring the art to them. Of course, this is true of all comm

unities. In London there is so much art brought to the larger community that you are spoilt for choice. In York people flock to the Theatre Royal for the Pantomime and their summer family shows, such as The Railway Children, Wind In The Willows and the upcoming Peter Pan. But trying to get people to drive hours to their nearest event, you are somewhat pushing the easy enjoyment of being entertained.

The National make good work, it sells and people

go in their droves to see it. If The National have their funding cut a little, it makes a small dent in their vastly enterprising business. If somewhere like Wyeside gets their funding cut a little it means losing the youth theatre. Then where is the next nearest youth theatre?

People who run venues like Wyeside do not do it for the fame, the money or the artistic respect and credibility, they do it for the community. This is such a heart-warming thing. Perhaps it’s because I come from the countryside, but I feel so bound to these kind of people who work just to give it all back to the people they are working for. It’s really quite a beautiful cycle, one it would be criminal to lose.

This morning we met some amazing people. Phil and Sue run Shakespeare Link, working out of the Living Willow Theatre. It is an incredible place and I would please urge everyone who reads this to at least visit their website. Perhaps email them, perhaps go and see a show, perhaps take one if you make work; they are truly inspiring people. After working for years in the industry they set up camp on a big farm in Wye valley. They both have such a huge love for theatre and specifically Shakespeare. And they too are such giving people, so much so that they have made everything they need to run a theatre, and made in purely off their own back and genius initiative.

They have turned their stable in to a library and costume store, their barn in to an indoor venue, another barn in to a pub and, most impressively built a miniature version of The Globe out of living willow trees complete with thrust stage and 130 capacity. And what’s more it is entirely self-supporting running off green electricity harvested from solar panels and wind turbines. It’s truly incredible.

I think the main thing that is incredible though is its simplicity. There are no airs or graces, there is just a love of theatre and some open and welcoming arms ready to embrace and provide for the community. They run a season of work across summer that involve workshops, sessions, storytelling and big community Shakespeares. Sue was saying how last year the local window cleaner did a stunning Hamlet, honest and bare in their beautiful setting. They welcome other companies and tours, The Factory brought their Seagull the other summer, even Germaine Greer has visited.

But when you put it against places like The National you think ‘Well what is it? Is it a farm or a theatre? Who is this for?’ And the answer is that it is a farm and it is a theatre and it is a place where you can go on nature trials or have a pint of locally brewed ale. And who is it for? Everyone. It is for the people who make the shows, the people who come to the shows, it is for the community. Or rather communities. I am not from the Wye valley, but I am from a theatrical community and I feel at home drinking coffee and chatting in their stable-come-library and I hope I would feel just as at home in and amongst their community Shakespeare. Are places like this more worthy than places like The National? I think perhaps they are.

People like Phil and Sue are so inspiring. They set up Shakespeare Link in 1992 and have done so much but it feels like they are just getting going with the amount of energy that pours out of the couple. I got up early after sleeping on the floor of the Wyeside Arts Centre and drove through the back roads of Wales to the Living Willow Theatre. I then performed for local children. The rest of the company have just gone for a walk down the river and I’m sat typing in a home away from home. Rural arts is so special, I couldn’t have had this day in London.

I have realised that I care a hell of a lot about this, about these theatres and arts centre that exist purely to give. I want to work with them, to make exciting things happen and be a part of the exciting things that already are happening. And as funding and the future gets more and more uncertain, perhaps we all need to take a leaf out of Sue and Phil’s book to find a way to sustain in every sense of the word.

I've no idea how, but I’m very willing to find out how this is done.

Anyone want to do it with me?

If so, email me on

Alexander Wright

Co-Artistic Director

1 comment:

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