Hidden beneath the spotlight of their larger equivalents, small Welsh theatres play a vital but often overlooked role in their communities. Hari Berrow uncovers their crucial contribution to local creativity and how they can be kept alive.
For most, only a handful of names might come up when they think of theatres in Wales, and most of which are based in Cardiff. For those who live outside the capital, however, their local venue may be the only theatre they ever visit. Sometimes 200 seats or less, these venues serve their community and foster crucial relationships with the performing arts. These venues are often dismissed by the wider arts scene in Wales and lack support crucial to keeping them open.
Awen is a cultural services organisation that operates one of Wales’ smaller theatres, The Met in Abertillery, and is currently supporting the regeneration of two larger venues, The Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd and The Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl. I spoke with Richard Hughes, their chief executive, about the complexities of running a small regional venue and the important place they hold in their communities.
“It’s massive, really, what those buildings offer. They’re iconic because the bricks and mortar are something that the communities are proud of. They stand for the community’s heritage. They were very often achieved because the community pulled together to get them there,” Hughes tells me. This is true across the whole of Wales – multiple arts centres, such as Miners’ Institutes and Workmen’s Halls, were built in the early 20th century with funds from their community. The Berwyn Centre in Nantymoel, demolished in 2013, was one such venue. Other, more recently formed venues, have seen community-led projects repurpose old buildings such as chapels to create space for theatre and the performing arts; three such examples being Theatr Soar in Merthyr Tydfil, Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, and the Dylan Thomas Theatre in Swansea – a venue that is surprisingly beautiful considering its history as a car show room.
“More than that though, it’s what goes on there. It’s also a place where people start their careers,” Hughes explains. Small theatres also offer an essential space for young creative talent, from The Met’s local youth theatre to small producing houses like The Other Room (being rehomed later this year) to cultural hubs like Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre. For early-career drag artists, Boulevard Show Bar in Milford Haven and the WMC’s Cabaret space in Cardiff provide safe spaces for new, queer work to be platformed.
Hughes is very clear: “If you took away those venues, you’d be playing Jenga with the creative industries in Wales. Even though you’ve got all the sexy stuff at the top – film, music, things like that – that only happens because people participate at a grassroots level at these venues. They provide, not just for the communities but for the industry, platforms for professionals to show off their work. They’re critical in the Welsh arts industry’s ecology.”
But these venues struggle to stay afloat. In mid-September, insurance company Ansvar suggested that, due to the rising cost of living and the complexities of maintaining older buildings, a significant number of community centres and village halls may now be underinsured, putting the organisations at long-term risk. Hughes echoes these concerns, suggesting that increasing demands from regulatory bodies, the claims culture and paperwork demands from funders can put a strain on small venues’ resources.
“Personally, I think there needs to be consideration of funding that is circled the arts infrastructure in Wales to maintain it as a set of buildings because, without them, everything else creaks. We’re fortunate that we’ve got an economy of scale at Awen, where we’re big enough to carry our smaller venues and work our overhead quite hard – that’s less easy if you’re a single-venue company. I take my hats off to those groups, some of which are voluntary because it’s a tough, tough environment. Especially with the regulatory stuff that comes onto you as well, it can be quite scary stuff.”
So, how do these venues manage to survive? With support from the community and wider arts organisations, according to Hughes. “Trying to run the theatres on the scale that we do without any public subsidy would be virtually impossible, and I don’t think there’s a venue in Wales that manages to do that,” he asserts. “We couldn’t do it without the support of our partners – that’s why local government is key, the arts council is key, and the Welsh government is key as well.”
There are some venues that run with little outside support. For example, The Small Space in Barry – aptly named, as with just 26 seats it’s the smallest theatre in the UK – only applied for its first Arts Council Wales grant over the COVID-19 pandemic, a good period after its opening in 2018. The theatre does have touring companies visiting it but, unlike many other small venues, makes the majority of its profits from producing in-house. Owner Jasper Blakeley presents his own ‘magic and mind-reading’ shows every Friday, and the venue also organises its own music and comedy nights and takes a good amount of income from its on-premises bar. This is not usual for a venue, and many rely on incoming performances and financial support to stay afloat. Even then, theatres such as Blackwood Little Theatre are entirely volunteer-run, and venues such as Barmouth’s Dragon Theatre and Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells rely heavily on volunteer support.
So, what does Hughes think is the future for small venues in Wales? Will we see increasing numbers of organisations running a consortium of theatres? “Theatres are not like leisure centres, they’ve got their own life that goes beyond any other organisation. I’m not convinced one organisation running all of Wales’ regional theatres would be healthy. You need the variation in creativity and programming to give us that vibrancy,” he reflects.
“I think there are opportunities: do you need every one these small organisations to have a head of finance, a head of HR? There may be opportunities for organisations to say, ‘we can do that bit for you’. We haven’t really explored that in Wales. I understand that people can be protective of what they do, but as we get to the pinch financially then that should be something that we’re all open to having a conversation about.”
One thing is certain, however: if taken advantage of and used correctly, small theatres are one of the most fundamental and essential parts of the Welsh arts. If we want to keep increasing our cultural reach, we might want to start taking them a little more seriously.
words HARI BERROW