Community Development and the arts – The Ugly Duckling
I recently took a drive to Merthyr Tydfil/Merthyr Tudful for an afternoon out and made a beeline for the newly-renovated Redhouse in the centre of town. The Redhouse is the new name for Merthyr’s former town hall. It is a beautiful Victorian Grade II* listed building with a rich terracotta colour – similar to the Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay/Bae Caerdydd and it is a joy to see it in use again after years lying idle, forlorn and increasingly decrepit.
The Redhouse’s website states that it:
“will become a catalyst for cultural regeneration: awakening the spirit of creative enterprise that was once a hallmark of a venerable town at the centre of the industrial revolution in Great Britain”
In practise this “creative enterprise” means that The Redhouse houses:
“a 120 seat theatre; a bespoke art gallery; dance studio; multi-purpose glazed auditorium; café bar; music/recording & creative business studios; and a wealth of heritage features and interpretation stories — as well as housing the media and performing arts faculties of the College Merthyr Tydfil”
It is a stunning building, a credit to the project management and funders, an asset to the town and well worth a visit. However what caught my eye – amongst the stained glass, plaques of famous Merthyrites (is that what a native of Merthyr is called??), beautifully tiled interiors and high ceilings – was a flyer for the forthcoming children’s play The Ugly Duckling / Yr Hwyaden Fach Hyll by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and Sherman Theatre, since with the children in tow we gravitated towards the healthy wealth of information on display about children’s productions in the run-up to Ch*****as.
The listings on the reverse advertised the dates and venues for the show which is touring Wales/Cymru before residing at the Sherman for a December run. It is heartening to see a number of Communities First areas listed among these: Ystradgynlais, Maesteg, Markham, Penygraig, Glyncoch, Duffryn in Newport/Casnewydd, Beaufort, as well as at the Redhouse itself. Having worked in the Sirhowy/Sirhywi valley and with its management committee I know Markham Welfare Hall well; in this instance it means the production is being taken to the very heart of that community.
This is interesting to see given the recent publication of Baroness Andrews’s inquiry into Culture and Poverty (in which the Redhouse is a case study) on behalf of the Welsh Government. In several cases larger, more traditional theatre venues are being overlooked by this production. Down the road from Markham is the venerable Blackwood Miners’ Institute; Glyncoch or Penygraig might have been overlooked for Treorchy/Treorci‘s Parc and Dare Theatre; and with a date at the Riverfront in Newport/Casnewydd a date in Duffryn might have been considered unnecessary. These choices clearly espouse the values underpinning Baroness Andrews’s call to “go local” i.e., engaging at community level in order to anchor culture within communities, reflecting a recurring theme in the inquiry of the:
“importance of putting experience, learning and enjoyment within reach of peo0ple, locally” (p.11)
The inquiry also recognised the importance of:
“join[ing] up in school and out of school learning and make it all count towards aspiration and achievement” (p.11)
In light of this it is perhaps prescient of The Ugly Duckling production to be visiting an infant school located in a lower super output area* which for educational attainment is Newport’s second most deprived and which is in the lowest 2% across the whole of Wales (according to WIMD, 2011). Likewise, Markham Welfare Hall houses a pre-school playgroup, has a primary school adjacent to it and historically was a location of community, self and continued learning like many miners’ institutes.
Baroness Andrews’s report cites over 30 specific recommendations in total which, if all are implemented, would result in a sea change in, among other things, the physical and psychological engagement with arts and culture; the strategic design and development of arts and culture infrastructure and activities; joint-working between arts and cultural organisations; and the role of culture and arts in education. As the Minister for Culture and Sport acknowledged in accepting Baroness Andrews’s report there are many examples, including in Communities First areas, of progress being made. The Ugly Duckling/Yr Hwyaden Fach Hyll is testament to this.
Now where’s my credit card and the ticket office number….?
* There are 1,896 lower layer super output areas (LSOAs) in Wales. Although the geographical size of these small areas varies quite widely, and depends on the local population density, the populations are intended to be roughly the same in each LSOA, with an average population of 1500 people. LSOAs were designed by the Office for National Statistics to have consistent population sizes and stable geographies, so that statistical comparisons of small areas over time can be carried out (Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation 2011 – Summary Report, 2011, p.3)