Penny Francis profiles a Welsh company with an eye on the well-being of the world
In an expanding world of information Small World Theatre’s projects can help communities to make sense of that information and transform it into commonly-held knowledge.”
In Cardiganshire, Wales, in a beautiful area near the sea, the extraordinary Small World Theatre is to be found. It is extraordinary in terms of the company’s ethics and aesthetics, its community work in many parts of the world, and the cultural bounty it has brought to Wales. All these aspects of Small World are admirable enough, but now the modus operandi of the group must change radically with the addition of a large and rather beautiful building, the Canolfan Byd Bychan or Small World Centre, which is nearing completion (topping-out is scheduled for September 2007). The £1.2 million project will house the company and enable it to expand and invite groups into a purpose-built space. It has a local, national and international remit. The money was donated to Small World and the local community initially from funds of the European Union, at a time when their part of Wales was considered a high-priority area for regeneration.
Ann Shrosbee and Bill Hamblett liken the funding opportunity which suddenly arose to the appearance and disappearance of an express train, stopping at their station – an Objective One area – only long enough to unload a generous sum of money. They applied for it, seeing the need for and the benefits of a community arts space of generous proportions, one large enough to build and show the Small World productions, most of which feature giant puppets.
Ann and Bill have worked together since about 1978, the company at first named Dandelion Puppets, after a character in the first show they did together, Dora’s Dilemma. It was an ecological piece about a dandelion breaking through the tarmac of a road with the help of others in her micro environment. The confusion over the name, which was almost contemporaneously adopted by an Irish group, caused the change to Small World, which actually suits them much better.
The bearing of messages through the arts was kick-started in 1979 by the National Centre for Alternative Technology, which commissioned the first show for their base in Carmarthenshire. Ann was trained as a sculptor; Bill a musician, fond of recounting the story of how he was a member of the Band of Ascending Colour which “rocketed to worldwide obscurity”. Long before any European Community grant, they survived and still survive through project grants from a long list of funding bodies. What they have achieved with the minimum of finance almost defies belief. They must be the hardest of workers. At the moment, in addition to preparing their latest performance Merlin’s Coat in Welsh and English, and responding to more invitations abroad, they are, with freelance artists and a socially diverse team of volunteers, putting wattle and daub on the outside front walls of the new building and painting the interior. As you would expect, the theatre is environmentally friendly, with sedum roofing that harbours plants, insects and birds. The reader is invited to survey the photographs: this is not primarily a theatre, but a community space for workshops and creative activity. I find the architecture most pleasing. The internal hexagonal central space rises high, with two floors of galleries to enable the building of giant processional figures. There is a workshop, dance movement room, meeting room, offices, ‘global education room’, projection and reprographic areas, and storage areas too, all interlinked. The only corridors are obligatory fire escapes. Nearby there is the very successful Theatr Mwldan, with which Small World is in close collaboration.
A passion to deal with real issues drives the work. Bill Hamblett says that they have dealt with wide-ranging subjects, always with the intention of making the world a little better through awareness of the issues that affect societies and the need to change things through action. Issues are often environmental, sometimes cultural. The Giant of Cwm Cysglyd (1981) was about the danger to a quiet valley posed by a giant corporation and its plans to industrialise the site. Human rights, democracy, refugee issues and intergenerational projects are themes that recur. Most of the work they enjoy, but some can be harrowing, for instance collecting and recording refugees’ stories in detention centres and camps in Hong Kong and on the streets in Vietnam for the show Moving[!] exclamation a part of show name? If so put a full stop after More recently they interviewed newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees in Wales for the Diogel Safe project.
Some of the performances are devised and performed by the community; others are researched, produced and performed by the company in schools and theatre venues. The work abroad also results in the bringing home of stories and ideas for community projects and shows.
In 1985 they travelled in six Land Rovers from Suffolk to the Sudan (their second visit) to do a piece about reforestation called Abbas’ Journey. It resulted in the planting of trees in backyards, in nurseries, in the desert, wherever they were needed. On their return fifteen years later they found the baking barren earth of the school playground where they had first performed now densely shaded – an infinitely more pleasant place for the children.
The Arts and Culture for Development methodology they use overseas informs the work in Wales too, with social inclusion, community regeneration and arts and theatre in the social context. Regeneration and development in deprived areas have been tackled, and the company finds it “very gratifying when a project delivers the goods” in its own country.
Their work at home is informed by the learning they have accumulated overseas, and of course vice versa. If in the Sudan the work has communicated with local farmers, at home they have shown what life is like for kids overseas. Their shows and participatory workshops have involved the people of Nepal, promoting the rights of the human; of Delhi, working with and entertaining children in the slums; of Uganda, getting young people to act out shows about the rights of the child and performing projects that teach about AIDS; of Tanzania, using drama to underscore the importance of participation in the democratic process for women. Altogether they aim to make any society they reach a better, more fulfilling place to be.
The British Council sponsored Small World to run giant puppet-building workshops over several days in Syria last summer. The participants were young actors, theatre technicians and writers. The workshops not only consisted of practical construction techniques, but improvisational skills and development methods. The original site for the workshops was unavailable because the building was bursting with refugees from the Lebanon/Israel conflict. They could hear the shelling which was only a few minutes down the road. The British Council had given them assurances that Syria “was carrying on as normal” so they went, and loved the whole experience: the people, the cultural mix, the range of local costume – they were working, after all, on a part of the old Silk Road.
Looking to the future, Ann says they must learn not to “let the tail wag the dog”. The new Centre in Cardigan cannot be allowed to end the touring work abroad which has sown so many seeds and brought change to so many people. The building will be “a creative space for creative people… At last, not just a warm dry space big enough to build giants in, but a place to bring other groups to work with us on projects and training. The design will enhance and reflect the way we work… open inclusive spaces networking together, multi-layered, sustainable, friendly and redolent of local and global cultural influences.”
Ann and Bill’s many projects, combined with the new building, mean that the whole enterprise is now bigger in significance and scope than they are, and it must at some stage be handed down to a rising generation capable of carrying it all forward. Not yet, though – there’s plenty of energy left in the founders. For obvious reasons they can’t work abroad quite as much as before, although the invitations keep arriving, and Africa is beckoning again.
Small World can be contacted at: P.O. BOX 45, Cardigan, SA431WT. Tell/Fax 01239 615952, Email firstname.lastname@example.org