This weekend Everyman Theatre ended another summer festival. This year taking in a version of Blackadder, the musical Sweet Charity, a well-loved Shakespearean play with As You Like It, and children’s theatre with Beauty and the Beast Junior. Such diversity of productions in just over a month would be hard to find anywhere and the importance of Everyman’s contribution to Cardiff Theatre through their festival, and indeed across the year, is often overlooked.
Everyman were set up in 1942, then as Unity Theatre. Starting life presenting political theatre they maintain the remit of presenting live theatre in a professional and entertaining a way as possible today. Classified as a ‘pro-am’ or ‘semi-pro’ theatre company, they are a mixture of professionals and ‘amateurs’ though the latter label is a difficult one, coming with heavily weighted assumptions about the quality of work, when in fact Everyman consistently produce work to rival that of fully professional counterparts. (The label ‘amateur’ for theatre and performance itself, it could be argued is actually misleading in general, because how many ‘professionals’ also have another job to fund their profession?) I’d argue those involved in Everyman’s work are actors/directors/technicians/Front of House Staff who also have another job during the day. This is particularly true during the festival, which takes a phenomenal amount of work and dedication from those involved.
The summer festival has a long history. Beginning in Dyffryn Gardens (1983-995) it later moved the The Museum of Welsh Life St Fagans form 1996-2012. From 2013 the festival has moved to the heart of Cardiff, setting up camp in Sophia Gardens. The content of the festival has continued to grow, originally focusing on a family show and a Shakespeare play, it now presents a musical each summer, as well as another play-for the past two years a stage outing for Blackadder.
The content and variety of the festival is vital to the theatrical life of Cardiff for many reasons. Firstly, barring the annual touring Shakespeare production to the castle, only there for a few days usually, there is no open air theatre in Cardiff – something on which the city lags behind when compared to other cultural centres. Everyman have offered summer outdoor theatre for over 20 years, and now are doing so right in the hub of the city centre. Admittedly before the company was able to invest in covered seating for the audience things were a little more hit and miss weather-wise, but Welsh audiences are rarely put off by a bit of rain anyway. The variety of performances on offer also often outstrip the professional theatres.
Secondly, for some years Everyman’s festival has been the only place you could see Shakespeare in Cardiff. Being a family-oriented summer festival, Everyman’s Shakespeare is accessible, fun and engaging and would be an excellent introduction to The Bard for any audience young or old. And while there is no doubt a place in theatre for ‘experimental’ and ‘innovative’ Shakespearean production there is also still a need to present the work ‘Traditionally’- traditional doesn’t have to mean corsets and tights, as this year’s As You Like It showed, updating the setting slightly but remaining true to the text still presents Shakespeare at its best.
Likewise, musical theatre – and affordable musical theatre – is a great thing for audiences to have access to. At Everyman you can see a well-known, often ‘classic’ musical for £15. Down the road at the WMC a musical would make a big dent in £50. And while the debates over theatre tickets and running costs and associated quality is a debate for another day, the truth is lots of people are priced out of the big musicals. Or new audiences are put off. No, at Everyman’s outdoor, limited budget, semi-pro setting you aren’t going to get West-End scale affects, but smoke and flying cars aren’t the thing that make a good musical, it’s the performers themselves that create quality. This year Sweet Charity showed that with a strong cast, excellent musicians and good material you don’t need much at all to make a great night of musical theatre.
Everyman’s festival is clearly important for audiences in Cardiff, and surrounding areas. What it also is important for is those involved. The range of people involved in Everyman’s Festival is wide and varied, and is really significant to an engaged theatre and arts scene in Cardiff. From the young actors, perhaps involved in their first show, who make up the Junior shows, to the front of house volunteers. What Everyman as a company, and most prominently the festival, does is give opportunity for engagement with theatre. On stage it gives a platform for aspiring actors and directors – many of whom have/do act/direct professionally, allowing them to keep showcasing their talent in a tough professional industry. Meanwhile, alongside them are many with no professional aspirations who simply derive great pleasure from performing. For others, as with many community-based organisations, there’s an invaluable social element as well. And it’s not only about those on stage, but alos the backstage crews, from those who do or aspire to do this sort of thing for a living to those who just enjoy a couple of weeks pulling actors in and out of costumes in wardrobe. The festival provides valuable CV-boosting experience, life experience, but also a social and community experience for those involved. In an arts world that seems increasingly closed off and only for professionals, or distant in places like London or Edinburgh, Everyman allows people to engage and create theatre locally and around their lives.
Everyman has been a stalwart of Cardiff theatre for many years – outside of the festival they put on several winter shows a year at venues like Chapter, and hold regular club nights. Their membership is diverse, growing and ever changing, but their output consistent and growing in quality. In producing the largest (only!) summer theatre festival, and in working across professionals and members of the wider community, Everyman is highly significant to Cardiff’s theatrical landscape. Without Everyman the summer months would be a fallow time for theatre in the city, and without the opportunity to engage with theatre-making I think our wider arts scene would also suffer. It’s easy to overlook the smaller companies, particularly so if they lack the fully ‘professional’ seal of approval, but that would be a mistake; as Everyman proved again this year, ‘professional’ is a relative term. Professional, as in high quality, dedicated, artistic, vibrant, inclusive and fun. Those are qualities lots of ‘Professional’ companies would do well to embrace as Everyman do.