The Arts: A Stage for Everyone

28 December 2020

Stories are told everywhere but not everyone's story is being told, especially in our art form, where the majority of performed operas have historically focused on the stories of those in power and present a limited view of the world. Welsh National Opera is aware of the restricted opportunity this presents. This Autumn Season was supposed to include the premiere of our new commission Migrations which has been postponed until 2021 due to Coronavirus. This is a hugely ambitious opera involving six writers from diverse backgrounds coming together to tell a series of interweaving stories about migration throughout history.

Here we speak to one of the Migrations writers, Sarah Woods, who has created the video, Speaking for Change as part of our Creating Change online series, on how she thinks, the arts can, and should represent a cross section of people, reflecting communities, and allowing people to see themselves but also other people.

She explains ‘The author Philip Pullman says: ‘After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’ It sounds unlikely – until we think about the effects stories have on our lives. Not just the ones we might read in books, but those we absorb from the media and the conversations we have with those around us. Stories can change everything: how we feel, who we think we are, what we think is possible in the world.

They can communicate important ideas and information that might otherwise be alienating, too complex, or might cause people to switch off; and can help transform difficult, complex information into something understandable that we can act on.

We’ve all had the experience where a story someone tells us about another person changes our opinion of them and how we feel about them. The stories we tell as societies do this on a massive scale. Often dominant narratives, carried almost invisibly in a society, reinforce prejudices about certain groups of people. What we see on stage is exactly the same. As artists we have a responsibility to interrogate our work and ensure we’re making a positive contribution to the stories society is telling.

In Shakespeare’s play of his name, Hamlet says that the purpose of playing is, ‘To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’. I think this is still a pretty accurate description of the role of the arts in society. Our job as artists is to ask: What needs revealing? What do we need to hold that mirror up to?

The arts are a place where all sorts of stories can be told. Which stories are told and who they’re told by are really important. In addition, all of us who are privileged enough to hold any sort of space in the artistic world, physical or otherwise, have a duty to open that space and to help hold it well - and to give it away to others too. We also have to identify and resist ‘perfectly logical explanations’ that point out why things can’t change or that change is too difficult.

I think it’s really important for the arts to reveal and challenge the dominant narratives of our time. Knowing that the story we’re living is one of many, that there are choices in terms of the stories we tell and the actions we take enables change to happen. I also think that at a time of massive inequality and rising intolerance, the arts can tell stories that challenge these growing narratives, to explore what part we play in that and how we might be culpable.’