It doesn't seem so long ago that we met in an empty and run-down school in Canton, Cardiff to talk about the future of an arts centre there. There was myself, writer Tony Curtis and someone from the Chapter team then. I recall wondering how those ordinary and fading Primary classrooms could possibly be transformed into the vision which existed for them. Yet that transformation has been remarkable.
At a time when cuts are rife and the Welsh Arts Council have dramatically and inexplicably wielded the axe to lop off many of Wales's finest theatre-in-education companies, such as Gwent Theatre and Spectacle ( with many others under severe threat); at such a time, it's so heartening to hear positive news from Merthyr that our old Town Hall (sold by a Labour Council in the past for £1.00) is set to become an arts centre eventually ,if things go as planned.
This historic building lapsed into dereliction for years, after it was a night-club closed down for all the dubious events and noise on the streets at throwing out time. It should be a highly suitable venue, if car-parking can be found. Even more optimistically, the people behind Chapter want to run the place.
The only problem is that Merthyr will soon have two theatres anyway: one at the College and one at the former Soar Chapel, due to be opened next June. A theatre may not be needed at the arts centre, but a cinema showing the kind of films shown at present in Chapter is essential, despite our new cinema complex at Rhydycar. We also need gallery space and a bar where people can perform ( poets, singer-songwriters and bands), along the lines at the 'Stute at Blackwood.
Of course, workshops and studios should be central to the arts centre just as they are in Chapter. Our last arts centre at Bethesda Chapel closed over 20 years ago and workshops in photography and pottery were important there. Bethesda was run wholly by volunteers and not supported by the Labour Council, who decided to take it over and run it as a Job Club. Sounds much like the utilitarianism of the present ConDems!
Chapter has always been a special place to read. One of my first major readings in Wales was there, when I supported Harri Webb and I replaced newsreader and presenter Vincent Kane ( the Kane fans were polite in their disappointment!).
I've read there many times since: at a Valleys v. Cardiff Poetry Slam, when 'we woz robbed' because one of the Kairdiff crew appointed all his mates as judges; and, one of the best Red Poets gigs was there, when we couldn't fit the audience into the side bar and I think they sat in layers!
I have used the cinema in Chapter a lot more than the theatre over the years and seen many foreign language films and others on limited release, which no other venue would show. Nowadays, I'm found more often in the bar and restaurant, sampling the delights of the real ales and veggie specials. Merthyr needs such a bar and eating-place, as it's as bad for veggies as France at the moment.
At a time when the cuts are widespread and the future's looking bleak for so many, we do need to create alternatives, ones where creativity and imagination thrive. Merthyr deserves this: there is so much talent here and I appreciate that a building isn't everything, but bringing people together can only improve the town.
This poem is from 'Moor Music' and celebrates the imagination -
'Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.'
No equation for imagination -
upon the stars
in a single grain
what shapes are fashioned there
no-one can claim
by deed or sign
the two heads of the atom
whose skulls are melded
the embrace of a bird
whose energy rings the world
space never to be walled
with mind of God
into discovery of doubt
a bed of dust
but always, always
the infinite layers