Torch Theatre’s artistic director Peter Doran: ‘We’re looking outwards. Our work resonates beyond Wales’
The Torch Theatre has been servicing west Wales and further afield with classic and new theatre for 40 years. Artistic director Peter Doran talks to Steph Power about playing in Milford Haven, Dubai and New York
Perched above the harbour at Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, is a small theatre that for four decades has been seen as its own haven for arts lovers living at the westernmost edge of Wales.
Near a port more associated with industry than creative endeavour as the ‘energy capital of the UK’, Torch Theatre is one of three, venue-based producing theatre companies in Wales, alongside Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold.
The Torch welcomed its first visitors in April 1977, as a multipurpose arts venue open seven days a week. That autumn, under inaugural artistic director Graham Watkins, a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking was followed by the official opener, Robert Furnival’s specially commissioned Nelson and Emma.
The two plays established the company’s ongoing remit: to combine classic drama with lesser-known and new works fielding actors of the highest possible calibre.
Productions would appear alongside dance performances, art exhibitions, cinema and popular Christmas shows, with at least one production sent on tour every two years to Welsh venues and beyond.
Over the decades, through a shrewd mix of in-house and visiting productions, the Torch has survived the vicissitudes of often precarious local and national economics to punch well above its weight in Wales, and has built a reputation that stretches across the UK.
It has built a loyal audience in Milford Haven. Peter Doran, artistic director of 20 years, says: “We’ve not just kept the theatre open for 40 years but we’ve continued producing our own work and touring it abroad. It’s amazing. Milford has a population of 14,000. Obviously our catchment area is wider. But two-thirds of that – if you draw a circle around us – is sea.”
The theatre was the brainchild of Pembrokeshire County Council, supported by the Welsh Arts Council (now Arts Council Wales) and others – including the Amoco Corporation, owners of the now defunct Milford Oil Refinery. That came on-stream in 1973, the year work began on the theatre.
Designed by a local jazz-loving architect, Beaumont ‘Monty’ Minter, the original building has an auditorium of 297 seats. In subsequent years, there were grumbles within the county that the larger, more central town of Haverfordwest would have been a more sensible location for a theatre.
Nonetheless, in 2008, a £5.6 million extension and refurbishment cemented the venue’s popularity, with an added 102-seat studio theatre attracting further audiences alongside a gallery space, restaurant and bar.
“It’s the industrial part of Pembrokeshire, but that’s brought opportunities,” says Doran. “For about seven years on the trot we took our Christmas show to Dubai, simply because of connections with the oil industry. So it opened a few doors.”
5 things you need to know about Torch
1. The name and logo of Torch Theatre was inspired by Amoco’s logo. Owners of the Milford Haven Refinery, the oil giants were key donors in the company’s early years.
2. Torch has proved a beacon for Welsh theatre. Arts Council Wales has granted funding for a light installation on its flytower, which will make this literally true, looking out to sea.
3. Peter Doran acted in the first production at Torch Theatre in November 1977: Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking. He survived being hanged on stage every night to become artistic director in 1998.
4. Doran first staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Torch’s 25th anniversary over objections that it was not “appropriate” for a celebration. It remains the most popular play in the company’s repertoire.
5. In 40 years of producing theatre at Torch, the company is proud to have always paid actors at a rate above the Equity minimum.
Today, funding comes principally from ACW and Pembrokeshire County Council, with further assistance from Milford Haven Town Council (£430,000, £100,000, and £9,000 respectively a year). From the beginning, a youth theatre was also established and now caters for some 75 young people aged between seven and above.
A minimum of two new in-house productions run every year for 18 days each. With these and a large range of other shows and activities, the theatre welcomes up to 100,000 people annually.
In 2016, 12,000 people alone saw the Torch Theatre Company’s Sleeping Beauty pantomime, while in this 2017 anniversary season, a celebratory revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest broke box office records and prompted standing ovations at each of its performances during the run of more than two weeks.
Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s US novel was directed by Doran. He first mounted the play at Torch for its 25th anniversary in 2002. “I arrived here at the 21st anniversary, so within four years we were celebrating our 25th. I suggested Cuckoo’s Nest, and people questioned whether that was appropriate for a celebration,” he says.
“But I’d acted in the play years ago and I know audiences love it. So the board allowed me to go ahead and it was terrific.”
When deciding how to celebrate the theatre’s 40th anniversary, the theatre asked its audiences which production they would like to see again. The answer was, overwhelmingly, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Doran says: “It’s a big cast for us; we normally do shows of a maximum seven or eight actors and this was 13. But if you work long and hard enough there are ways of doing things – and the response has been phenomenal.”
The artistic director’s association with Torch goes back to its beginnings in 1977, when he was fresh out of drama school and living nearby.
“I auditioned and became their first acting assistant stage manager, appearing in Relatively Speaking,” he says. “Actually, Robert Furnival brought his family to the first night of Nelson and Emma – and a few years later I married his youngest daughter. So the Torch has been very significant in my life.”
In any small community, connections run deep. For Doran, “that’s the joy of being resident in a town, because you build a community feeling and they’re proud of their theatre company”.
Thanks to another local connection, and Wales’ famously patriotic diaspora, a recent landmark Torch commission will soon take the company into exciting unknown territory: Off-Broadway in New York next March, following a home revival production and tour.
The play is very Welsh. Owen Thomas’ 2015 one-man drama, Grav, charts the life of Welsh rugby player and cultural icon Ray Gravell, whose untimely death occurred 10 years ago this autumn.
Written with his widow’s approval, and contributions from Welsh and British and Irish Lions team mates, the show triumphed at home and on tour, winning a prestigious Laurel Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 and the audience award at the 2015 Wales Theatre Awards.
Doran says: “There’s a massive Welsh community in New York. The ball got rolling thanks to the owners of the only Welsh restaurant there, the Sunken Hundred in Brooklyn – who happen to come from Milford Haven.”
Gareth John Bale is reprising his solo role, directed by Doran, and events will take place at the restaurant ahead of performances at the Actors Theatre Workshop in Manhattan on March 16 and 17. A Crowdfund appeal has been launched to help with costs.
Stepping back at this point of celebration to consider 40 years of Torch and 20 years at the helm, Doran is proud of what’s been achieved and is excited about the future of theatre in Wales.
“Colleagues in England are taking Welsh work more readily than they used to and that can only be a good thing; from having looked inwards a lot, now we are looking outwards, having the confidence to stand alongside others in the wider marketplace.”
He adds: “We’ve pulled off some incredibly ambitious shows – there’s an appetite within this region for good drama and as long as our funders support us, we’ll keep creating it.”
Profile: Torch Theatre Company
Artistic director and chief executive: Peter Doran
Number of performances per year: 1,000
Audience figures: 100,000 per year
Number of employees: 13 full-time, 10 part-time, nine casual staff: equating to 21 full-time equivalents
Number of members: Torch is a member of UK Theatre
Torch loyalty members: 80
Torch board members: 12
Turnover: £1.5 million per year
Annual funding levels: Arts Council Wales: £430,000; Pembrokeshire County Council: £100,000; Milford Haven Town Council: £9,000
Key contact: Peter Doran (artistic director and chief executive)
Dick Whittington, which runs from December 19-30, will be Torch Theatre Company’s 172nd production and its 37th Christmas show
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