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Following their R&D trip to Patagonia in November 2012, Marc Rees and Siân Thomas were commissioned by National Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru to create a multi site performance to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Welsh colony in Patagonia.

In June 2013 they continued developing ideas, visiting locations in Wales and delving deeper into the story of Y Wladfa, who were those pioneers, where did they come from and why did they leave?

In December 2013 they returned to Patagonia, this time taking the writer Roger Williams with them. A second view of a place shows different aspects, a second meeting with new friends brings out more stories, a fresh pair of eyes sees other details. They returned to Wales with greater clarity about how they will tell this epic tale in 2015….

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Yn nol yn y Wladychfa : back in the saddle

Just a little over a year on we are back in Gaiman….if feels good, familiar, comforting like a beloved blanket.

Our first and most essential stop is with Luned and Tegai and we are immediately embraced into their lives once more as though we never left , Luned is amused by my beard and I say that I am a Santa Claus in training which gives her an idea and she skips to her office to send an email. Over lunch we exchange important news and more importantly ‘clecs’ (gossip but not malicious!) . I give them an update on the project (which has changed somewhat) and thankfully they are still keen to assist however they can which is good as their corporation and involvement is now absolutely key. Fabio who lunches with us (Luned’s son and now keeper of the archive) is also a font of all knowledge regarding all things ‘Y Wladfa ‘…. I can’t wait to introduce Roger to them and their enchanting world.

After lunch Luned returns from her office and declares that I have a job to do, that on Friday I will play Sion Corn ( Father Christmas) in the primary school Christmas show …I have visions of Frank Spencer in ‘Some Mothers Do Ave Em’ where the nativity scene ends up with him as the Angel Gabriel being launched through the roof of the church. In preparation for my big role I better eat lots more cake….. mind you in Patagonia that’s not difficult so en route back to Plas y Coed we pit stop to have our first Dulce de Leche ice cream ….well it would be rude not too…and come Friday I don’t want to seen through my Papa Noel disguise!

In the evening we attend the Gawasanaeth Nadolig ( the Christmas Service) at Capel Bethel given by all the Welsh classes from Gaiman and Dolavon that includes a condensed dramatic rendition of the Nativity, complete with towel clad kids as shepherds…. As we sing Tawel Nos (Silent Night) with the sound of the wind blowing through the Poplar trees that surround us I gaze up to see if I can glimpse the Angel Gabriel’s legs dangling through a hole in the corrugated zinc roof …the service is utterly charming and we are privileged to hear Billy Hughes sing ‘Nadolig, pwy a wyr’ (made famous by Ryan Davies) and once again I am bewitched by his dulcet tenor tones….for sure he should be part of our show …his voice is so pure and poignant and somehow sums up the power and pathos of the Paith.

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Beige food, oval balconies and a puff of smoke

Thursday and Friday

Still elated by the joy of discovering our potential PI50 location in Abercwmboi we arrange a meeting in London to discuss the matter, the man it charge is warm and the signs are good ! Fingers et all crossed for Friday.

Following on from our conversation with Chapel guru John who gave us the heads up on the areas earliest Chapels (circa 1865) we head to Trecynon and search for three, we find Bryn Seion and Ebenezer but the oldest Hen Dre Cwrdd eludes us. Bryn Seion is now an English Evangelist church and Ebenezer is in a sorry sate, basically used as a dumping ground by its builder owner, it’s former magnificent facade with beautiful individual rose shaped terra cotta tiles is obscured by stacks of scaff pipes and skips.

During lunch we see a blackboard outside the Pop in Caffi in Aberdare announcing today’s special, new pots with ham and parsley sauce, both Sian and I have a nostalgic hankering for the dish and swing by but it’s beige appearance and bland taste disappoints, Wrights Emporium this ain’t so Sian promises to make it properly one day, I’ll hold her to that.

We head back to Mountain Ash in search of another Chapel ‘Y Noddfa’ (which also features in John’s book ) that really drew my attention. What makes it unusual is that it has a complete, almost oval shaped balcony, most chapels galleries are in the form of a U. On our first visit on Monday I noticed an abandoned chapel opposite the library which had a unique elevated bowed front. I have a feeling that its the same place ( a special exterior as well as interior ) and YES it is. This is it …..the one that I would like the architect’s Estudio BaBO to part replicate and amalgamate with the other three chapels, Salem in Gaiman, Bethel in Trefelin and Capel Celyn beneath the deep waters of Treweryn. But to gain access? I go back to the library to investigate but no one knows the owners but apparently it was a youth club a few years back. God, I only hope that it hasn’t been stripped by some scavenging reclamation company and that it’s distinctive gallery is intact.

I look up at the front elevation, close my eyes and pray to Hestia, the god of architecture.

Friday

In London to discuss the potential use of the Abercwmboi site to stage the show. I’m not going to say with whom just yet as its early days but it was very encouraging and a collaboration with this particular institution would be fantastic.

In the afternoon we meet with Musion 3D, world leaders in holographic projection technology.
The people responsible for the digital resurrection of Tupac singing with Snoop Dog Dog at the Cochella festival a few years back. We speak in depth with Musion’s technical director Ian O’Connell on what’s possible, how to conjure up the spirit of the pioneers but in four sites simultaneously across two continents. It’s basically a more sophisticated version of the old magic illusion ‘Pepper’s Ghost’…smoke and mirrors…exciting !

Truth or Aberdare

Tuesday and Wednesday

We visit the next town of Aberdare where in 1865 a few of its people also left in search of the promised land in Patagonia. We head straight to the library and dive into the Wesleyan world ( and other denominations ) of chapels. Staggeringly, there were a 180 in the Cynon Valley alone at one time.

I imagine that the central part of the PATAGONIA150 scenography will be a porous architectural composite of four actual chapels from each of the locations, therefore a suitable local site needs to be found ( as well as the main location to stage the show !) . I find the perfect book ‘The Chapels of The Cynon Valley’ by John Vernon Jones and the Cynon Valley History Society, its incredibly detailed with original plans, drawings and photos, including a few original corrugated iron clad chapels, one in particular draws my attention known as Zion Zinc.

Sian has her head in another chapel book and discovers that many of the valley dwellers held weekly gatherings in their homes called Noson Weu/ Knitting assemblies, where friends and neighbours would meet to….knit one , purl one and pray.

Clearly faith played a fundamental part in their lives and the chapel an integral role within society as they offered education and comfort and helped people cope with the tough conditions under which they lived and worked. The Chapels were centres of social and cultural life and through Sunday schools many in the community were educated. Chapels also played a part in fighting the bad behaviour found in the towns. A Temperance Movement was also started to stop drunkenness.

I never new this fact but from 1850 onwards Aberdare became a centre of Welsh language printing. Between 1854 and 1865 many printing presses opened and the town boasted
‘What we think today, Wales will think tomorrow’.
Many learned journals and papers were printed in the town. Most of these publications gave a chapel viewpoint on life and politics. From the late 1860’s the publications became more political, as industrial problems become more important in people’s lives. Around 1900 the printing industry began to decline, because fewer people spoke Welsh and religion was less central to everyday life.

Wednesday

A trip to the museum in Aberdare, and we are welcomed by a ‘Yaba dabAbadare’ from the person behind the front desk, it’s a gem of a place which has a great section on William Hager, a local true pioneer of early silent films and the subject of Good Cop Bad Cop’s wonderful performance ‘Phantom Ride’. It also has a great caffi where we meet up with the writer Roger Williams who will create the ‘script’ for PATAGONIA150′. We had an incredibly fruitful collaboration on our last show Tir Sir Gar, so I’m keen for this relationship to continue. We bombard him with the concept thus far and immediately he suggests great ways of how to shape the narrative.

I would like the typical structure of a Chapel service ( of the Congregationalists kind) to somehow dictate the dramaturgical arch of the piece – It’s the faith that moved them, literally.

To discuss this notion further we meet with the author of
‘The Chapels of the Cynon Valley’, John Vernon Jones who gives us a fascinating insight and breakdown of the chapel infrastructure. I’m particularly interested in the Congregationalists as Michael D Jones was a fervent minister of this particular denomination. Actually, I was also christened as one.
This is how John describes them.

‘Congregational (independent)

Individual congregations manage their own affairs with church government ( The Congregational Union). Maintains the right of each gathered community of Christians to govern its own affairs and choose its own minister, independent of outside control . Congregations are governed by principles of congregationalism. System of doctrine and ecclesiastical government in which each congregation is autonomous and self- governing, and maintains bonds of faith with other similar local congregations. ‘

This is fascinating and reaffirms my understanding of how the original settlers managed to survive; that the their Congregationalist methodology and its associated infrastructure held them together, influenced and shaped the community that subsequently formed and in fact still exists today.

On our way home, passing through Abercwmboi, we see a huge building in the distance with a three worded sign in familiar red lettering but in a totally incongruous location …it is indeed a sign, we divert, persuade them to let us in and get given a tour of an amazing space….I think we’ve found our final location….Hallelujah!!!!!!

Athlete’s fate and serendipitous birthday

Monday

The day begins with great news, Sarah Ball has won Welsh Artists of the year, which is fantastic as she will be involved in PATAGONIA150; creating portraits from the stiff studio sittings of the Welsh settlers from the archive that I sawn in Trefelin, these photos are a stark contrast to the images of them toiling and taming the land.

So with this joyous news we head off to Mountain Ash which neither of us had been to before, it resembles and feels like a typical valleys town, a little neglected but still with a fighting spirit and bizarrely an extremely busy ( and a bit smelly) poodle parlour !

Deliberately I’ve not planned the search for a location but want to do it on the ground and ask people on the street, most guide us to The Miners Welfare and a few chapel vestries but their all too small .

In the centre if the town is a statue dedicated to the towns most famous son, Griffith Morgan (1700–1737) or Guto Nyth Bran, a legendary athlete , one wonderful tale has him running from his home to the local town of Pontypridd and back, a total distance of some 7 miles (11 km), before his mother’s kettle had boiled.

Another, perhaps not so famous son of Mountain Ash origin who left for Patagonia was John D Evans who was later to be immortalised in a mythical tale involving a miraculous escape from marauding bandits astride his infamous horse El Malacara . For those of you who haven’t read the story before, here it is in Mike Pearson’s eloquent words .

They penetrated four hundred miles inland, to the foothills of the Andes, spurred on, some would have it, by the promise of gold. And then, on some instinct, they became afraid. They turned for home, riding day and night. The hooves of the horses bled. Two of the men had to be tied into their saddles. Suddenly, at a place now called Valle Los Martires – the Valley of the Martyrs – they were attacked by their pursuers, a vicious, marauding band from Chile. Three were killed with spears, their bodies slit open, their skeletons hacked out and scattered, their severed sex organs stuffed into their mouths.

Miraculously, John D. Evans escaped. He spurred El Malacara across a twenty–foot wide ravine and down a steep scree slope. They made the two hundred miles back to the lower valley in forty hours. Next year, John D. Evans and El Malacara guided the expedition that discovered Cwm Hyfryd. Eventually he became known as Banqueano, ‘a talented leader who is familiar with the life and paths of the plateau’.

Milton told the story with great fervour, lingering over the lurid details and the heroic exploits of John D. Evans. And why not? He was, after all, talking about his father. He also told the story, word for word, to Bruce Chatwin. It’s Chapter 17 in his book ‘In Patagonia’. And to Kyffin Williams, to Tom Vernon and to anyone else with an ear to listen.

Clearly it’s going to be a tough quest to find the right site to stage the show but I’m determined that it should be here as 47 of the people that boarded The Mimosa in 1865 where from Mountain Ash and Aberdare.

Mary Jones, the wife of John Jones who hailed from the town actually gave birth to a son named John aboard The Mimosa, incredibly on June the 11th! God I love serendipity , I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again , when your in the creative zone serendipity plays a critical and wonderful role….Penblwydd Hapus John! Happy Birthday John!

artefacts in absentia

Thursday

Most of the day is taken up by a visit to Technium OpTIC (Opto-electronics Technology and Incubation Centre) a specialist innovation centre based at St Asaph Business Park in North Wales. It supports young science and technology businesses involved in the development of optical and electronic technologies, in partnership with Glyn Dwr University.

We are meeting View Holographics, a world leading provider of 3d imaging holographic solutions, based in North Wales ! We speak in depth with their technical wizard Peter Crosby who straight away simplifies what a hologram actually is. Its a recording not a picture; like a vinyl record which has encoded sound wave information that requires a stylus to read and amplify it, a hologram is similar, not with sound waves but light waves and in order to ‘read’ it you need a replay lamp. I quiz him on all aspects , all creative possibilities. Since the gestation of the project’s concept I have been very keen on incorporating holograms.

In most of my recent site responsive works, archive and artefact are the catalysts, En Residencia, in Gijon, Asturias, Spain began with the gathering of objects/ furniture that were strewn around the abandoned wings, hallways, corridors and classrooms of a former orphanage.

For For Mountain, Sand & Sea, in Barmouth for NTW it was the pictorial archive of the town collated by the community that formed the foundation of the experience . And for my most recent piece Tir Sir Gar for Theatre Genedlaethol I selected 12 artefacts from the collection at Abergwili Museum that related to the project’s principal themes.

These projects invite the audience to engage and interact with spaces and their multi-layered histories in new and memorable ways that are are deeply connected, each deriving from the careful selection of archive, artefact and architectural idiosyncrasies.

I’m hoping that there’s an inventory of the belongings, the possessions that the original settlers took with them on board The Mimosa. I would like to record replicas of these objects via holograms and incorporate them into the scenographic structure of PATAGONIA150 , creating a virtual museum that the audience can discover, a ghostly presence of artefacts in absentia.

I’ve actually seen and touched one authentic artefact, John D Evans’s bible that came from Mountain Ash on The Mimosa which is now in Trefelyn in the Andes. Creating an analog holographic representation of it would of course mean documenting the real thing, therefore bringing the bible back to Wales….. 150 years after it was removed and transported 8000 miles….dychwelyd y Gair i’w grwyddau….returning The Word to its roots.

Corrugated cylinders & Brogue envy

Wednesday

Just outside Corwen we stop to take a look at an unusual chapel that has caught my attention a few times, there’s no door and the inside has been totally gutted, soon to be transformed into a showroom for solar power panels, apparently.

We head towards Rhuthin and the craft centre, I’d never been before , it’s a really impressive set up , we meet its wonderful director Philip Hughes and I immediately have brogue envy , he’s wearing a fabulous two tone pair made in collaboration between Grenson and Barbour, we compare our mutual shoe fetish and I quiz him on his favourite ceramicist ( for another show I’m thinking about ) he is a wealth of knowledge and king of footwear.

We then bump into the effervescent painter Eleri Mills who’s on a residency at the R, she looks fantastic in her double denim get up complete with muji apron and blue clogs. Her latest work is a monochrome mountain-scape on acetate, a moody powerful representation of her Milltir Sgwar in heavy black marks and swipes. She talks about the strong impact of Tir Sir Gar, especially as she’s a farmers daughter, her connection to the land is so deep that it calcifies her bones.

On the way back I am once again drawn to a corrugated iron structure by the side of the road, this time of a cylindrical form , big enough to walk through. I’m bemused as to what it’s purpose could have been, I shout through the tin tunnel and my voice carries down the valley, scaring and scattering sheep.

Its the landscape once again that has affected us the most over the last three days, at dinner overlooking the Mawddach we simply sit, eat and drink in the scenery and meditate over Merlot how to capture and convey its presence via a piece of immersive, visceral theatre.

PATAGONIA150

drowned chapels and shimmering slate

Tuesday

We head off for a spin around the surrounding landscape and whilst passing a huge lake I spot a curiously shaped contemporary like building between the trees and I realise what it is , it’s a memorial chapel for Capel Celyn now submerged at the bottom of the lake, along with the rest of village. In the 60’s a highly controversial action took place, the village inhabitants, all 70 of them were forced to abandoned their homes as the whole valley was going to be drowned via a dam, built in order to provide water for Liverpool.

In 1956, a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was brought before Parliament to develop a water reservoir from the Tryweryn Valley. The development would include the flooding of Capel Celyn. By obtaining authority via an Act of Parliament, Liverpool City Council would not require planning consent from the relevant Welsh local authorities. This, together with the fact that the village was one of the last Welsh-only speaking communities, ensured that the proposals became deeply controversial. Thirty-five out of thirty-six Welsh Members of Parliament (MPs) opposed the bill (the other did not vote), but in 1957 it was passed. The members of the community waged an eight-year effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to prevent the destruction of their homes.

When the valley was flooded in 1965, the village and its buildings, including the post office, the school, and a chapel with cemetery, were all lost. Twelve houses and farms were submerged, and 48 people of the 67 who lived in the valley lost their homes. In all some 800 acres (3.2 km²; 320 ha) of land were submerged. Llyn Celyn, otherwise known as the Tryweryn Reservoir, was formed. Many of the stones from the original chapel were re-used in the construction of the new Memorial Chapel.

This was a forced exodus and the migration to Patagonia a chosen one, there’s a link here,
I can feel it but can’t quite understand it yet , I need to explore it further…..

It’s something about the water and the chapel that’s engulfed in 70 million litres of water.

In 2015 it will be the 50th anniversary of the flooding.

We drive through Ffestiniog, another place where a few of the original settlers came from, but we don’t stop as it is of no immediate interest ….We snake along the horse shoe pass and are overwhelmed by the landscape, we see a sign that says not suitable for semi large vehicles so of course we head on …..at the end if of the road we come across an incredibly lush valley and some of the most idyllic set farms that I’ve ever seen, we venture forth and come to a village called Cwm Pontmachno , with its many rows of tiny terraced cottages…clearly it’s a village built by slate and there we see the majestic grey silhouette of the quarry and its ruins beckoning us, omnipresent to this day.

We climb towards it and it feels like approaching an ancient monument, like Machu Piccho in Peru, Penmachno does after all have a certain antediluvian allure to it.
Normally slate is heavy, flat and dull but today in the vibrant sunshine the metamorphic rock is shining, shimmering, it’s like walking into an amphitheatre with the thousands of audience holding shards of mirror, refracting the light. Once again Mike Pierson’ quote emerges .

However arduous the journey, however unyielding the wagon springs, always take a mirror. For it shows you where you are not, looking back from a world where no sweat bleaches your hat band, where no dust etches your skin, where no relentless roar deafens your ears….

I film Sian standing on the quarry’s edge, holding a small piece of slate and dancing the light back into the lens.

I discover that Penmachno is renowned as the home of Bishop William Morgan (1545–1604), who was one of the leading scholars of his day, having mastered Hebrew in addition to Latin and Greek. He was the first to translate the Bible in its entirety into Welsh.

1. Interior of the derelict chapel at Capel Celyn, 14 November 1963.
2. Bus in Penmachno
3. Local quarry men

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