Get me to the church before the curtain goes up

NEW STAGES: WALES Cardiff theatre companies are rushing to get to church - well, a church turned arts venue, the result of creative vision and business sense. By Sarah Hemming
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Coming to the point took on a new meaning in Cardiff last week, when the city's new arts space opened its doors for the first time. The Point, a handsome church now beautifully refurbished and rechristened, nestles at the heart of the docklands, a mile from the city centre and just minutes from the site of the city's much-debated opera house.

Formerly St Stephen's Church, it ceased functioning in the 1970s, but in its heyday at the beginning of the century it was prosperous and influential. It now seems surprisingly large, given its position, but, as Maggie Russell, the venue's artistic director, points out, it was originally at the heart of a rising industrial society.

"At the turn of the century, Cardiff was one of the busiest ports in the world because of the coal and steel it exported. Because it was a seafaring community, the church was very important - people would go to church before they went to sea. You can tell it was one of the most prosperous churches in Cardiff not just from the size, but from the huge stained glass windows. They saved up and commissioned a new window on a seafaring theme every five years. Two of them are by the William Morris company: they are insured for £75,000 each - they are actually worth more than the building."

It seems appropriate that the church, once at the centre of the port's industrial life (it is only yards away from the mammoth Coal Exchange), should now be part of the regeneration of the area and its new lease of life as a cultural and business community. It flourished for a while in the Seventies as St Stephen's Space, the performance base for the dance company Moving Being, but since then has lain dormant.

Its current rebirth is thanks to a literal marriage between the arts and business. Maggie Russell's partner, Steve Allison, runs Design Stage, a graphic design company currently housed nearby. The company bought the building and, when its conversion is complete, will be based in it. This means that, while Cardiff Bay Development Corporation gave them a grant to do up the building (roughly equivalent to a quarter of the total refurbishment cost of £400,000), no public money is going into its running.

Russell is emphatically positive about this sort of relationship between the arts and business. She points to the fact that the building will constantly be in use, so there will be no need to give it an artificial life during the day, and that encourages a sense of stability. And by putting her instincts boldly into practice she feels that she is making a point about the vitality of the cultural life of Wales.

"Usually, business sponsorship of the arts amounts to giving some money and having your name on the bottom of the poster. I'm very interested in finding ways for the arts to develop their own autonomy. I think we're all clear now that the Arts Council doesn't have the money to really grow. So we have to come up with new strategies so that the arts can survive and flourish."

Russell has tried to retain the character of the church in the restoration. "I wanted to create a simple but very beautiful building for the arts, rather than consigning new theatre and music to a black box above a pub. We've tried to show respect for the building."

Russell has programmed the space for the next six months with a combination of drama, music and performance art. She has chosen companies that have a following so that they face less box-office risk, and will also host business conferences to bump up the income. First in is Made in Wales, a lively and dedicated theatre company that has spent much of its 13-year- long existence touring new work around Wales. It is presenting a season of four new Welsh plays and for Gilly Adams, the company's artistic director, The Point is a godsend.

"It's a glorious opportunity, long-awaited. We badly needed a venue in Cardiff dedicated to new writing, but we had no money ourselves to run a venue. It has meant that we have been able to do a proper season of work for the first time - normally we only ever do one production at a time."

The company launched its season with what could only be described as a baptism of fire - Dic Edwards's Utah Blue, a brooding, provocative play about the American murderer Gary Gilmore and his bizarre interior world. It is a dark, challenging piece, powerfully performed, and by no means the sort of obvious "Welsh" play you might have expected. It will be followed next week by the Welsh premiere of Lucinda Coxon's Waiting at the Water's Edge, which was well-received in London, then a play by Peter Lloyd and an adaptation of Caradoc Evans's 1930s bestseller Nothing to Pay.

"We've chosen four very different plays that represent some of the best new writing in Wales," Adams says.

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