Janek Alexander, who died in April following infection by coronavirus, made an immense, immeasurable contribution to the cultural life of Wales. During a 30-year career at Chapter in Canton he was instrumental in transforming it into one of Europe’s major arts centres and Cardiff’s vital epicentre of creativity, innovation, idiosyncracy, experimentalism and intellect. Without Chapter, the midwife of so much of Cardiff’s cultural output for nearly 50 years, Cardiff today would scarcely have a contemporary arts scene at all. It is impossible to overstate its importance – and so much of the credit for this goes to Janek Alexander and his extraordinary vision, determination and leadership.
Cardiff born-and-bred, Janek grew up in leafy Llanisien, the son of a Welsh mother who worked in the NHS and a Polish electrician – one of many Poles who settled in Wales during WW2. By his teens he was already a fiercely intelligent and effortlessly perceptive non-conformist. An abiding love of theatre was incubated at Llanover Hall youth arts centre, opened in 1969 in Romilly Road, Canton. After studying philosophy at Warwick University he returned to Cardiff to pursue that passion. Through the 1970s he developed into a consummate artist, writing and producing a stream of inventive, memorable works, many featuring his own music – works that are now ripe for rediscovery and revival. As an expert theatrical practitioner and an avant-garde pioneer – and a local to boot – he and Chapter were made for each other; and he duly became Chapter’s theatre programmer in 1981.
Chapter was already the focal point of experimental, leftfield art in Cardiff when Janek joined. It had been founded in 1971 by painters Christine Kinsey and Bryan Jones and journalist Mik Flood (1949-2019). Frustrated by the lack of facilities in Cardiff – no exhibition spaces for a range of art, no affordable studio and performance spaces – and certain that neither the notoriously provincial and middle-brow civic leaders nor the remote, anglocentric Welsh Office would ever take the initiative, they took action themselves. After years of fundraising, the 1907 Canton High School buildings on Market Road (badly bombed in WW2 then vacated in 1963 when the school moved to Fairwater) were turned into a centre where all the creative disciplines could be housed. From the outset, there was none of the old colonial attitude which caused generations of extraordinary Welsh talent to be shockingly ignored and marginalised, either because London-centred received opinion didn’t know they existed, or because indigenous artists staying in Wales instead of crossing the border to ‘make it’ were dismissed as ‘narrow’ or ‘parochial’. Rather, Chapter asserted the relevance and talent of the many artistic communities in Wales and thrust them into international contexts with great self-belief. Janek Alexander built on this foundation, while his brilliant theatrical sensibility brought extra scope, weight, innovation and surprises to Chapter’s growing reputation. His unstinting support and counter-intuitive mentoring of fresh, radical voices became crucial to the rise of important new companies such as Brith Gof, Earthfall, Volcano and Y Cwmni in a flowering of theatre the likes of which Wales had never experienced before.
In 1996 he became director of Chapter and for the next 15 years he cemented and enhanced its reputation as one of Europe’s most important arts centres, whether as venue, workshop, commissioner or inspiration. Meanwhile, he led a £3.8 million refurbishment programme, completed in 2009, that gave Chapter the top-class facilities it deserved, including a new frontage on Market Place, an increased capacity main theatre in the old school hall and the addition of two small studio theatres. And all this was accomplished without ever straying from Chapter’s multidisciplinary, audience-stretching approach, without ever selling out to corporate appropriation, without ever settling for ‘cultural quarter’ smugness and complacency, and always remaining true to the prime mission of its hippy founders: originality.
What’s more, sublimely oblivious to the constricting shackles of Britain’s perennially xenophobic cultural gatekeepers, Janek by-passed the oppressive UK and connected Chapter and Wales directly to the wide world of culture in a host of mutually enriching international relationships. In so doing, he placed Chapter in the vanguard of Cardiff’s most important and least heralded transformation of the last 25 years: from cringing ‘British’ cultural nonentity denouncing and denying its Welshness, its one and only distinction, to self-confident, proudly Welsh cultural hot-bed, increasingly aware that unless we address our own community nobody else will, and it is that very self-exploration which attracts others to engage with Wales.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2002, Janek’s deteriorating health forced him to retire in 2011. He handed over the Chapter reins to Andy Eagle and moved into the final phase of his life, cared for by his partner Maxine Brown. The terrible disorder of the central nervous system gradually took hold and, ultimately, it was the Parkinson’s disease which made him particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. It’s a sad, cruel world.
Janek Alexander was an authentic home-grown Cardiff hero. He made a difference. No more pain now, no more suffering, farewell comrade to a life well lived.