Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Scottish Theatre - a practitioner's view

This article is intended to give a practitioner’s view of Scottish theatre as is exists at the moment.

This article is intended to give a practitioner’s view of Scottish theatre as is exists at the moment. I shall try to give an overview of the issues facing us at the moment, and particularly give some background information on what is currently the biggest issue under discussion – the National Theatre.

It might be useful to begin with an overview: as in Wales, there are three main branches: building-based producing theatres, receiving theatres and touring companies. The building-based producing theatres are mostly located in the major towns and cities: the Royal Lyceum and the Traverse in Edinburgh, the Tron and the Citizens’ in Glasgow, the reps in Perth and Dundee, and the seasonal Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Perthshire. There are currently five SAC revenue funded touring companies: Suspect Culture, TAG, 7:84, Borderline and Boilerhouse (there are supposed to be six, but Archipelago, the re-named Communicado, ceased trading last year and the money has been divided up between the remainder until the franchises run out next year). New franchises have just been announced to run from next year – all the present franchise-holders with the exception of Boilerhouse will be guaranteed funding for a further three years and are joined by Stellar Quines, a new writing company with a particular interest in female writers, and Wee Stories, a children’s theatre company. Boilerhouse is to move to an as yet undetermined new source of funding. Other companies funded (sometimes) on a project by project basis include lookOUT, Grid Iron, Magnetic North, Visible Fictions, Catherine Wheels, Vanishing Point, KtC, Benchtours and Theatre Babel. Additionally there are many small, unfunded companies. Some of the building-based companies also tour (the Traverse has a very successful and long-standing Highlands and Islands tour each year, and Dundee Rep has recently ventured into touring). There are also companies like Theatre Cryptic and NVA who receive money from both the Drama and Cross Arts departments at SAC. The receiving venues fall into two categories: those who only programme touring work (like the Festival Theatre and King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, the King’s in Glasgow and Eden Court in Inverness) and those who also co-produce with touring companies (Tramway in Glasgow, MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling and The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen).

That’s the background, I shall now try and outline some of the issues currently facing Scottish theatre. Not surprisingly, the main issue is money: Ian Brown (formerly Drama Director at the Arts Council of England, now at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh) told me five years ago that he estimated Scottish theatres have historically existed on something like 75% of the levels of their English counterparts (and that was before the Boyden report). That situation has not changed. One result is a steady drain of talent to television, film and “down south” (as anywhere south of the border is referred to). The other is a funding log-jam – as the bigger companies have seen their funding remain at stand-still or even decrease, so the opportunities for freelance directors diminish; these directors become frustrated at the lack of work and set up their own companies. These companies try to get funding, but because there is such a limited amount available throughout the system there is little provision for new companies to get a foot on the funding ladder. With money for only six or seven revenue-funded companies (and that amount is really only enough for three or four) companies get stuck on project funding for years and years, which stunts their development.

The result of this log-jam is a stasis in development. The only solution is to dramatically increase the money available so that the established companies can fulfil their potential and new companies can start to develop theirs.

The lottery has had a mixed effect: there have been some wonderful refurbishments (such as the Tron and Tramway), and Dundee Rep is at the end of the second year of its three years with a permanent ensemble of 15 actors. But there have also been negatives – the Tron now has a wonderfully refurbished theatre but the last Artistic Director left when it became apparent that there would continue to be only enough funding for one new production a year – ironically, her last production (a co-production with the Royal National Theatre) was hugely successful. The Traverse has seen a steady decline in the number of new productions it is able to mount (down to four in the last financial year), and the Citizens’ went dark for three months to save money.

But, the level of work being produced often belies the levels of funding. Scotland is fortunate to have two drama schools (the RSAMD and Queen Margaret) producing talented actors (some of whom will stay and work for low wages in Scotland) and some of the work being produced on often negligible levels of funding is excellent (and some of it is bloody awful).

Which brings us to the big subject of the moment, and one which I know is also in issue in Wales – the National Theatre. This topic has been under discussion for years, but has always been beset by the usual arguments – do we really need one? where should it be? who should run it? One compromise agreed a few years ago was that companies would all brand themselves as “part of Scotland’s national theatre community.” A worthy idea, but not one that appeals to politicians as they don’t have a nice new building to point to as evidence of their commitment to The Arts. So, enter devolved government and the Scottish parliament decides to look into the matter. The result is a fairly radical plan for a National Theatre and several million quid to do it with. Drinks all round and let’s toast the government. Perhaps.

The process whereby the proposed model for the National Theatre came about is interesting. The Scottish Executive developed a National Cultural Strategy in which it proposed a National Theatre. The Federation of Scottish Theatre (which represents the majority of Scottish theatre companies) and the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) put together an independent working group to come up with a proposal, and they developed the idea of a “commissioning producer” model. The plan is broadly this: to make it as flexible as possible, the theatre will act in the manner of a festival producer, so it won’t exist in any one place, will not always work on one scale and will draw on all the theatre artists in Scotland. So in one year it could be producing a large scale musical in Inverness, a two hander in Edinburgh, Chekhov in Dumfries etc etc, all with budgets that mean the work can be done really well.

After a consultation day, to which all theatre companies and artists were invited, the working group modified the proposal to take out small-scale touring from the equation. This was because there was a great deal of concern expressed that small-scale touring could be unwittingly destroyed by the arrival of a well-funded super-company - how would Small Theatre Company Ltd, with no full time staff, receiving project funding of 35,000, paying Equity minimum, struggling to get dates for a tour that will fulfil SAC criteria, hope to compete with a company that will be funded to pay actors 400 a week and have production budgets of 10-15K? The other effect of the consultation has been a realisation by the SAC that they need to get the infrastructure sorted out first. As a result, they have put in a proposal for a fairly major uplift in the core funding they receive from the Executive.

The possibilities for the future of Scottish theatre are therefore suddenly quite exciting, although the reality is probably rather more prosaic than the SAC’s recent rather purple-prosed press release implies. For many practitioners, things won’t really get easier, but at least there is a feeling that government is starting to place more value on the arts. But everything depends on several ifs: if the Executive accepts SAC’s submission for more money, if the National Theatre really is funded properly, if the proposed uplift in funding is the start of retrenchment rather than a one-off, then we probably can look forward to a period of genuinely interesting development in the scope and ambition of theatre in Scotland.

What colleagues of mine in Wales often comment on is the perceived difference in attitudes of the two Arts Councils. We all tend to moan about the SAC, but they are, on the whole, supportive of the work being done, and there has certainly been nothing like the calamities that seem to have befallen the ACW in the last few years.

If there is a difference between Wales and Scotland, I don’t believe that its all to do with funding and funding bodies - there’s also the matter of geography. Edinburgh is 400 miles from London, Cardiff is only 150 miles and a two hour train journey (Great Western permitting). Crudely speaking, Scotland doesn’t particularly give a fuck about London because it doesn’t need to. This has been helped by strong links to the continent. From the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1948, through the opening of Tramway when Glasgow was European City of Culture in 1990, Scottish audiences and artists have been able to see truly great international work on a regular basis. During the 1990s there was a steady stream of Peter Brook’s productions that only came to Scotland, and work by the big boys of international theatre like Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, Peter Stein and Robert Lepage has been seen far more regularly here than in London. This has bred a degree of intentional confidence in some Scottish artists about their work – companies like Suspect Culture, Theatre Cryptic and Visible Fictions spend a lot of time touring abroad. The success of writers like David Harrower and David Grieg in Europe and events such as the Traverse Theatre’s Colours of the Chameleon project in 1998 have also helped generate a sense of Europeanism. The model for Hamish Glen’s permanent ensemble at Dundee was the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg rather than the RSC.

An issue that will be interesting to watch (particularly in relation to the National Theatre) is that of language. Unlike in Wales, where the development of Welsh language theatre, film and television has been profound in the last thirty years, Gaelic-language work is still very low profile. The majority of central-belt inhabitants are only dimly aware of its existence, and it has certainly not become a political issue in the way that the Welsh language has. As an issue, Gaelic has not made the quantum leap out of the Western Isles and into mainstream consciousness and doesn’t show any signs of doing so in any profound way. Instead, the issue of language has been more to do with what might be called vernacular Scots (although that label is highly contentious). Scots is tremendously rich and evocative, but there has been much debate about whether it is a language or a dialect, and what the value of its use is: some see its use as a tool of expressive freedom, others as an automatically self-limiting means of condemning work to no life outside Scotland. To some, the choice of language is a political statement, to others, a matter of appropriateness to a theme. Plays like Liz Lochhead’s Perfect Days and Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places have been produced very successfully in England despite their apparent Scottishness because they addressed themes that an audience could relate to even if they didn’t get all the references.

So, at the start of a new millennium, where is Scottish theatre going? None of us has the answer (if we did, we’d already be there) but as long as searching for it seems worthwhile I suppose we’ll all keep on trying. To paraphrase Beckett – try, fail, try again, fail better.

Nicholas Bone
October 2001

[Nicholas Bone is a Scottish-based theatre and opera director and is Artistic Director of Magnetic North Theatre Productions. Recent productions include The Dream Train (Magnetic North), Skunk Hour (lookOUT Theatre), Territory of the Heart (Theatr y Byd) and Hansel and Gretel (Welsh College of Music and Drama). For more information on Magnetic North visit www.magneticnorth.org.uk ]

author:Nicholas Bone

original source: Commissioned article
01 October 2001

 

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