Articles : NTOS

Let's make drama out of a crisis

(Article by Gerda Stevenson, published in Scotland on Sunday, October 5th, 2003. Subject: National Theatre of Scotland.)

I have always supported a Scottish National Theatre, and am delighted to see that it has been given the green light at last. Let's hope that the SNT's structure can evolve into something that is truly mature, creative and energising.

There has been great opposition to the idea of a Scottish National Theatre performance space – partly through the old fear of territorial faction fighting, partly through an understandable reluctance to see huge sums of money being wasted on a prestigious new building, when the money should, of course, be spent on production.

A crucially important element within the production of theatre is the rehearsal space itself. I wonder if our audiences realise that most professional theatre companies in Scotland do not have the benefit of rehearsing in professional theatre spaces. Most of the time we rehearse in inadequate premises, often church and community halls. This inevitably involves working round the perennial schedules of other hall-users: the Scouts, the playgroup or pensioners’ fund-raising event, the twice-weekly aerobics class, the kitchen unavailable at coffee break. Not to mention leaking roofs. This is precisely what Gerry Mulgrew and I had to deal with when we were directing 6 weeks of Communicado research and development workshops earlier this year.

Then there’s the difficulty of rehearsing with the set – it often has to be dismantled to make way for the activities of other groups, stored over-night, and brought out again for rehearsal the next morning. If the hall storage space, or the hall itself isn’t big enough for the set, then the director and designer are frequently forced to compromise their vision.

The same problem applies to some rehearsal spaces within theatre buildings. The height of the rehearsal room at the Tron in Glasgow, for example, bears no relationship whatsoever to that of the Tron theatre itself. When I was directing a production there last year, we literally had to saw off parts of the set so that they would fit into the rehearsal room. They were reconstructed as per the actual design only when we moved into the theatre, during production week. Such a scenario clearly places unacceptable limitations upon the rehearsal process and the final production itself.

The point is that companies like Communicado, Babel, 7:84 etc (and there are so many), don't have rehearsal space. The current SNT model is based on the idea that any theatre company in Scotland qualifies to take part - i.e., to operate under the SNT ‘brand,’ should they be selected by the SNT commissioning panel. The democracy of the model has been much proclaimed by its creators. Of course, the Lyceum, Citizens, Dundee, Pitlochry, Perth etc (all the building-based companies) do have their own rehearsal spaces, which they would use, theoretically at least, to rehearse their SNT brand productions. But they can hardly hire them out to other non-building-based SNT brand companies, when they are are busy using them for their own in-house work. I feel that this model could result in a two-tier system, where the building- based companies win out.

James Boyle, Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, assures us in the Edinburgh Evening News that “there will be no new building and no company assembled. National Theatre productions will be made by the existing theatres and companies of Scotland. This Scottish idea will work because the cash will be put at the heart of things: with the people who know best about play-making.”

He also states in the same article that there will be “a suite of offices…(for a dozen staff) being located in Glasgow…The Scottish Arts Council is already racing ahead with the full backing of the Culture Minister. Scottish stars are shouting support: film stars like Dougray Scott, stage idols like Elaine C Smith, television stars such as Richard Wilson, great directors like Bill Bryden - the list grows by the hour. MAYBE we will see major Scots talents abroad returning for a spell on the stage. Who would want to miss Ewan McGregor and Robbie Coltrane in a new play? And, even better, to see them in your local theatre or college. The National Theatre will, we hope, bring talents like that back to Scottish audiences.”

I share such infectious enthusiasm, but I wonder whether Ewan McGregor and Dougray Scott will be content to rehearse in the accommodation I have described. Scotland can boast a dazzling list of theatre artists, right across the generations – Donald Campbell, Tom Fleming, Donna Franceschild, Zinnie Harris, Kathryn Howden, Russel Hunter, John Kazek, Liz Lochhead, Eileen McCallum, Nicola McCartney, Irene Macdougall, Simon MacKenzie, Gerry Mulgrew, Alison Peebles, Anne-Louise Ross, Domnhall Ruadh, Karen Tennent (to name only a tiny percentage of the rich talent living here – those among us who, as James Boyle says, know best about play-making). Every one of these artists has worked regularly over the decades - with companies such as 7:84, the Scottish Theatre Company, Communicado, Babel and many, many others - in the under-resourced circumstances I have outlined.

It would be beneficial, therefore, in my view, to have a Scottish National Theatre centre, comprising, a large-scale and flexible rehearsal space, video facilities, a café/meeting place, a library/archive, and administration. An education department would be essential. Such a centre would be enormously valuable to Scottish theatre artists – a gathering place, which, far from being divisive, would draw together the richly diverse aspects of contemporary Scottish theatre and its history. The Scottish Theatre Archive (containing a wealth of Scottish dramatic literature) could be housed there, along with, for example, a permanent exhibition of the late Sean Hudson’s superb production photographs – a unique record of Scotland’s late 20th Century theatre history. Many theatre companies in Scotland hold video recordings of their productions. Copies could be gathered into a fascinating Scottish National Theatre Video Archive. The Scottish National Theatre centre would also provide a welcome focus for international collaborators.

This should not be a great big plush, showcase building – it should be a pleasing, functional place: non-bureaucratic, practitioner-based, and entirely conducive to creativity. In line with the current Scottish National Theatre model, this proposed Scottish National Theatre centre would not require a performance space - productions would be taken to the citizens of Scotland and to audiences abroad, performed in a variety of environments, both traditional and non-traditional.

SNT productions should be created from all of the following areas:

  • existing Scottish dramatic repertoire
  • European and world drama
  • Gaelic drama, literary and oral
  • Scotland’s minority cultures
  • commissioning new work

This Scottish National Theatre would be genuinely devoted to the development of Scottish theatre. It would provide a focus for our finest theatre artists. It would provide them with the resources to explore and extend their imagination and technique, resulting in world-class theatre. In other words, a confident expression, a sense of ourselves as citizens of Scotland, working in collaboration with fellow-artists from the international theatre community.

Gerda Stevenson, 18th September, 2003.

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