Balancing risk and responsibility: roles of the National Theatre of Scotland

Jean Monti's balancing act on Glasgow Green: from Stuart Chalmer's Flickr photostream

The National Theatre of Scotland, a theatre without walls, is widely admired and sometimes envied amongst theatre communities across the globe because of its operating model.  Unfettered by bricks and mortar, NToS is truly national, partnering, performing and playing in all sorts of venues across Scotland, from the epic settings of the great Scottish outdoors and the village halls to the focus of the proscenium arch.  It verily reaches the parts that other national theatres rarely reach with an even hand unattainable by building based theatres whose touring work will always be seen as second best, out-reached from the centre.

The model for NToS was conceived by the Scottish theatre community, recognising the needs of a nation emerging from a period when much Scottish contemporary culture was filtered though a UK lens. Culture defines a nation and the post –devolution Scottish nation needed a contemporary  creative national theatre through which to explore political and social issues and to present Scotland’s theatrical creativity to the world.  The model enshrined the principle of  mutuality between NToS and the rest of the theatre community and was constructed so as not displace or sabotage the existing producing houses as well as being national. 

The model has changed from the original concept as the inagural team has breathed life into it, animated it and created a company of which Scotland is proud. Its been a brilliant success in many ways.  As the company approaches its 5th birthday, its time to look not only at the areas where it has exceeded expectations, but also to look at where it hasn’t.

NToS has been a great success national and internationally with its programme of work and its education and community activities.  As an artistically-led company, it is bold in its decisions which inform the choice of programme and the aesthetic of the company.  The quality of the work and the clear style exemplified by the work of the NToS’s star director John Tiffany, has established the international reputation of the company. The current team’s approach to risk is breath-taking, not only taking the essential risks on producing new work in new ways in new places, but also, on several occasions, exponentially increasing the risk of success or flop by presenting untested plays and creative teams in the full glare of the Edinburgh Festival.

Hopes and expectations that the company would take some responsibility for articulating and interrogating the ‘collective memory’  of theatre, or for exploring the Scottish canon, have not been met and NToS is clear that that is not a responsibility they wish to shoulder. Perhaps the weight of responsibility of such a role is entwined in the more traditional models of national theatres.

But the role is critical for Scotland and its theatre as a whole.  An attitude which views plays as single-use disposal commodities reflects a lack of care and confidence which ill befits Scotland now .  The plays written and produced in Scotland over the last forty years in particular include many good and some better plays exploring the political and social journey of Scotland towards independence; some pick up threads from earlier work, some were great fun, some were poorly-served by their first (and last) production.  Most of them are unpublished and many forgotten.  At a discussion hosted by the Playwrights’ Studio last week, Peter Arnott explained that students were able to study his play White Rose because a lecturer had found a photocopy.  Not true for many of the other plays produced largely by the Traverse in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  

So its good to see that the PlayResource will begin to catalogue these plays.  We need to organise and to fully consider and comment on what might be called the Scottish canon.  The Irish Playography contains a complete listing of plays since 1904 and most plays are downloadable – just what we need in Scotland.

And the enterprising APA – Aberdeen Performing Arts, seeing the gap in the market for productions of adaptations of popular Scottish novels which many expected NToS to fill, has remounted its successful productions of Sunset Song and the Silver Darlings this year at the Festival Fringe.

If NToS does not need to take on these weighty responsibilities, it should nevertheless shoulder some responsibility at these time of crunch and reduced funds by playing on its strengths and meeting specific needs. With its considerable artistic talents and resources, it should help out the ailing Citizens’ Theatre after the resignation of Jeremy Raison who had the impossible task of taking over from Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.  This triumvirate led the Citz for three decades and established the Citz as a world leading theatrical brand which audiences loved and trusted. Like John McGrath and 7:84, Havergal and co took huge theatrical risks and took their audiences with them.  A regeneration of the Citz will require such radical departures.  The Theatre is reportedly expecting that it will take a year to appoint a new director.

In the meantime, NToS should step in and produce a season of plays at the Citz.  The season could include some plays from the potential Scottish canon at all scales in the various auditoria.  The sheer creative quality which NToS brings would ensure the best productions.  The programming of a season would allow space for connections to be made between works and also a programme of debate and discussion.  And the temporary home would allow NToS to try out ideas in spaces more sheltered than the Edinburgh Festival.

Like so many things NToS does, this idea was not a notion in the original model for NToS. But it would bring big theatrical benefits for the Scottish theatre community as a whole.

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