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Black Watch lit touchpaper for Scottish shows abroad

Scottish theatre is enjoying its place in the sun as never before.

ON TOUR: David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been performed at the Welsh Centre, Kings Cross, London. Picture: Johna Persson
ON TOUR: David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been performed at the Welsh Centre, Kings Cross, London. Picture: Johna Persson

Just as practically every play produced in Ireland these past 40 years has been picked up in London, Paris and New York, so Scottish plays and productions are now sought after by festivals and theatres around the world.

The great push came with National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) and their seminal production Black Watch, which has only recently been rested after seven years of global touring. It has been replaced by the superb Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart now travelling across continents, while David Greig's other NTS play, Dunsinane, is in the middle of a Russian and Far Eastern trip.

Scottish theatre certainly looked outward before the arrival of NTS. The Traverse, Citizens, Communicado, The Tron and others had taken Scottish work abroad over the years. Matthew Lenton's Vanishing Point was originated with an international concept of theatre-making and from Invisible Man onwards they have been crossing borders. However, the NTS juggernaut has significantly raised the profile and swept other companies and artists along in its wake. Current travellers, often but not exclusively under the NTS banner, include Cora Bissett, Vox Motus, Rob Drummond, David Leddy's Fire Exit, Visible Fictions, ThickSkin, and many more. Tron Theatre Company's Ulysses will be touring to four cities in China next year after a leading Beijing theatre director saw the show in Edinburgh last summer and has invited us over. I can't imagine that 10 years ago this international visitor would have sought out such a Scottish production performing in a new and relatively unknown Fringe venue.

This is a good news story but one which presents a massive contrast with the poor state of touring theatre around Scotland at the moment. It's quite clear that the cultural landscape of theatre has changed markedly over the years and it's something worth reflecting on. When I started my directing career at Edinburgh's Theatre Workshop in the early 1980s there were four touring companies - 7.84, Wildcat, Borderline, and Tag. Then, following several years of award-winning productions, Communicado became the fifth member of the club. Apart from the provincial repertory theatres and the Traverse, these touring companies became the bedrock of Scottish theatre, each with its own strong audience base and each constantly crisscrossing the country with shows filling decent-sized town and city theatres together with village and community halls in the most remote locations. Then, in the early nineties, other companies were allowed access to the funding coffers and a significant new wave of Scottish companies emerged, many with attitude. Benchtours drew on their Parisian experience under Philippe Gaulier, Boilerhouse infiltrated the house music club scene, with Grid Iron it was site specific, Theatre Babel the classics, Stella Quines women's theatre, and Suspect Culture questioning theatrical form itself. By the end of the decade, most of them were funded with some relative security and were committed to working in Scotland. They lacked the populist base of the old guard, but were certainly more artistically diverse. In this millennium they were joined by the likes of Vox Motus, Vanishing Point, and Random Accomplice - the next wave of Scottish touring theatre makers had arrived.

All that came to an abrupt end around 2009 when most of these companies had their funding cut or removed altogether. Some pointed the finger at NTS, who were established a few years earlier and who, by embracing touring work, had given Scottish Arts Council the excuse to do some cost-cutting. There may be some truth in that; the argument that NTS would only add to the existing framework rather than replace sections of it was always a bit naive in my view. On the other hand, our national company was clearly entitled and indeed expected to take its work around the country, even at the expense of those who failed to compete with the same production values or quality of work.

There is also no doubt that many of these axed companies had reached their sell-by date and the time had come to make way for a new generation in the long line of Scottish touring theatre.

Except that the line now seems to have ended, even if there are companies still out there. Mull Theatre - now called Comar - travels constantly around small venues and others will tour when they manage to win a project grant. The ever brilliant Communicado still takes work on the road when funding permits. However, the cream of Scotland's emerging talent has largely chosen to ignore this career path. To a degree it's to do with the global opportunities I mentioned at the start; it's also about being able to stage work in one venue rather than take it around Scotland. And there is nothing wrong with that. Devising a show to be packed into a Luton van and play the intimate Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine, as well as the relative vastness of Eden Court requires a skill-set all of its own, compared with focusing on one performance space.

Nowadays there seems to be a range of new avenues and work opportunities for young directors and 'auteurs', whereas before, the only chance to direct was to establish a new company and apply for a touring grant. It is also increasingly hard to book a tour round Scotland. Those who still do complain of the growing number of cash-strapped venues unwilling to take the risk or pay the fees - the funding levels for touring stays the same but the costs have risen and the income reduced. In addition, there has clearly been a breakdown in the audience infrastructure, resulting from less frequent and less consistent visits by touring companies. As a result, a significant part of Scotland's theatre ecology has vanished.

In 2008 I took charge of the Tron in Glasgow, which had traditionally devoted large parts of its programme to high quality Scottish companies who knew their audience and could comfortably fill a middle scale venue like ours. I soon realised that the situation had changed. There were still companies to programme, but not in the strategic manner of the past and with no dependability on what new shows might emerge. As a producing theatre we have been willing and able to respond proactively by staging more of our own work, inventing new ways to use our performance spaces, and collaborating with other theatres to maintain a strong creative programme. However, receiving theatres up and down the land, many refurbished in recent years to provide the best facilities thanks to Lottery capital grants, now stand empty for lengthy periods or have abandoned drama as part of their series of events.

I'm not advocating a return to the past. Scottish theatre right now is represented by an extremely inventive and dynamic group of artists, and the emerging ones in particular are producing new ways of working with an extraordinary drive and purpose. It should be added that Creative Scotland does fund a large number of companies to tour work each year. However, these tend to be shorter runs to the smaller venues. It is not a problem of Creative Scotland's making but one I know they are aware of - and with their own financial constraints to deal with.

It could also be argued that building theatre audiences is made harder when the focus is mainly on new and experimental work to the exclusion of the populist and the mainstream - and that is a difficult conundrum. It may just be that I'm an unrepentant romantic. I still believe there's something exciting about a theatre troupe coming to town, spending a few days playing and engaging with the community before moving on. It can even be magical.

Still, there's an exception to every rule. One of Scotland's leading theatre innovators, Kieran Hurley, toured his show Rantin around small community venues the length and breadth of the country. A wonderfully engaging exploration of Scottish identity through storytelling and song, Hurley told The Herald: "I started thinking of Rantin as a kind of ceilidh play and 7:84's The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil became a reference point." In the words of Justin Randall Timberlake: "What goes around..comes around."

Andy Arnold is the artistic director of Glasgow's Tron Theatre, where the annual season of political theatre, Mayfesto, runs from May 6 to 31. The National Theatre of Scotland production of David Greig's Dunsinane tours to China and Taiwan from April 22

Milestones in touring theatre

l The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil - The show that kick-started Scotland's 1970s touring theatre boom, this politically charged ceilidh play put John McGrath's 7:84 company on the map. Combining live music with satirical sketches, it toured Scotland throughout 1973 and 1974. A televised version for the BBC's Play For Today showed the audience watching in a village hall.

l The Steamie - 7:84 offshoot Wildcat toured the land with a multitude of musical theatre shows, with Tony Roper's fond portrayal of four women using a public wash-house in 1950s Glasgow on Hogmanay becoming a modern classic.

l Trumpets And Raspberries / Mistero Buffo - Ayrshire-based Borderline Theatre is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with a production of David Harrower's play A Slow Air. It was the work of Italian Dario Fo, directed by Morag Fullerton with Robbie Coltrane on stage, that made the company's name. Fo himself visited Trumpets And Raspberries during the show's Edinburgh run.

l Decky Does A Bronco - Grid Iron has blazed a trail of site-specific theatre since 1996. This outdoor piece marked the professional playwriting debut of Douglas Maxwell, and saw the company tour swing parks and gardens across the UK, no matter what the weather.

l Black Watch and The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart - Two very different shows by the National Theatre of Scotland seemed to channel 7:84's mix of styles. Both have toured the world.

NEIL COOPER

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