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The council that wants to chop its arts budget to zero

It’s Thursday afternoon and Forres town hall is booming.

A gaggle of mainly middle-aged faces bellow from behind a series of grotesque masks. Their chests are puffed out, feet spread wide as they strut and shuffle from side to side. Limbs are arched and crooked, like medieval praying mantises.

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In the middle of it all is Steffano Guizzi from Milan, directing this absurd traffic. “Whatever you do, keep the mask alive,” he reminds them. They continue to fill the high domed room with uproarious, staged laughter.

This is the third day of a class about Comedia dell’arte, the Italian Renaissance theatrical style typified by exaggerated movements; the birthplace of modern comedy. The class is run by Charioteer Theatre, based in Moray, where of late there has been little to laugh about when it comes to the arts.

Moray Council is the first Scottish local authority to propose cutting its entire arts budget. Classes like this one could become a thing of the past.

Pensioner Diana Brockbank takes off her mask. “There is no way cutting this would be anything but sad,” she said. “It allows me to do these things that were denied me when I was younger. Kids in school need this sort of thing.”

The council needs to save £18million-£31m over the next four years. It has published a series of proposals and put them out for public consultation, a period which ends on Thursday. The budget will be published in February.

Amid the expected talk of slashing bus services and closing swimming pools lies the radical idea of ceasing all arts funding. This would mean the end of the £112,000 budget given to arts development, the removal of £48,000 given to village halls and arts organisations, and the demise of a cultural development service worth £17,000.

Culture is traditionally seen as a soft target. And with the arts escaping the Holyrood budget cuts with only minor bruising local authorities may view them as having more fat to cut than other areas. Somerset Council became the first to do it south of the Border. Now Moray is the first to see how palatable it is with Scottish voters.

“It’s just short-sighted and unimaginative,” said Clare Waddington, Charioteer Theatre’s project director, in her office in Findhorn. “It says the cultural and emotional health of the people is bottom of the priority list.”

Ten years ago there was only one professional theatre company in the area, Out of the Darkness, which works with people with learning difficulties. Now there are at least eight -- Moray boasts the highest concentration of theatre companies in the Highlands.

Waddington credits the council’s arts development department with this boom. Her own company, which raised its first curtain in 2005, has created an international platform for classical theatre. Charioteer’s founder Laura Pasetti splits her time between Forres and the Piccolo Theatre in Milan and brings teachers such as Guizzi to Moray to impart classical theatre forms. It has also sent productions to tour Italy.

None of this would have been possible without the support of the council, Pasetti says. “These cuts will have a huge effect,” she says. “Our existence is threatened.”

Organisations like Charioteer do not depend solely on the council for money, relying on an intricate network of organisations, funders, and artists that the council’s arts team has established.

One key plank in Moray is North East Arts Touring (Neat). Formed in 1985, it guarantees shows touring in Moray, Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Angus against loss, thereby making shows in village halls and more experimental work more viable. Moray Council puts in £6000 annually.

If arts funding is cut, it will also mean that world-class troupes like the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has toured twice in Moray, would be unlikely to return -- they would have no-one to liaise with to arrange performances.

Caroline Aston, Neat co-ordinator, said: “All the local authorities put money in, so I don’t know if we could give the same level of service to Moray if it doesn’t contribute.”

 

Universal Hall, in the centre of the Findhorn Community, the commune on the Moray Firth, is one of the region’s main venues.

Its artistic director, Peter Vallance, said works for children would be the biggest loss: “With kids’ theatre you can’t charge much, so you always lose money. That’s why Neat is so vital … If children in Moray didn’t see theatre, their whole culture would be X Factor, which would limit their cultural horizons.”

Five minutes walk across the grounds of the Findhorn Community brings you to the Moray Arts Centre. Scott Byrne, its head of education, echoes Vallance’s concern -- the cuts will mean there will be no budget to bring school groups to the centre to experience works like the epic groans and booms of the current installation by BBC sound engineer Chris Watson, who recorded the inside of a glacier, or the recent exhibition of sketches from Renaissance Italy.

Byrne said: “It will be a sad state of affairs if this went on for, say, five years. That would be a whole generation who never accessed what we have to offer. It’s important to show them that you don’t need to travel to London or Paris for great art, that it is accessible.”

Council spokesman Peter Jones said: “In our consultation we are asking all the people of Moray what they are prepared to tolerate in terms of cuts to preserve vital services. The choices are not as black and white as the arts versus care for the elderly, but people are being asked what’s important to them.”

Karl Jay-Lewin, artistic director of dance group Bodysurf Scotland, said: “Some people are already on the edge. So if the council does cut the money, it will be like a domino effect. ‘How am I going to keep on doing it?’ It’s a question people are asking. I am reliant on that network. Maybe Moray is no longer a viable place to be.”

  MORAY FACTS

Population: 87,800.

Area: 864 square miles, Scotland’s eighth biggest local authority.

Main towns: Elgin, Forres, Lossiemouth.

Council politics: Independent/Conservative coalition.

Industry: With Walkers Shortbread and the Speyside whisky distilleries in the area, food and drink makes up 20% of £1.2billion local economy.

History: Macbeth, king of Scotland from 1040, was born in Moray. Local folklore says that Sueno’s Stone in Forres marks the crossroads where he met the three witches.

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