Neil Cooper

Things have changed in the thirteen years since Ed Robson was appointed artistic director of Cumbernauld Theatre. Back then, as he observes, Facebook had just started in the UK, Scotland’s arts funding body the Scottish Arts Council had yet to be transformed into the more corporate-sounding Creative Scotland, and Scotland’s theatre community had a thriving touring sector. More significantly, when Robson arrived in Cumbernauld after working with West Lothian Youth Theatre, Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage in Newcastle, he was informed that the organisation he’d just joined was effectively bankrupt.

Rather than walk away from a much loved institution that by then survived largely on tribute band nights, Robson decided to stick it out. Within a couple of years, he was programming work by radical Polish directors and directing a stage version of Iain Banks’ novel, The Wasp Factory. This month’s announcement that Robson is stepping down from his post follows a complete turnaround in the theatre’s fortunes led by Robson. This is most visible in Cumbernauld Theatre’s move from the converted farm cottages that has been the theatre’s home since its inception in the early 1960s, into a brand new multi-form arts centre housed in the campus of the new Cumbernauld Academy.

With the old premises closing on Christmas Eve last year following the final performance of the company’s festive production of Cinderella, Robson left the building on New Year’s Eve. By his own admission, after so long in the job, it was “a bittersweet feeling. Inevitably, after thirteen years of being in a kind of high energy, high commitment job like that, you're always going to miss something.

“On the one hand, I feel like I did everything that I'd set out to do there, and that I'm leaving the theatre in a much stronger position than it was when I took over. But at the same time, there's a bit of me that wishes it was still me that was there, bringing forward ideas for the new building. But the reality is, that, after thirteen years of having run the building, it's really time for a changing of the guard, because, as much as I would love to be the first director of the first show to open the new building, it needs a new vision, a new energy and a new idea.”

Robson leaves behind a legacy that built on the work of his predecessors as artistic director of Cumbernauld Theatre, from John Baraldi to Robert Robson, Liz Carruthers and Simon Sharkey. Like these, Robson put audiences on his own doorstep at the forefront of the theatre’s work. As well as directing his own productions, Robson introduced a company-in-residence scheme, which saw the likes of Tortoise in a Nutshell, SweetScar and Stoirm Og develop new work. He also introduced international artists to Cumbernauld, developing artistic exchanges in ways he is keen to pursue further.

“What I was always trying to do was to build a strong and successful professional theatre in a working class community that responded to those audiences and their interests in terms of the development of community, civic ideas and social space, while all the while making professional theatre with a contemporary edge.”

The best example Robson gives of this is Lipsync, a new play developed in 2019 out of Cumbernauld Theatre’s Invited Guests programme of work developed within the local community, and which told the real life story of the effects of living with a life-threatening condition.

“Lipsync is the kind of work that emerges directly out of the community that you're serving and working with in a way that enables people to tell their stories and put them onstage.”

All of this work could only have been achieved with a hands-on approach from an artistic director, and concerns have already been raised elsewhere that any new regime at Cumbernauld Theatre will take a more managerial approach. After a lucky thirteen years in post, Robson’s achievements alone should kick such misguided notions into touch.

“It sounds really obvious,” Robson says, “but I'd say that the biggest achievement is that Cumbernauld Theatre as an entity still there. That’s a massive thing in its own right. I mean, it was teetering on the edge of just blinking itself out of existence, but now it's transformed itself. That’s not because I've made that happen, but because of all the artists that have worked there, all the administrators, all the people who've worked in marketing and everyone who saw what was possible and bought into making that transformation happen, so we were able to get that done.

“Beyond all that, on a human level, the biggest success is when you just sit there and you see people have a brilliant time watching a piece of drama that that you really believe in, and are sitting there really enjoying themselves. It seems like such a simple thing, but in that moment, you remember why you sit in all the meetings with councillors, and why you sit in all the board meetings and fill in all the forms. You’re doing all of that in order to get to the moment when something extraordinary happens when you can see the audience are connected meaningfully to the work.

“When I started at Cumbernauld Theatre, I wanted to make something that was artistically vibrant and had social purpose, and which was connected to and spoke to its audience in a working class community. Working seven days a week for thirteen years was all worth it, because we were able to save a theatre, build it up again from scratch and return its creative purpose and its social purpose with integrity. That’s been worth every minute.”