The theatre, the theatre- what’s happened to the theatre?

Kaitlin Dryburgh

It’s that time of year where there is a slight lull. The good weather is most definitely gone, and we start to turn our attention to the festive period. Scottish theatre is no different. As the weeks creep by the theatre industry prepares for their busiest period, from the city pantomime to the local theatre group, all will be rehearsing and bracing themselves for December.

Scotland is a theatre loving nation, in a usual year around 40% of all households will visit at least once. Community and local theatre has always been a part of our make-up with around 100 operating theatres throughout the country, which historically would have been a lot higher number.

When it comes to pantomime the love is still very much there. Estimated to generate around £60 million each year throughout the UK they are an important part of the theatre world but also a tradition that most of us still enjoy, even if they do originate from the 18th century. To a point it is the most popular form of Scottish theatre and although the concept of the pantomime originates in England, the Scots have made their mark on the art form. It’s an important aspect of any theatre’s calendar, both on a financial aspect and the fact that this may be the first time many will be visiting a theatre, for either children or grown-ups. It therefore presents an opportunity for the performing arts to attract some new supporters. It’s become a trend of the bigger pantomime productions to feature well known personalities in the hope of selling even more tickets, the likes of Elaine C Smith, Alan McHurgh and Gary Tank Commander are sure to attract the crowds.

Unfortunately, the Scottish theatre scene has faced some challenges in recent times and the longevity and its ability to survive has very much been called into question. A recent report released earlier this year, aptly named The Disappearing Act investigated the current challenges faced by the industry. This was commissioned by the six most prominent independent theatre companies across Scotland.

There were some obvious and stark issues that Scotland needs to address. To start with there has been a consistent trend of underfunding and cuts. Even before Covid hit, theatres and the arts weren’t receiving sufficient funding, however the recovery after Covid was slow going and has left a considerable hole to contend with. Adding to this increased building costs, energy costs and the looming tapering down of such initiatives such as the Theatre Tax Relief scheme will make the industry further vulnerable in years to come. Although it was found that 40% of households will enjoy theatre through-out a year perhaps shockingly only 15% of that will originate in Scotland. Which profoundly demonstrates the lack of homegrown investment in Scotland. Adding to that we also have problems with finding and retaining the skilled staff to make this sector run smoothly.

This landscape is in stark contrast to the fact that Scotland hosts one of the most renowned arts festivals. It seems that the profit and successes are obviously not benefiting Scotland and there is a case that profit extraction is arguably taking place. How can Scotland both host a world famous theatre and arts festival, yet also be pushing its own independent theatre industry to the brink, the two don’t quite add up.

Yet that’s not to say that Scotland hasn’t produced some acclaimed work among the theatrics. Just this year one of Scotland’s most well-known plays ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil’ was recognised with a prestigious award in acknowledgement of it’s influence on Scottish theatre. The play which was originally written in the 70’s tells the story of Scotland’s modern economic history, covering everything from the Highland Clearances to the North Sea oil boom.

So what are the solutions to solidifying a sustainable Scottish theatre industry? Well there was one glaring recommendation that this report set out. Collaborative working. All six theatre companies are experiencing the same problems and by pulling resources for the likes of talent acquisition, marketing, and skills there could be a successful collective approach to addressing problems. This would result in a more federal approach to theatre production in Scotland, which to some unions is not the most ideal solution. Additionally, the report found that in order to address the lack of Scottish theatre work there could be a push for all six theatre companies to work with larger and more commercial performing arts company to create Scottish based work that would not only tour Scotland but the rest of the UK and perhaps even further afield. Although there are difficulties that Scottish theatre need to face it seems that the industry is being proactive in overcoming them.

Other ways in which the industry is hoping to encourage homegrown talent includes news that the Scottish Society of Playwrights will be handing out 10 bursaries in the form of £4000, mentoring and support to ten new or established playwrights. However, the industry cannot plug the hole themselves and although Humza Yousaf has pledged £100 million for the arts over the next five years, will this still be enough to ensure Scottish artists have a future?

The performing arts on a local level provides us with an opportunity to escape, learn, enjoy ourselves and participate. For the local performing groups dotted around Scotland it’s an opportunity to do something that you love. Advisor for the Community Drama Association Carole Williams put’s it best “These groups are places to be your true self”. We needn’t look any further than Ignite Theatre when examining the power of local performing groups. Their free weekly workshops based in Glasgow provide children and young people who are often facing some very real challenges such as poverty, living in care, discrimination or being a refugee in an unfamiliar country a supported environment to be creative. Actress Marlene Madenge who went on to star in the show Waterloo Road was a young child when she came to Scotland from Congo, it was through this theatre group that she began to feel comfortable in a language that was new to her and provide a space for her to escape her home-life that was sometimes hard.

Scotland’s theatre landscape will have to adapt with the times, but we cannot forget the importance of the creative arts and the reasons we should invest in it. It has the ability to change lives and enrich so many others.

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