The Strange Hiatus of the NTS’ Heart

The-cast-of-National-Theater-of-Scotland’s-production-of-BLACK-WATCH.-Photo-by-Pavel-Antonov.It’s over 2 months since National Theatre of Scotland Artistic Director Laurie Sansom announced he was leaving. Since then, there has been a strange hiatus. No word whatsoever from the NTS board about replacing Laurie, no post advertised, no temporary replacement or even explanation of a new policy or strategy. All I’ve heard is a rumour that the board of the NTS is considering not having an Artistic Director at all. What on earth is going on ?

I’m sure I’m one of many asking the same question. Shouldn’t an organisation which receives something in the region of £4.5 million of public money annually be giving the public some idea about it’s plans for a new leadership ?

Laurie has led the NTS for only two-and-a-half years. The circumstances of his departure remain mysterious, though I can’t say I’m surprised that he didn’t hang around for very long. His appointment, for me, was also somewhat strange. He had very little experience of Scotland before he arrived and perhaps the experience he did gain in the three years since the announcement of his appointment led him to conclude that Scotland just isn’t for him. Why should it be ? He was clever enough, and experienced enough in his field to get the job, a decent budget to play with and build his career, and several good productions have been presented during his tenure. I think that, at least at the beginning, he must have felt a strong commitment to developing our national theatre and mining our stories, histories and artists, the seams of talent and culture which inform and help to define who and what we are in today’s Scotland. But, for whatever reason, that commitment has faded and off he goes.

I’m sure I’m one of many asking the same question. Shouldn’t an organisation which receives something in the region of £4.5 million of public money annually be giving the public some idea about it’s plans for a new leadership ?

He recently warned of new government funding cuts and some have taken this expectation of his as the reason for his leaving. The Scottish Government certainly has very little room for manoeuvre with its purse strings still pulled by Westminster, by and large, but there is absolutely no need, or justification for cuts in funding to the NTS, or the arts in general. I am writing this from Denmark, where my company, Dogstar, has just completed its rehearsal period with our new co-production, Mungo Park – Travels in the Interior of Africa. Denmark has almost the same population as Scotland and is, of course, a developed nation like ours. Its government sees fit to support its National Theatre with nearly TEN TIMES the amount the NTS gets. It clearly finds ways to afford that, and a far more generous dispensation across the board for the arts than any British or Scottish government has ever dreamed of. That is an active choice based on a fundamental respect and understanding for the arts and its value in a civilised society. While I think that Fiona Hyslop and her government do have an understanding that the arts are a good thing, and have protected the arts in Scotland from the naked philistinism which has seen something in the region of a 35% cut in English Arts Council funding, we remain in a society which has a very limited understanding of just how positive and necessary art is for all of us. Art is generally perceived as a luxury, the icing on the cake, an indulgence, the province of a bunch of arty-farty wankers who want a free ride, not a serious occupation, something you do as a hobby. And the gatekeepers of our artistic life, the culture departments, TV companies, funding bodies, boards of our national companies do little to alter this perception.

I have never been part of the NTS. Dogstar has proposed 7 or 8 projects to the management of the NTS since 2006, all but one of which were rejected. The one which former Associate Director John Tiffany did offer to co-produce with us was our biggest hit, The Tailor of Inverness, which has now played over 260 times in 11 countries. But John wanted that in 2007 for the Highland Year of Culture (and I expect just to tour in the Highlands). The play wasn’t ready then and when it was, early in 2008, John changed his mind, citing a fear of being seen to favour one director too much (Ben Harrison, who was developing another idea with NTS at the time). This was an odd decision if you consider that several other artists have been been given numerous opportunities by the NTS. Perhaps John and his colleagues regretted it when the show started receiving all its plaudits and became as big an international success, albeit on a smaller scale, as Black Watch, though when I suggested to the NTS that it work with Dogstar on further international exploitation of The Tailor a few years ago, I received warm words and nothing else.

I wonder if my experience of the NTS is an example of a fear of working class intellectualism which I think lies at the heart of our cultural establishment; a fear of art which is not afraid to be both experimental and accessible, which can tackle the most challenging of concepts while taking the piss out of itself, which can simultaneously be unashamedly emotional, absurd, historically conscious and serious. Such art exists, of course, and when it manages to emerge, it is often the most successful – look at Brecht and Shakespeare ! Too often in Scotland it’s one or the other, esoteric or broad, art for the posh or art for the plebs. But it’s the posh who get to play with the toys of art the most and thank the lord that some of these people, Dominic Hill, AD of the Citizens Theatre, being one of the best examples in Scotland, understand the power of marrying the intellectual with the accessible. This is the professionally made art that people need and deserve. I hope that the NTS board has the sense to ensure that it forms a new artistic leadership which will start to mine our artistic seams more deeply than has been achieved to date. In order to do that, the NTS needs a person or persons who are not going to use it simply as a stepping stone on the road to international stardom, but who will fully embrace and speak with and for Scotland.

Comments (7)

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  1. Jamesay says:

    Interesting article, with some cogent thoughts (sadly some of which will be interpreted by the “arterati” as smelling of sour grapes.
    1. Scotland has NO ONE and I mean NO ONE in parliament with any knowledge of or aspiration to defend The Arts – and I include the Arts Minister and Lady McC (head of the pension filling and patronisingly named Glasgow Life). The working knowledge of The Arts amongst ALL MSPs (as well as the head of Creative Scotland, alongside most of the Boards of Scottish Opera, The NTS and other institutions funded by the Scottish tax payer) could be typed up on one side of a sheet of A4.
    The last head of NTS set up protectionist work ethic and her mark lingers!
    2. You are spot on about the polarising of Arts here – it is either posh (opera, ballet) or community based (seen as having little intellectual value). And heaven forfend any creatives that step in and try to integrate the worlds of Jerzy Grotowski or say Stanislavksi and apply them to any narrative performed by a small theatre company or one of the nationals.
    3. I disagree about The Citz – I stopped going years ago when a. casting and directing went down the tubes and b. the sales of snacks and drinks (can’t people wait until the interval?) became prized over creating a focused environment for performers and audiences to respect one another in and be a collective part of something special. If I wanted to be interrupted by late comers and have hot coffee spilled on me, or hear people crunching wrappers or snacks, I could go to the multi-plex cinemas where the performances wont be affected by disrespectful behaviour encouraged by the management.
    4. Critics in Scotland don’t get out often enough, and I mean outside Scotland. Hence their “diet” is homespun and poor as they have little reference point on their compass for BAD. They seem keenly focused on describing everything Scottish using superlatives – whilst such patronising support may seem “kind” it is simply “couthy” and only offers a disservice to both the audience as well as the ignorant funding bodies who seem to believe everything they read in parochial Herald or Scotsman.
    5. Fully agree with your sentiment re the view that the Arts are a luxury – Vannessa Redgrave said it was a social service – and we ALL know the value for mental health that it brings.
    6. Finally, agree again, whoever gets the role at NTS must NOT be someone viewing this as a stepping stone or CV buider to international stardom. Scotland has long been the playground for such asset strippers (in fact I’d go as far as to say that most of our top arts institutions, including the NTS, get used as such – and are allowed to be used by such by the cluster f*ck that is the combination of a parliament stuffed with people who have no connection to The Arts, and don’t even attend anything (thus fear The Arts) and the sycophants and aspirationals (who really only want their names on headed notepaper and some free tickets) on the Boards that appoint ADs, conductors, Chief Execs and heads of Arts companies.

    Until there are
    a. Parliamentarians that appreciate, attend !!! and understand a variety of Arts, from Shakespeare, Burns, dance, opera, the symphony, children’s theatre as well as sculpture, painting and panto
    b. Scottish companies appoint Chief Execs and Artistic Directors who understand Scotland and her audience’s cultural background, psyche and education
    then NOTHING is likely to change!

  2. Andimac says:

    At the outset, let me say that I think the arts – all of them – are of prime importance. My life has been, and continues to be, enriched by them. I don’t think that’s how many (most?) politicians see it: there aren’t really any votes in it. As for “fear of working class intellectualism” – does working class intellectualism actually exist? How much real interest in the arts, particularly in drama and specifically experimental work, is there among the “working class”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rubbishing such work and I’m not saying that “working people” are philistine, but I think that they need to be exposed to such work, in the belief/hope that they can appreciate it, enjoy it and want more of it. If we wait for Creative Scotland, MSPs, NTS, et al., to fund and promote it, I can’t see it happening. Somehow or other, the arts need to be taken to the people to engender and foster the interest that will make them grow. I know that the argument will be, “But where’s the money to come from?” and I know I don’t have the answer(s). Perhaps we need a body/coalition of arts practitioners, rather than apparatchiks of the “cultural establishment”, to formulate and take forward a strategy for making the arts truly accessible. I heartily concur that the arts are not a luxury – they are an absolute necessity and it’s imperative that they are inclusive. I’m sorry that this comment reads so negatively, but I seriously doubt that looking to Government or the cultural establishment for improvement will be of much use – unfortunately.

  3. Fay Kennedy. says:

    As an outsider. Glaswegian heritage living in Australia am envious of what Scotland does achieve in its cultural output but of course it should be a given that the arts are an imperative to create a healthy society. To flourish it needs cross germination between high and low brow to put it simply. But it has to start early. Parents who are literate and teachers of the highest standard must be the foundation. That’s where mine began and so grateful for that foundation. Unfortunately many working class folk never have the opportunity to discover their own culture for its flooded with the mediocrity of popular entertainment which is a model for economic outputs. Most of our so called classics were written by the working classes or people who lived their life among them. The class system will never be subverted while the only folk who are welcome at the table are careerists, experts, fund managers and all the others who have no idea what it is to be cultured for they don’t have the time or the inclination too busy scanning spread sheets and bites of information which is usually meaningless even to those poor misbegotten who have to write it up and who keep the so called universities turning out the MBA graduates like a plague upon us. Reading and learning to think is all it takes but of course that it’s just too simple a concept for most simpletons. The gift of language is our greatest gift and its our human right to have to have the resources to use it to build a healthier society where progress and inclusiveness are a given. That may be a utopian notion but as Oscar Wilde every story must have an element of utopia within it. And as our own Bard wisely said ‘Oh did some power the gift die us Tae see ourselves as others see us’ for that is what art does it lets us see our selves which is unfortunately a major blind spot in the political and technocratic environment.

  4. Martin Lyngbo says:

    Writing this from Denmark, where I just worked with Matthew Zajac on the play he mentions in the article:

    The debate around the role of the AD is very much alive in Scandinavian theatre as it seems to be the case in Scotland. We have theatres with a Business Manager as number 2, as the person at the top, or sharing top leadership with the AD.

    My views are clear on this: the Artistic Director must be at the top. Because that is the only way the organization can be continuously reformed from an artistic viewpoint, something all art institutions need to be. Any other way the organization freezes in one production form or the other creating an ongoing flow of productions being done in the same way and therefore being the same way as the ones before.

    After Brexit we in Scandinavia hope to see Scottish cultural life as a part of the ongoing discussion about art in Scandinavia. Come on over.

  5. Matthew Zajac says:

    Thanks to Jamesay, Andimac and Fay for taking the time to comment. Do not despair ! Things can change, and do change. And good art is being made all the time. Perhaps it’s wrong to predicate “intellectualism” with “working class”, perhaps the intellectual is the intellectual, whatever its origin, but I make the distinction because, sadly, we still live in a society blighted by class divisions. Just think about this: arts and culture funding, including that for libraries and galleries etc., from the public purse amounts to around 1% of total public expenditure in Scandinavia and Germany. It is around 0.5% in the UK. Imagine the difference a doubling of the money going into our artists, galleries and theatres would make ! It’s a political choice, the money is there.

    1. James Alexander says:

      Thanks Matthew – power to your elbow and your argument. Keep up the good work. Kind regards
      Jamesay

  6. Josef O Luain says:

    One week later, six comments, all from “insiders” – says it all really.

    As an old stagehand who was never afraid to level the charge of cultural-imperialism at occasionally haughty colleagues from touring productions, I made the connection between political and cultural independence a long time ago.

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