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.