The hidden cost of project-only funding is a loss of creativity
It was founded back in 1974, in the heady days when John McGrath’s 7:84 Scotland was still on tour with its first production, and when Wildcat was barely even a twinkle in David MacLennan’s eye. Like those companies, it was born of an age of radical community theatre, when a generation of artists dedicated themselves to bringing theatre out of its red plush, middle class ghetto; and like them, it faded out of fashion, as British governments and funding bodies gradually became more suspicious, and less supportive, of that kind of thinking.
Borderline Theatre Company, though, was always subtly different from 7:84 and Wildcat, less explicitly political, and more strongly based in the local community of Ayrshire; it was founded at the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine in 1974, and has always been based in Irvine and Ayr. So although the company finally lost its regular Scottish Arts Council funding in 2006, it has somehow survived, while other touring companies of the same vintage have faded away. Today, Borderline is based at the newly-reopened Gaiety Theatre in Ayr; and last week in Kilmarnock, the company launched its 40th anniversary tour of David Harrower’s beautiful double monologue A Slow Air, directed by Harrower himself.
In classic Borderline style, A Slow Air is now heading off on a 19-date tour across Scotland. Yet there’s no denying that the tiny hand-to-mouth organisation through which the company operates today – based entirely on single-project funding – is a pale shadow of the Borderline Theatre Company of the 1980s, which could afford four or five permanent staff including an artistic director and a trainee assistant director. Back then – under the leadership of its legendary general manager Eddie Jackson, who ran the company for 35 years from the mid-70s – the company employed stars like Bill Paterson, Robbie Coltrane, Phyllis Logan and Elaine C Smith, staged three or four shows a year, and became famous for its inspired and rowdy productions of the works of Dario Fo. It also commissioned a generation of Scottish writers, from Billy Connolly to John Byrne; and as Eddie Jackson points out, it became a vital training-ground for young directors and stage-managers.
The Borderline story reminds us of some of the hidden and not-so-hidden costs of the shift from revenue funding of touring companies, and towards project-only funding, which has marked recent policy at Creative Scotland. The reasons for that shift are well known; they lie in a hostile culture of micro-management of public spending that has become endemic in Britain since the 1980s.
In the arts though, that culture not only undermines organisations which play a vital role training and supporting theatre workers, but also takes away a vital layer of artistic freedom and diversity, as small companies lose the modest permanent base that gives them the space to make their own decisions. “Creative Scotland as quasi artistic director for the whole of Scotland, is that right?” said one unhappy artist to me last week. And although Creative Scotland is bound to make artistic decisions on project funding, what is clear is that by reducing the number of regularly-funded touring companies, and relying increasingly on project funding, Creative Scotland makes itself ever more vulnerable to accusations of seeking to control and direct the work of artists, and of cutting out alternative centres of artistic decision-making.
So let’s wish Borderline a happy 40th birthday; and let’s congratulate the company on a wonderful anniversary production. A fine way to honour the occasion, though, would be to restore the modest £250,000 a year or so that would make Borderline into a full-blooded company again; and to do the same for three or four other touring companies around Scotland, who belong to a great tradition of theatre in this country, and who deserve more support, more security, and the creative room to breathe that produces the best, most unexpected, and most thrilling work.
A Slow Air is on tour until 24 May, www.borderlinetheatre.co.uk