Joyce McMillan: Cuts mean Traverse rethink needed

Creative Scotland has cut the Traverse's budget by 11 per cent. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Creative Scotland has cut the Traverse's budget by 11 per cent. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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The consequences of last week’s huge three-year funding announcement by Creative Scotland will take months, or even years, to emerge in full; it was, after all, one of the largest and most complex acts of reassessment ever seen in Scottish arts funding.

At first glance, though, one of its most striking features is its handling of the four or five theatre organisations in Scotland specifically dedicated to the promotion of new work, and the encouragement of playwriting. These are not the only companies which present new work, of course; from Grid Iron in the east to Vanishing Point in the west, there’s hardly a theatre company in Scotland which doesn’t play some role in commissioning playwrights or creating new work.

Yet there are five major regularly funded organisations – the Traverse, the Tron, the Arches, the Playwright’s Studio Scotland, and the Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime theatre – which have had a primary role in fostering new writing and new theatre-makers; and in this funding round, it’s striking that while the other four of those organisations have won headline grant increases ranging from 14 to 48 per cent, with A Play, A Pie and A Pint funded for the first time to the tune of £150,000 a year, the Traverse Theatre has suffered an 11 per cent cut, reducing its current grant of almost £1 million a year to just over £860,000.

Now I don’t wish, here, to second-guess the many reasons why Creative Scotland might have made this decision; they range from a historic bias towards Edinburgh in Scottish arts funding – now perhaps being corrected – to the fact that the Traverse is still, even after the cut, the wealthiest of all Scotland’s companies dedicated to new work.

What is disturbing about this move, though, is that none of those other four companies is in a position to fulfil the role the Traverse has historically played, of presenting 
full-scale, full-length, and fully-staged productions of anything up to eight new plays by Scottish-based writers each year; a role which has guaranteed the Traverse’s global fame as one of the world’s leading new writing theatres, and – in the view of the National Theatre of Scotland’s first director Vicky Featherstone – formed the absolute creative bedrock on which Scotland’s 21st century theatre life is based. The Tron, for example, now has an increasingly eclectic programme, in which new work often features in the form of readings.The Arches is dedicated to a range of short-form experimental work, although it has played a key role in developing the latest generation of playwrights, led by Kieran Hurley and Rob Drummond. And a Play, A Pie And A Pint produces short lunchtime theatre, with 35 new 50-minute plays a year rehearsed very quickly, and presented on shoestring budgets.

It therefore seems essential, despite this funding cut, that the Traverse and those who value it should reassert the theatre’s role as Scotland’s essential producer of full-length new plays, the theatre that offers writers a clear next step once they have developed beyond the 50-minute or script-in-hand format. The Traverse itself – which has been presenting a great deal of short-form and script-in-hand work recently – perhaps needs to refocus more intensely on its distinctive role as a world-class presenter of full-length new plays, aiming to double its current tally of around four new full-length Traverse productions each year.

And as for the theatre’s future – well, given the clear national role the Traverse has played over the last 40 years, it is possible that it might now sit more comfortably in the “national companies” group funded directly by the Scottish Government. As the theatre that has given Scotland generations of new playwrights, from John Byrne to Sue Glover, David Greig, and beyond, the Traverse is clearly a national asset to be cherished. And although the theatre will doubtless survive this cut, it is an asset that should be expanding and flourishing; rather than dealing with the depressing possibility of decline.