Joyce McMillan: Funding concerns at elite level

Untitled Projects' version of Slope. Picture: Contributed
Untitled Projects' version of Slope. Picture: Contributed
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IN the Circle Studio at the Citizens’ Theatre, an audience of 30 or so sits around the walls on simple bentwood chairs.

They watch as three young actors relive the story of the fierce triangular relationship between the 19th century French poet Verlaine, his wife Mathilde, and the wild and reckless young poetic genius Arthur Rimbaud; all around the room are tiny cameras, into whose lenses the actors sometimes speak and gaze, as the action is live-streamed onto the Glasgow-based cultural website Kiltr.

This is the 2014 version of Slope, by Pamela Carter, the latest production from brilliant Glasgow-based company Untitled Projects, seen at the Citizens’ and the Traverse in November; and it comes at the end of a rich, full three years for Stewart Laing’s cutting-edge company, which was also responsible for the unforgettable 2011 Salon Project – seen in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London – and last year’s brilliant, multi-layered show-cum-film-cum-installation Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, acclaimed at the Dublin International Theatre Festival just two months ago.

Now, though, it seems that Slope may well be Untitled Projects’ last show; for last month, despite 20 years of high artistic achievement, and its recent groundbreaking work in exploring the interface between theatre and other art-forms, the company learned that it had not been included on the list of companies to receive regular core funding from Creative Scotland. The theory, of course – confirmed in a statement on Untitled Projects from Creative Scotland – is that companies denied regular funding can still survive by putting together a patchwork of project funding.

For a range of reasons, though, Untitled Projects has reached a stage where that no longer seems feasible. For the last four years, the company has been receiving Breakthrough core funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which has an impressive record in identifying some of the most exciting arts companies in the UK; and Creative Scotland’s unusual failure to step up and replace that temporary funding, after four years of such high achievement, has made the company’s present organisational base unsustainable.

So from next month, Untitled Projects will close its office and put its organisation into mothballs, while Laing and other Untitled artists pursue freelance work elsewhere; at 53, Laing, trained at the Citizens’, is a distinguished international director-designer, who has worked at Covent Garden, at La Scala and on Broadway, and whose career has gone far beyond the point where it makes sense for him to compete for project funding with much younger artists. And while anyone can sympathise with Creative Scotland’s difficulties in dealing with a funding round in which applications amounted to more than double the money available, the loss of a company like Untitled – clearly among the three or four most exciting theatre producers in Scotland – does raise some troubling questions about Creative Scotland’s decision-making process. In the absence of clear, publicly-debated funding criteria, for example, the suspicion persists that the quality of a company’s form-filling may well weigh more heavily with hard-pressed decision-makers than the quality of their work, and their contribution to Scotland’s creative life.

What is most saddening, in the end, is the possibility that world-class artists working in Scotland may interpret such decisions as a judgment on the quality of their work, when in fact – to judge by the recent round of decisions – artistic achievement may often have little or nothing to do with it. And although it is a huge demand, to ask artists in mid-life to soldier on regardless when their own country’s main funding-body has judged them not worth even a modest regular salary, there are perhaps times when that is what artists have to do. Otherwise, they allow a confused and still none-too-transparent funding organisation, working on inscrutable and sometimes incomprehensible criteria, to determine the shape of a cultural landscape that is surely for Scotland’s artists to create; and for our funding agency – if it is lucky – to value rightly, to understand, and to support.