Joyce McMillan: Streets, Schemes And Stages

Glasgow Concert Hall in August 1990 (Glasgow City of Culture year). Picture: TSPL
Glasgow Concert Hall in August 1990 (Glasgow City of Culture year). Picture: TSPL
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The book has long disappeared, probably lent out and never reclaimed; but I can still picture its cover, and remember the sheer pleasure of reading it. It was called Streets, Schemes And Stages; and it was published in 1991 by the Social Work Department of the soon-to-be-abolished Strathclyde Regional Council, as a record of all the community arts work they had taken part in, during Glasgow’s year as European City Of Culture in 1990.

Co-written by Ewan McVicar and Mary McCabe, it was a fine mix of well-documented official report – there were plenty of statistics – and superb evocation of the impact of the work, through descriptions, quotes and photographs; and for a while, it became a kind of bible for those who wanted to demonstrate that Glasgow 1990 had not been only about big-ticket Pavarotti concerts, and high-powered international events at the Tramway and the Theatre Royal.

And I thought about Streets, Schemes And Stages again this week, as I talked to the National Theatre Of Scotland’s associate director Simon Sharkey about the NTS’s latest huge community project, The Tin Forest, a Glasgow 2014 event based on Helen Ward’s children’s story about an old man living in a devastated place, who makes it live again by creating something beautiful out of the debris around him. The Tin Forest is a powerful parable of regeneration through creativity; and the NTS’s response to it is currently being developed with more than 6,000 people across Glasgow, as well as an international network of youth theatre groups in six Commonwealth countries, from Bangladesh and Jamaica to England.

In a sense, though, the effort involved in a project like Tin Forest is not new to Sharkey and his NTS team. Since its opening season in 2006, the NTS has staged many remarkable community events, involving contributions from thousands of people across Scotland. In the effort to catch up with them, I’ve travelled from an abandoned rope factory in Kirkwall to a nightclub in Falkirk, via Aberdeen, Shetland, Leven and Ardrossan, and have often been moved, impressed and thrilled by what I’ve seen.

Yet it often seems to me that conventional methods of assessing the importance of a theatre event simply collapse, in the face of the multiple meanings these projects can carry for those who take part, and for whom the process matters at least as much as the final performance. Sharkey explains that the NTS’s process for assessing the success of community and “outreach” projects involves a mix of robust number-crunching – numbers of people and organisations involved, schools or clubs contacted, geographical reach – and in-depth documentation of the process itself, including a careful accumulation of narratives about how best to use professional theatre expertise in community work.

There’s a richness of experience here, though – and an intensity of effort, in communities across Scotland – that should surely be captured in a form more accessible than a series of internal reports between the NTS and its impressive range of partner organisations. The Tin Forest is a project about encouraging people to tell their stories, both as a powerful and valuable activity in itself, and as a step towards a new perspective on and power over the realities they describe. And although the NTS, in its first eight years, has been a fortunate institution in many ways – well funded, well led, often garlanded with praise – perhaps it, too, needs to tell the story of this low-profile but vital part of its work, in a form that people across Scotland and beyond can pick up and read. As Simon Sharkey says, it’s not only about the numbers and the measurable outcomes, but about the journeys taken; and as the authors of Streets, Schemes And Stages knew, serious journeys demand fine storytelling, if we are ever to glimpse their full significance.

• Tin Forest community performances begin in Govan on 6 June, with a final festival of events at the South Rotunda on the Clyde, 22 July-3 August.