THE NEW head of the National Theatre of Scotland has revealed that the company will stage a year-long programme inspired by the independence debate in 2014.
Laurie Sansom, who replaced Vicky Featherstone in March as the company’s artistic director, said a flagship new variety production called “The Great Don’t Know Show” would be the centrepiece of its programming next year.
Speaking for the first time since taking up his role, Mr Sansom said all of its shows next year would tackle the “unusual and remarkable event,” including issues of national identity, key moments in Scottish history and iconic figures.
He said the referendum had provided a “brilliant opportunity” for the theatre company, but would also allow artists to ask difficult questions and said there was a danger that the debate could cause “some quite serious fissures.”
Mr Sansom also defended the artistic rebellion last year that led to the toppling of Creative Scotland’s chief executive Andrew Dixon, saying people were clearly not being listed to and that alien funding models had been put in place for artists and arts companies to grapple with.
He described the level of support from the Scottish and UK governments for the culture sector as being “like chalk and cheese”, claiming he could not remember the last time England had a minister who had fought the corner of artists.
He said he felt Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop’s recent “magnificent and bold” speech on the arts had been prompted by the reaction to UK culture secretary Maria Miller’s earlier call for the arts to justify investment based on the economic impact of work.
Mr Sansom, whose previous job was as artistic director of the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, also spent four years as Alan Ayckbourn’s associate director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. A surprise appointment last October, his track record of presenting work in Scotland includes a Fringe production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and another festival hit with acapella group The Magnets.
He also revealed that he had declined to read Alasdair Gray’s controversial essay, which criticised the appointment of senior Scottish arts jobs to English “colonists.”
However Mr Sansom, who admitted to some trepidation before starting his job after the controversy over Gray’s essay, told The Scotsman, he said he been made to feel “nothing but welcome” from the arts sector since starting with the company 10 weeks ago.
Mr Sansom said around 40 different projects were already in some form of development when he arrived at the company’s headquarters - north of the M8 motorway - which are due to move to a converted warehouse in a £5.5 million project next year. Although some shows take several years to bring to fruition, one of his first tasks has been to look at productions to help shape next year’s programme.
He said: “I think this is a good idea because it’s what artists in Scotland are telling us they want to write about at the moment.
“We don’t want at all to shy away from being a company that allows artists to express their opinions.
“We’re in a slightly different position to some of the other national companies in Scotland because theatre, by its nature, is the best art form to explore how an individual’s identity sits within a larger socio-political identity.
“It’s undoubtedly a big issue for artists at the moment. It informs the landscape in which writers and artists are making work, even if they’re not making work specifically about it. I’ve been fascinated to observe the debate, be part of it and hear about it.
“What’s brilliant about it is that it’s turning the spotlight on Scotland, providing the opportunity to ask those questions and celebrate what is so rich about the culture here, and hopefully ask some difficult questions as well. That can only be a good thing, irrespective of the result of the vote.
“It’s an amazing time for someone leading a company like this. It is a really exciting moment and a brilliant opportunity.
“What’s more complex is how artists are going to respond after the vote, either way. It’s probably a question for a lot of institutions in Scotland. What we don’t want is that kind of Olympic hangover where everything is built up to that one moment in time and people are going ‘what do we do now?’ There’s a danger with that and it could cause some quite serious fissures.
“It is kind of the opposite of the norm for us in that all our work is going to reflect it through artists - sometimes quite obliquely, but always in relation to what is going to be pre-occupying everyone next year – questioning what national identity actually means, exploring key moments in Scottish cultural history, or looking at a particularly iconic figure, and sometimes in quite unusual and surprising ways.”
The Scotsman revealed in April how two of the nation’s leading playwrights, David Greig and David MacLennan, were joining forces on a new theatre production, to be launched in the summer and staged around the country right up until the eve of the independence poll.
As a “precursor”, earlier in the year another playwright, Kieran Hurley, will be reviving a new show, Rantin’, which was staged in Glasgow earlier this year, to provoke audience and artists’ responses around the country in venues as small as rooms in pubs and village halls.
Mr Sansom said: “Kieran has made a very informal piece to create stories about different lives that are going on all over Scotland and imagining that these stories are happening right now. I immediately felt it was the perfect piece to start a debate by sending it out nationally.
“He’s created a very wide canvas for looking at Scottish identity. I felt it would be the perfect thing to send out on the road to actually start audiences thinking about it, talking about it and responding to it.
“It’s a bit like a gig in your front room. It is designed so that it can be performed in a room above a pub or in a town hall.
“The Great Don’t Know Show will almost be like a variety show of sketches and songs. What’s really interesting is David Greig is very firmly on the pro-independence ticket, while David MacLennan is very firmly on the no, which was not deliberate, but I’m really pleased about.
“The concept was never a piece of agit-prop making the case one way or the other. It’s actually about creating a forum in which writers and artists can write their passionate views and explore issues around it. There will be almost a menu of sketches, rants and songs that will change nightly depending on where it is being performed.
“We’ll also be commissioning a whole host of writers, thinkers and commentators and ordinary people to write for it. There might be the same backbone of songs and sketches that appear in every show, but each performance will be tailor-made according to where it lands.”
“We’ll be going to places where Kieran has already been and hopefully by the time The Great Don’t Know Show arrives there will be a whole host of people who will want to contribute, through statements, and rants and letters, and hopefully people will want to get up, join in and perform in it too.”
Mr Sansom was appointed just weeks after the publication of an open letter, signed by 100 leading figures from the arts world in Scotland, condemning the running of Creative Scotland for “ill-conceived decision-making; unclear language, and a lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture.”
The letter, largely prompted by concerns over a shake-up in funding arrangements for arts organisations, stated: “We observe an organisation with a confused and intrusive management style married to a corporate ethos that seems designed to set artist against artist and company against company in the search for resources.”
Mr Sansom said: “How artists and companies are funded in Scotland is a crucial part of the landscape for us. It is absolutely essential that we are part of that debate.
“I’ve really only been part of discussions since it all came to a head and there was clearly a need for a consultation process, where finally artists would be listened to.
“It seemed to me the biggest mistaken was for Creative Scotland to become a commissioning body and also issues around the way (artistic) portfolios were being managed. On those two things, artists were loudly telling Creating Scotland that it did not work for them and was not going to serve them.
“I’m really hopeful and optimistic about the future. What’s been great is that a really robust debate has gone on about what’s needed.”
Creative Scotland’s new chief executive Janet Archer, who starts in her post next week, will have to draw up a new blueprint for the organisation to reflect the new vision for the sector outlined by Ms Hyslop in her speech, as well as the views of artists and organisations expressed in a series of roadshows hosted by her organisation around the country in March and April.
Mr Sansom added: “One reason why the Scottish theatre community rejected it (Creative Scotland) so wholeheartedly is that in England we are kind of used to a patrician arts council. It is very uncomfortable and actually that model doesn’t work in Scotland, it seems to me. I don’t think it works brilliantly in England too, but Scottish artists are not going to allow it to be put in place like that.
“I can’t tell you how much different it is (level of government support) in Scotland. The climate is like chalk and cheese right now and Fiona Hyslop’s speech recently underlined it. It was magnificent and bold.
“I don’t think what she was saying should have been caught up in that (Creative Scotland) debate, because that was about something else. She was right to wait. As it happened, the prompt and provocation was there with Maria Miller’s speech.
“It (Fiona Hyslop’s speech) was about stating that we understand that art has intrinsic good and that we don’t measure its benefit by those secondary benefits that can often come from excellence in the art.
“I actually don’t remember the last time we had a culture minister in England who it felt like was on the side of artists and arts organisations, and fighting our corner. It doesn’t feel like they are lobbying for artists - at best it is just damage limitation with the Treasury.
The language you use becomes part of the argument very quickly. It associates you with certain ideaology if you are not very careful, even if you don’t mean to.
“What was crucial was about certain choices about how to manage arts funding that were not working for others. There were clearly other issues about style, communication and personalities, but at the heart of it, that (Creative Scotland) reorganisation was not serving artists. Clearly, something had to change and it obviously became a rather bitter fight, which was unfortunate for everybody, but it was also necessary.”