AS WE approach the opening night of the National Theatre of Scotland, a long-awaited moment for the theatre community and audiences of Scotland is about to arrive.
Along with my team, I have spent the last year setting up the NTS. This has been a much discussed and debated concept within Scotland, led by some committed and visionary individuals who have been campaigning for years. It is testament to the tenacity, talent and passion of these people that finally, with the arrival of devolution, they were able to go with one voice to the Scottish Executive and put forward the case. The newly devolved Parliament listened and agreed that Scotland should have a national theatre, with all of the responsibility and ambition that entails, and in September 2003 announced the creation of the only major cultural institution since devolution.
The NTS has no building. There has not been, nor will there be, a great capital project dealing with the architects or contractors. Instead, the idea is to create theatre all over Scotland, working with the existing theatre buildings, touring and creating work with the existing theatre community.
Buildings quickly develop an identity of their own, it is one of the great things about them. From the moment an architect decides the form and look, the potential audiences are making judgments as to whether they will cross over the threshold of that building and allow themselves the pleasure of seeing what lies within or not.
We have no such bricks-and-mortar institutionalism to counter, nor a safe structure within which to slowly develop. We receive 4m a year, and 75% of this is being spent entirely on work. The possibilities are endless.
Scottish theatre has always been led by great performances, great stories or great contemporary playwrights. The chance here is to create theatre on a national and international scale that is contemporary, ubiquitous, confident and forward-looking. To focus on the two constant elements that define theatre - the audience and the artist. To bring together groups of brilliant artists, composers, choreographers, playwrights and make work that is about the here and now, to surprise themselves and, most importantly, the audience; to create explosions of creativity that would otherwise not happen, and to exceed our expectations of what and where theatre can be. It is also a chance to start building a new generation of theatre-goers as well as invigorating the current one.
Our theatre will take place in the great buildings - the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; the Citizens', Glasgow; His Majesty's, Aberdeen - but it will also take place in site-specific locations, in community halls and sports halls, car parks and forests. It will tour internationally and bring international work to Scotland.
As well as producing our own work, we will collaborate and co-produce with the companies and individuals who are working here already. We will open and make work all over Scotland, embedding ourselves within communities. We have the NTS Team, a group of 16 trained practitioners who are working in the field in communities and schools using multimedia, music and drama to deliver cultural creativity and learning through theatre throughout Scotland. We will finally in Scotland be able to make large-scale work and music theatre, such as John Byrne's Tutti Frutti - something which is rare due to lack of resources and development time. We will enable our great playwrights to write big, important plays and to do new versions of existing ones which have not been seen in Scotland for many years. We will offer the parts to the great Scottish actors spread over the world and at home.
We have created a Young Company of recent graduates, actors, directors, producers - technicians who under mentorship will develop and tour their own work, giving them the opportunity to develop professionally. We have a small ensemble of six actors who will take up residence for a week at a time in the smallest venues and communities in Scotland and who will offer Strindberg's Miss Julie in a new version by Zinnie Harris for adults, Douglas Maxwell's Mancub in a Vanishing Point co-production, and a family piece based on stories by David Greig directed by Wils Wilson.
We spent a long time thinking of how to present our opening night and finally came up with "Home". We asked 10 of our best directors to create a piece of theatre around the word "Home" - commonly thought of as one of the most evocative words in the English language. Each of them have been working in partnership with a specific area, and they are right in the middle of creating a unique experience for each particular audience. It was important for as many people as possible to know that we had begun, and to feel that they could have a connection with us [the NTS]. "Home" is our way of launching all over Scotland: allowing somebody in Inverness or Stornoway or Caithness to see an entirely different performance by a completely different director but at the same time be part of the opening night; for the work to reach across Scotland as far as possible.
We could have opened with a well-known play, in one of the well-known theatres in the central belt, with a famous actor on stage, but we felt this historic moment warranted something more epic, more unusual and, importantly, we have all the time in the world to do great productions like that in the months and years to come. We want people to realise the NTS relates to the people of Scotland and for people to feel that they have ownership of it. We have an opportunity to define what theatre, or a national theatre, can and should be.
Up to 10,000 people can see "Home" for free. There's a hotline at our office, and each of the 10 venues - from the ferry in Shetland to a high-rise flat in Glasgow - has a box office. Each of the 10 directors has really grabbed the opportunity and risen to the occasion.
Graham Eatough, from Suspect Culture, will be directing "Home" Dumfries and Galloway, which looks at old people's memories of the past, performed as a soundscape.
In Edinburgh, Wonderful World Of Dissocia writer and director Anthony Neilson has asked 10- to 12-year-olds to write scripts about what they imagine First Minister's Question Time to be; well-known actors will perform them to an audience at the Queen's Hall. What they read will be a complete child's image of the world.
In East Lothian, Gill Robertson from children's theatre company Catherine Wheels will present something akin to a magical mystery fairytale, where people are piled on to a bus and taken to a secret location.
Because of our strong Easterhouse connections, NTS director John Tiffany will helm the Glasgow show, in high-rise Cranhill flats in Easterhouse. Lord Of The Rings star Billy Boyd and Taggart's Blythe Duff will star in a spectacular piece in which actors are filmed inside the tower block by three men abseiling down the buildings with handheld cameras. The piece will then be projected on to a huge screen. Up to 1,000 people can watch it from the natural amphitheatre of the ground below.
Former Citizens' Theatre designer and director Kenny Miller will look at the popular culture of 1950s Dundee, revolving his story around a ballroom. In Aberdeen, Afterlife director Alison Peebles will showcase the personal and political struggles of a tenement block.
In Wick, at the Caithness Glass Factory, Vanishing Point director Matthew Lenton will merge film, music and physical performance with a cast which includes Scottish actors Myra McFadyen and Sandy Grierson, as well, as performers and musicians from Caithness.
In Inverness, with Scott Graham, local family photos have provided the stimulus for a physical theatre piece. Over in Shetland the ferry terminals play host to the action, ending with the audience coming face to face with 100 Shetland fiddlers. The innovation continues up in Stornoway as Stewart Laing sets his scenes in a dolls' house.
When I look at the final programme now, I'm utterly delighted by how original and creative each person involved has been with the original idea of "Home". It's humbling.
It has expanded beyond any of our expectations. I was in Stornoway for the opening of the An Lanntair art gallery recently and people were amazed that the launch of the NTS would be in Stornoway.
It is a risk, but when theatre stops taking risks it becomes dull, audiences start feeling bored and the dynamism is lost. From here we will build on the extraordinary talent we have currently working both within and outwith Scotland. In the next two to three years we will have been able to cover Scotland in various imaginative and unique ways. As well as going for the big hitters like Tutti Frutti, we'll continue to take top-quality productions to theatres - and communities - that don't expect to have them. All our planning and ideas are for nothing if we do not excite the audience with their potential. It must make Scotland proud.
I have spent many hours debating the notion of the NTS and that responsibility. It is not, nor ever should be, a jingoistic patriotic stab at defining a nation's identity through theatre. It should not be an opportunity to try to define anything. Instead it is the chance to undefine, to throw open the doors of possibility, to encourage boldness and, like the absolute best nights in the theatre, to be surprised about where that boldness may take you.
Home is where the art is for actors, writers and directors
For The Lord of the Rings actor Billy Boyd, the NTS launch will provide a genuine journey home. Boyd was brought up in Cranhill, the site for the Glasgow Home performance.
"It was weird when we went to look at where we would be performing because all of these memories came flooding back, the houses where I did my paper round and that sort of thing," he says.
Led by the NTS's associate director, John Tiffany, the piece has been an evolving work. "Nothing was ever set in stone and we have very much worked from a storyboard as the idea took shape," Boyd says.
Three men will abseil down an 18-storey building, filming people through the windows; the film will then be projected for the potential audience of 1,000 below.
"There's something very exciting to be the first person to have done something, and that's the case on so many levels with this," says Boyd. "The idea of having 10 different pieces launch, simultaneously, is as it should be. I hope that Scottish actors are going to take it to their hearts. This is a real historical moment in time."
Poet and author Jackie Kay was inspired to write 10 poems inspired by Shetland following a tour there with the stage adaptation of her play Trumpet last year. "I love the idea that while on a ferry you are in limbo land. The sea is evocative and it can stir up all the most incredible emotions. The idea of journeying and people being adopted by places was really fascinating to me," she says.
Set on the Northlink Ferry, each audience member will have a set of earphones. As they wander around the ferry, poems will be read or sung, either in person or through the headset, by local musicians or by Kay herself.
The geographical possibilities at the heart of the project are particularly appealing, says Kay. "Whenever you have a 'national' event, it is city-based and one place gets all of the great stuff that is going on. Home is such an egalitarian idea and so imaginatively rich."
Actor-turned-director Alison Peebles will use the NTS launch to fuel her two greatest passions: theatre and film. Set in six empty flats in Aberdeen, the Afterlife director will showcase the personal and political struggles of a tenement block.
Says Peebles: "When you think of the very notion of Home there are so many elements there. You ask 10, 20 or 100 people about what they think Home is and they will all have very different ideas."
Peebles will draw on her film background to create a gritty, urban reality for her audience. "The idea is much like Hitchcock's Rear Window, without the murder. In many ways, it will feel like a live film. The audience will be dotted around the building and there will be times when you will be cheek-to-cheek with the actors.
"The NTS programme for the coming year is incredibly rich and incredibly diverse. As a concept, the Home idea is an ambitious one but, if it is successful, they should think about doing a project like this every year, albeit on a smaller scale."
• NTS Home (0141-227 9003), www.nationaltheatrescotland.com. 48 Logie Place, Aberdeen, Feb 21-26. Bus leaves Aberdeen Arts Centre at 6.30pm, 7.30pm and 8.30pm; Feb 25, 2pm, 3pm, 6.30pm, 7.30pm and 8.30pm (01224-641122). Caithness Glass Factory & Visitors Centre, Wick, Feb 23-26, 7pm and 9pm (01955-641270).
The Loreburn, Newall Terrace, Dumfries, Feb 23-25, 7.30pm and Feb 25 at 5.30pm and 7.30pm (01387-253383). McManus Galleries, Albert Square, Dundee, Feb 24-25, 7.30pm (01382-223 530). Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Feb 23, 5pm, Feb 24-25 at 5pm and 8pm (0131-665 4960).
The Queen's Hall, Clerk Street, Edinburgh, Feb 25, 4pm and 7.30pm (0131-668 2019). 25 Soutra Place, Cranhill, Easterhouse, Feb 25 and 26, 5.30pm and 8pm (0141-781 2034) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Arts in Motion Creation Centre, Evanton, Inverness, Feb 23, 7pm, Feb 24, 7pm and 9pm, Feb 25, 4pm & 7pm (01463-234 234).
Holmsgarth Ferry Terminal, Northlink Ferry, Lerwick, Feb 23 and 25 at 12pm, 1.15pm and 2.30pm, Feb 27, 11.30am, 12.45pm and 2.00pm (01595-692 114). 14 Church Street, Stornoway, Feb 23-25, 4pm, 6pm and 8pm (01851-703 307)