Brian Ferguson: Laurie Sansom exit leaves NTS with questions to answer

Laurie Sansom
Laurie Sansom
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When Laurie Sansom took to the stage of the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh at the end of January, his future seemed set fair.

As he approached his third anniversary as artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, he was about to get the company’s tenth birthday celebrations under way.

Mixed in with the return of several of the company’s most popular and critically-acclaimed shows for the year-long season were an ambitious set of new productions. Work was also well under way on the company’s first permanent headquarters. Who would have predicted, then, that Sansom would have been heading out of the door at NTS well before the completion of the “Rockvilla” base?

Friday’s shock announcement of his impending departure, in less than two months’ time, prompted enough questions to fill this column. But among those stone-walled by the company were whether Sansom had actually handed in his notice, whether NTS was aware of him having another job, whether there had been any kind of dispute behind-the-scenes and whether the company was actually seeking to replace him. Answer came there none – correspondents and commentators alike were simply left to draw their own conclusions.

In the absence of any explanation, it was almost inevitable that thoughts would turn to the last time NTS made the headlines: just over a month ago the company compiled a dossier setting out the impact of Scottish Government budget cuts on its work.

Sansom himself had represented the company when it presented its hard-hitting evidence to Holyrood’s culture committee, warning the moves would hamper NTS’s ability to take productions on tour at home and abroad, and requesting a rethink.

The company had fired an early warning shot in December when a 3 per cent cut emerged from the annual Scottish Budget settlement, signalling that it would have a “major impact” on NTS’s operations. Perhaps more significantly in hindsight, the company said: “The fact we are not being advised of subsidy figures beyond March 2017 makes our ongoing financial planning ever more challenging.”

The only real clues as to the departure of Mr Sansom – who was also the NTS chief executive as well as artistic director – were buried in Friday’s announcement.

The chief executive role has already been filled by NTS, on an interim basis, by Lucy Mason, who was doing both jobs at The Arches in Glasgow when it was forced to close last year.

NTS would only commit, somewhat vaguely, to putting a “senior leadership structure” in place. This would suggest serious concerns have been raised by Sansom about the difficulty of balancing the artistic and administrative roles – especially during a climate of cuts and financial uncertainty.

There are also questions being raised about the lack of progress in replacing two other senior staff members – executive producer Neil Murray and associate director Graham McLaren – whose forthcoming departure to run Ireland’s national theatre was announced last July. Suddenly, NTS is facing a race against time to restore stability and confidence during its tenth anniversary season – an unthinkable situation just a few months ago.

With the company’s fears for its own future on record for all to see, it may have its work cut out finding someone prepared to take on what appears to be an increasingly uphill task.