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Theatre's first boss plots Act 1

THE first director of the National Theatre of Scotland takes the helm of the £3.5 million-a-year company on Monday with only one staff member and a rented office in Glasgow.

Small beginnings, perhaps, for Vicky Featherstone is tasked with building the new organisation into one that is big and bold enough to fulfil the aspirations that led to its creation in the first place.

Thankfully displaying no lack of ambition, Ms Featherstone said yesterday she was keen to work with the Edinburgh International Festival, which she said could be an "extraordinary platform". She also threw out ideas on how she might work with Edinburgh’s Traverse, Dundee Rep, and other Scottish theatres - but adamantly made it clear she would not function as a fund to help out struggling companies.

In the meantime she has been driving the streets of Glasgow this week looking at houses and schools - and wondering if the office phone line will work.

The brand new National Theatre of Scotland was launched by the Scottish Executive last year, after a long and often bruising campaign by supporters of the idea, with an initial 7.5 million funding over two years. The Executive recently confirmed its funding will run close to 4 million a year for the foreseeable future.

That figure is easily larger than the current Scottish Arts Council grants to the five biggest producing theatres in central Scotland combined. The five - the Citizen’s Theatre and the Tron in Glasgow, Dundee Rep, the Traverse and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh - produce their own work and tour other shows in buildings they maintain. They frequently complain of being desperately short of cash compared to their English counterparts.

By contrast, in a unique experiment, the National Theatre will have neither a building nor a company of actors of its own. The "theatre without walls" will aim to work with existing Scottish theatres, writers and actors to stage shows.

Ms Featherstone built her reputation as the artistic director of Paines Plough, a small but highly-regarded touring theatre company based in London, which specialises in new writing.

Her appointment in July was widely welcomed by many in the Scottish theatre world - where she built strong connections through Paines Plough - as a bold and forward-looking choice.

She has moved north with her young family and husband, a television writer, to live in Glasgow. The National Theatre is destined for offices in the newly-built Arts Factory in Easterhouse, but from last week it rented temporary space on the fifth floor of a city centre office building. Eventually, the theatre will have a core staff of about 15.

Ms Featherstone said her first task was to find an executive director or general manager so "it won’t just be me".

She said it was vital for any candidate to be prepared to set up co-productions. "It will be someone with a strong theatrical background, or very sympathetic to learning it very quickly. That’s our next main appointment."

Sir Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, was widely known as a leading opponent of the National Theatre scheme. But Ms Featherstone said the National Theatre could back home-grown Scottish work for the Festival, with more rehearsal and writing time to match the well-honed international shows. "I know he hasn’t been a fan of the idea in the past. It’s about me acknowledging and admiring the success of what he’s created, saying can we be part of that and can we help make it better?

"The International Festival is an extraordinary platform, and if we are able to be creating that work, and it’s worthy for that platform, I would be honoured to be part of it.

"The Scottish work that goes into the International Festival is amazing. It’s about allowing the artists who are creating to be more confident in their ambitions and risks."

A Festival spokeswoman said yesterday Sir Brian would not want to comment at this stage, but of Ms Featherstone, they added: "Of course we’ll talk to her."

Ms Featherstone, when at Paines Plough, worked closely with the Traverse, in particular with Fringe shows. Like her previous company, the Traverse specialises in new writing. But its current season does not include any new productions of its own, partly blamed on tight funds.

Ms Featherstone said yesterday that the National Theatre could deliver bigger casts and more writing and rehearsal time. But she said categorically it would not work as a "stabilisation fund" - handing out money to productions already in the pipeline or helping struggling theatres to get back on their feet.

"I’m really aware that in a cash situation we are very rich," she said. "But if we start to behave in a stabilisation mode, that money goes nowhere, and it’s a complete waste of a concept. It’s about new work, new plays, new pieces of work, that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

"The money has to go into work which is visible and excellent, so that the public has a real sense of the culture we are creating and how theatre benefits from that.

"That’s a luxury, that’s what’s visionary about this model, that it’s not about light bulbs and heating bills, it’s about rehearsal time and great work on stage."

 
 
 

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