Celebrating the creative legacy of the Tom McGrath Trust

The Tom McGrath Trust, which has helped 80 artists on their creative journey, is being wound up, but its legacy lives on

Tom McGrath photographed at his home in Kingskettle, Fife, in 2005 PIC: Phil Wilkinson

The words “maverick” and “wild” are certainly not the first that come to mind, when artists contemplate the labyrinth of possible arts funding in the early 21st century. More often, and for the best of reasons, official funding involves an ingrained culture of compliance with sheafs of provisions and criteria, designed to promote everything from health and safety to social inclusion.

Maverick and Wild, though, were two of the names consciously chosen by the trustees of the Tom McGrath Awards, over the last decade, for the small grant schemes they have run in support of Scottish artists trying to create something unexpected, or to explore new directions in their work; and as the Tom McGrath Trust winds up its work this spring, those words speak volumes about McGrath’s legacy in Scottish theatre, and the achievement of the Trust over the past decade.

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McGrath – playwright, poet, jazz musician, and friend to generations of emerging Scottish artists – was born in Rutherglen in 1940; and after he left school, moved to London, where he became part of the transatlantic Sixties revolution, and the founding editor of the British underground journal International Times. In 1965, he appeared at a ground-breaking Albert Hall poetry event with Alan Ginsberg and other key figures of the 1960s; and when he returned to Glasgow with his young family in 1969, he rapidly became involved with a group of poets which also included Tom Leonard, Alan Spence and Liz Lochhead. He helped to co-found the Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street, now the Centre for Contemporary Arts, and also the Glasgow Theatre Club, which became the Tron Theatre.

In the 1970s, he became a Traverse playwright, producing plays including Laurel and Hardy, Animal, and The Hardman, co-written with sculptor and ex-prisoner Jimmy Boyle; and in the 1980s and 90s, he spent many years working out of the Lyceum Theatre as literary director to the Scottish theatre scene, providing untold support and encouragement to generations of emerging Scottish writers. When Tom died in 2009, it was therefore obvious to his family and friends – including his wife and partner Ella Wildridge, who was literary manager at the Traverse in the 1990s – that any trust set up in his memory should aim to continue that work; and for McGrath’s daughter Alice – now artistic director of children’s theatre company Red Bridge Arts – it has been both satisfying and inspiring to see the Tom McGrath Trust fulfil that remit, over the last decade.

“The sums of money involved have always been small,” says Alice McGrath, “and very much dependent on the generosity of donors who loved and valued Tom’s work. The Trust has been working with a budget of around £7,000 each year, and the biggest awards we make are our £2,000 Maverick Awards.

“The whole point, though, is to run an awards scheme that is as light as possible on paperwork, and gives artists a chance to apply for that vital small piece of support that can enable them to c hange direction, or do something that is just a shade too daft or out of the ordinary to appeal to most funders. If Dad had lived, he would have been 80 last year, and as it happens, over the ten years we have made 80 awards. So with Ella, who was really the driving force behind the Trust, no longer in the best of health, we felt this might be the moment to wind things up; although we do hope others will continue to run awards schemes in a similar spirit – because there certainly seems to be a need there, and artists have appreciated these awards so much.”

The list of artists recognised by the awards over the last decade is a hugely impressive one, including playwrights and theatre makers ranging from Sylvia Dow back in 2012, to rising stars of the past decade James Ley, Morna Young, Jenna Watt, Julia Taudevin, Andy McGregor, Caitlin Skinner, Shona Reppe, Frances Poet, and Hannah Lavery. This year’s four final awards are typical in their range and unexpectedness, with the two Maverick Awards going to Perth-based puppeteer and theatre-maker Ross MacKay for a project involving poetic chain letters, and to Aberdeen-based German-Scottish artist Bibo Keeley, for an experimental piece based reflection on her husband’s near-fatal illness, seven years ago. Edinburgh poet and artist Angus Reid has been awarded a £2,000 Wild Award to complete his irreverent History of Art In 100 Limericks; and the Trust made a final special award to Katherine Mendelsohn, who was Traverse Literary Manager from 1999 until 2012, to pursue her version of a rare short Molière satire with a cast of 12, which has never before been seen in Britain.

“This award means so much to me,” says Mendelsohn, “and not only because of Tom. He and Ella were so special together, a wonderful team, encouraging everyone to experiment, and to think boldly about everything, at any stage in their career. I feel immensely sad that these awards are coming to an end, but Tom and Ella made so many astonishing creative connection s in their lives that I know their spirit will live on.”

For more information, see www.tommcgrath-trust.org

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