When Tashi Gore and Jess Thorpe first began to work on young people’s theatre at Tramway in Glasgow, back in 2005, it barely occurred to them that the project would last beyond a year or two. Both were recent graduates of the Contemporary Theatre Practice course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, just about to set up their own production company Glas(s) Performance; and as soon as they heard that Tramway’s then artistic boss, Steve Slater, was considering setting up a young people’s theatre group, they began to work with a powerful sense of mission on the idea of a company that would make work owned by the young performers involved, and shaped by their voices and ideas – work that would also aspire to the highest artistic quality, and bear comparison with the best of cutting-edge international theatre.
The result was Junction 25, the now-legendary company named after a nearby M8 motorway junction, and made up – at any one time – of around 20 young people aged 11-18 from the local area. Over the next decade, Junction 25’s work gradually won first UK-wide and then international fame, with shows including the company’s wonderful 2009 breakthrough show I Hope My Heart Goes First, about love and the body, and Anoesis, about exam stress and anxiety, which toured to South America in 2012. In the last ten years, Junction 25’s work has been seen in Scotland, England, Norway and Brazil, winning multiple awards and much critical and audience acclaim; and in 2018 the company took part in 1210km, a hugely successful joint project with a youth theatre in Berlin.
It therefore came as a shock when, earlier this month, Junction 25 issued a press release announcing its closure after 15 years during which – as Thorpe and Gore put it in a statement – “the company has achieved more than we could ever have hoped”; an announcement which made it clear that the primary reason for the closure is the “increasingly challenging situation” with arts funding in Scotland.
“There really is a range of different factors involved,” says Gore, “but the fact is that Jess and I have now made two applications for regular funding from Creative Scotland for our company Glas(s) Performance, the first of which included an element of funding for Junction 25, and we were rejected on both occasions. The amount of work involved in those applications was huge, and the last funding round in particular – the notorious 2018 one – was a completely exhausting and baffling experience.
“I should emphasise very strongly, though, that this is not all about Creative Scotland, who have always been very supportive of Junction 25 projects, not least through their Made In Scotland programme. There are now huge pressures around the infrastructure you have to have in place to do youth theatre work properly, in areas from safeguarding to mental health; and that’s increasingly difficult to provide for a small organisation always surviving on a patchwork of funding.
“Then there’s the fact that Tramway itself, which has always supported us so generously in kind and in other ways, has been struggling with funding in recent years. So we reached a point where we had to decide whether to struggle on and try to keep Junction 25 going on a shoestring; or whether to recognise that the project has run its course, and finish on a high note, after the success of 1210km last year.”
All of which is the more tantalising because the sums of money involved are so minimal. The cost of maintaining Junction 25 at or above its present level amounts to a few tens of thousands of pounds a year, a mere drop in the ocean of overall Scottish public spending; and the fact that it cannot be found, on a regular and reliable basis, raises serious questions about the current funding system.
For Thorpe and Gore, though, it’s now all about looking forward. Glas(s) Performance will continue as a project-based company, currently working both with young offenders at Polmont, and on a US production of their much-praised show Old Boy, featuring real-life grandfathers and grandsons. And earlier this week, they also celebrated the publication of their first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Devising Theatre, which brings together a detailed account of their method of work with Junction 25, alongside interviews with other companies and artists who have inspired them. The book will be launched at a party to celebrate Junction 25’s 15 years at Tramway later this autumn, and Gore hopes it will help to create a permanent legacy for the company.
“Jess and I have been incredibly lucky since we began this work in 2005, as two young women in our early 20s,” she says, “lucky in the tremendous support we’ve had from organisations and from amazing fellow artists, lucky in the young people we’ve worked with, lucky in the chances we’ve had to work in different countries and contexts.
“And although I’m hugely proud of all the Junction 25 graduates who are now working in the arts – including Rosie Reid, who now runs the company alongside Gudrun Soley Sigurdadottir – I also want to emphasise that it’s never just been about finding the next generation of theatre makers and performers. It’s about giving young people a chance to become citizens, people who know that their unique, individual voice is valued, and who understand how to work with others in making sure that voice is heard. And whatever we do next, that’s what we’re always asking ourselves – where in society, at this moment, can this way of working make the biggest difference, and help create a stronger society, for the benefit of us all.”
A Beginner’s Guide To Devising Theatre is published by Methuen Drama, price £19.99