Insight: The impact of Scottish Youth Theatre's funding crisis

At Scottish Youth Theatre (SYT) headquarters in Glasgow, Harriet Rafferty, 23, swooshes a jellyfish (an umbrella with plastic bag tentacles) through the air towards a small boat (the top of a flask with some pegs and a paper sail) bobbing along the sea (a blue sleeping bag).

Picture: John Devlin
Picture: John Devlin

This is Tentpole Theatre’s last day of rehearsals before they unveil their first ever production to an audience which they hope will include professionals from respected children’s companies such as Imaginate; but they manage to keep their nerves in check as they use mime and puppets to transform the small studio into a gusty seafront.

The three-strong company – Rafferty, Ross Somerville (fellow puppeteer and sound artist) and Anna Rattray (director) – have been able to put their 20-minute show together thanks to Making Space, a programme launched by SYT this year. Aimed at helping young theatre-makers test new ideas and collaborations or develop a work in progress, it provides rehearsal space, mentoring and feedback.

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Rafferty has been involved with SYT since she started the weekly drama classes in Aberdeen at the age of 13. Back then, she was “riddled with anxiety”, but the classes built up her self-esteem. Now, a decade later, Making Space is helping her take the next step in her career.

“If SYT hadn’t kept encouraging me, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to create my own children’s theatre company,” she says.

At present, Making Space is a pilot scheme; Tentpole Theatre is only the second company to have benefited from it. Given SYT’s current financial predicament, it may also be one of the last.

Ten days ago, the 41-year-old SYT announced it had a funding shortfall of £200,000 and would close at the end of July. The news came weeks after it was refused regular funding (as a Regularly Funded Organisation, or RFO) by Creative Scotland.

Last week, representatives from SYT met culture secretary Fiona Hyslop to discuss a potential rescue package. One proposal is that the organisation should be given national company status. That would put it on the same level as the likes of Scottish Opera and mean funding would come direct from the Scottish Government.

But if this fails and SYT has to close its doors, Making Space will disappear along with all its other initiatives: the weekly classes, the summer courses, the new National Ensemble and the Family Storytime Company.

The prospect of SYT’s demise galvanised supporters. No sooner had the company announced its decision than parents were raising a petition, with famous alumni – including Colin McCredie, Kate Dickie and Karen Gillan – extolling its virtues.

For many advocates, allowing the company to fold three months into the Scottish Government’s multi-million-pound Year of Young People 2018 would be a national embarrassment and proof of the country’s lack of cultural vision.

They see SYT’s plight as yet more evidence of incompetence at Creative Scotland, which has already admitted its decision-making process was flawed. Last month it did a U-turn restoring RFO funding to five companies – Birds of Paradise, Catherine Wheels, Dunedin Consort, Lung Ha and Visible Fictions – after an almighty backlash from the artistic community.

But there are others who question the assumption that SYT should automatically be bailed out. This is not the first time Creative Scotland has rejected the group’s funding application. The last time, in 2014, the Scottish Government stepped in along with private-sector backer, Clyde Blowers.

Insiders at Creative Scotland maintain SYT’s application was poor and that the company had not done enough to address issues raised with it in previous years.

Its fiercest critics say the organisation is behind the curve artistically – outclassed by groups like Junction 25 at the Tramway – and remains too expensive, with too little focus on making it accessible to those from deprived areas.

The actor Iain Robertson, for example, who was picked to star in Gillies MacKinnon’s film Small Faces at the age of 13, says he attended the free theatre group Toonspeak in north Glasgow in the early 1990s because the SYT was too expensive.

“When I was 11, I went for an audition for the summer course, but it was going to cost about £800. I was one of five siblings and if my parents had found the money for me they would have had to find it for my sisters too – it just wasn’t possible.”

Robertson eventually won a scholarship with the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London and paid his living costs by working professionally.

So what should happen to SYT? Would losing our only national youth theatre group demonstrate a profound lack of understanding of the role drama plays in the health and well-being of our young people? And if the company is bailed out by the Scottish Government should it be with the caveat that it commits to widening accessibility?

The desire to raise the aspirations of working class children was the driving force behind the establishment of the SYT back in 1977 – a time when few schools had drama departments. A teacher in the east end of Glasgow, Gareth Wardell set up committees and rolled out weekly classes all over the country. Later, SYT also established its summer festivals – six-week courses culminating in a stage production.

There is no doubt that for many of those involved, the experience was transformative. Last week, Graham McLaren, formerly associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland, said that without the values and standards given to him by the SYT, he would never have risen to his current position as director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Kate Dickie, who played Lysa Arryn in Game Of Thrones and Jackie in Red Road, spent her teenage years in Newton Stewart near Dumfries. “It can feel like a pipe dream living in a small town and wanting to be an actor, but SYT just gave it a concrete feeling that I’m going to be determined that this is what I’m going to do,” she said.

In recent years, the remit of SYT has evolved. As more schools began to teach drama and more local groups started springing up, the weekly classes became less important and there was a shift towards helping young people move on to the next stage of their career.

“I think what we do is try to provide a step up for those who have succeeded in their regional youth theatres or colleges and are looking for that extra stretch,” says SYT chief executive Jacky Hardacre.

“We try to make sure the artists they work with are people who are already making professional theatre, and that helps them to learn, but also to establish links into the industry.”

Hardacre says that after Creative Scotland rejected its RFO application, it looked at both cutting costs and increasing income. But the money it needs represents a third of its running costs and – though Creative Scotland said it would be eligible to apply for Project Funding of up to £150,000 at a time – the gap had proved unbridgeable.

“I think, initially, we believed we could keep a skeleton staff and build again from there, but in the end we realised there wasn’t enough money to keep enough staff on to function. Obviously, it has taken a huge toll on morale,” she says.

Hardacre seems to accept there are ways in which SYT has fallen short. However, she insists the organisation has been moving in the right direction, with new projects designed to be more accessible. “The National Ensemble is our flagship project. It is in its second year and there is no fee to take part. We audition around Scotland and we don’t charge for auditions as some theatre companies do,” she says. Making Space and the Family Storytime Company are also free, with bursaries available to cover expenses. “The weekly classes and summer courses have a fee attached. We do offer some supported places , but not as many as we would like because we lack the resources.”

She points out that it is easier to raise money for eye-catching new projects (which will then be free) than to secure regular funding for ongoing ventures like the weekly classes. “It was our intention to relaunch a friends scheme we have had previously and make that specifically about asking for donations to have a bursary pot for people to apply to to access the rest of our programmes.”

Theatre critic for The Scotsman Joyce McMillan also accepts there may have been room for improvement, but says allowing the organisation to go under is not the answer.

“Saying that there are things wrong with the national youth theatre you have got isn’t really a reason for not having a Scotland-wide youth theatre,” she says. “If Creative Scotland was operating a proper traffic lights system like the one the Arts Council in England has produced they would be giving SYT an amber light and saying: ‘If you don’t address some of these issues in the next three years we will really have to look at your funding again.’”

Like many others, McMillan is also concerned about what the plight of SYT says about Creative Scotland’s wider decision-making processes and accountability.

“I think people are using this row as a distraction from the fact the funding round was a shambles,” she says. “Creative Scotland may or may not have got the decision right about SYT, but if they did, nobody knows how or why or on what basis. The handling of all the companies involved just beggars belief. There has been factual misreporting of people’s applications to the panels that made the decisions, and the criteria used and the reasons given to people have often directly contradicted their stated aims.”

Yet staff at Creative Scotland feel increasingly under pressure and hard done by. It is understood they are particularly aggrieved at the way the board caved in once faced with the backlash.

While accepting there were failures of communication – especially around the establishment of a new £2m touring fund – they believe its U-turn undermined their credibility and gave licence to any rejected company to fight back in the future.

The agency’s chief executive Janet Archer has already announced a review of the way funding decisions are reached and a “reset” of future priorities. Whether or not she resigns – and there are those who believe she should have gone already – most critics want a fundamental change. “I am not in favour of abolishing it or completely dismantling it and replacing it with something else, but I do think it needs a root and branch change of culture and approach,” says McMillan. “I think at the moment it is a profoundly confused organisation which has become extremely bad at its central function, which is handing out money to companies in a transparent and consistent way.”

As for the fate of Scottish Youth Theatre, that too hangs in the balance. Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said every option would be explored, but a series of tense meetings have not yet produced a settlement.

Robertson believes if a rescue package is forthcoming it should be with the proviso that SYT focuses on widening access to the deprived communities that might benefit most from involvement. “I would hate to see us lose SYT and I think there is a valid argument that it is already seen as the national youth company,” he says. “But I believe the Scottish Government has a genuine commitment to tackling the attainment gap and, if that’s the case, any public money SYT gets should be used to open it up to those from less advantaged backgrounds.”

In the short-term, those at SYT whose morale has been at rock-bottom have been buoyed by the level of support they have received. “It has been absolutely overwhelming. When you see how many people are commenting about their experiences , going back decades, you realise what a formative experience it is for people,” says Hardacre.

“The acting itself is just the tip of the iceberg : there’s the contribution to mental health, building social skills, employability skills. There are people in all walks of life who say ‘I wouldn’t be who I am today if I had not gone to SYT.’ Some of it reduces me to tears.”

Inside the rehearsal space at SYT headquarters, Tentpole Theatre is still fine-tuning its maritime-themed show. The jellyfish has ensnared the wee boat which is sinking to the bottom of the sea. The trio are so invested in their work, so excited about performing it in front of their first SYT-organised audience, it’s a shame to think the dreams of others like them might soon founder.