Joyce McMillan: Critics’ awards rewards best shows

IT started, improbably enough, in Leipzig 12 years ago, when a small group of journalists from Scotland had been invited to cover a weekend celebrating British playwriting, including a new German production of Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way, and readings of other works by the rising generation of young Scottish playwrights.

Bill Paterson presented the Cats last year, including an award to Blythe Duff for her role in Ciara

We had been discussing the irony of the fact that the power and range of contemporary Scottish theatre often seemed more widely recognised outside Scotland than in Scotland; and as we set off for home, my colleague Robert Dawson Scott of the Times – a former arts editor of The Scotsman – raised the idea that like the Critics’ Circle in London, we should launch our own annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (Cats). We would celebrate the best work produced in Scotland each year, and to seek to gain more recognition for an art form often seen – for historic reasons – as less central to Scottish life than, for example, music or literature.

When the idea was put to the group of a dozen or so critics then writing regularly about theatre in Scotland, there was the usual robust disagreement about how we should do it, or whether we should do it at all; critics are never short of conflicting opinions. And in that first year, the awards began very modestly; we held a meeting, made our decisions, and travelled around the country delivering awards plaques to the winners as and when we could, across the ten categories – from Best Male and Female Performances to Best Show For Children Or Young People – that still make up the Cats awards today.

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Over the years, though, the Cats have grown into something like a real annual celebration for Scottish theatre, an award ceremony and party that, while still modest in scale and budget, has become a vital part of the theatre year. We’ve won loyal sponsors that range from the Mackintosh Foundation to STV, BBC Drama in Scotland, Equity the actors’ union, and the theatre insurers W & P Longreach. We’ve had vital in-kind support from theatres including the Festival Theatres in Edinburgh and Pitlochry, the Traverse and the Tron, where we return this year, for the Cats 2015. Our guest stars have included theatre legends such as John Byrne, Alan Cumming and Bill Paterson; and our winners range from recognised stars including David Tennant and Blythe Duff to the whole of the Lung Ha’s company for adults with learning difficulties, who won the Best Ensemble award in 2010.

Like all awards, the Cats raises issues about who makes the decisions, and why. Over the years, as journalism has grown more fragmented and moved online, we’ve changed our membership to reflect those shifts; and no-one is ever likely to agree with all our decisions. The best guarantee of the integrity of the process, though, lies in the diversity of the critics as a group, in the sheer range of conflicting opinions we bring to the table, and the fact that we all love the art-form enough to spend a huge part of our lives in darkened rooms, watching theatre good and bad, and reporting back on it. Over a long day’s discussion, we hammer out a result by which we can all stand; then we celebrate, and hope theatre-makers and theatre-lovers will join us.

This year, we gather at the Tron on 14 June, with mighty shows including last year’s James Plays and the Lyceum’s recent, brilliant Caucasian Chalk Circle in contention. And if the critics’ decisions are never perfect, they nonetheless represent an honest attempt to reach a conclusion through a day of passionate debate among a group of very different minds; and that, in an age of deep uncertainty about how we assess quality and achievement in the arts, must be a process worth considering, as we muse on the relationship between an ancient art form, and the society it aims to reflect and serve.

• Cats 2015, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 14 June.