Joyce McMillan: Moving to the next stage

IN February next year, the National Theatre of Scotland will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its first-ever production, the amazing series of site-specific shows, staged all across Scotland from Shetland to Dumfries, that were known by the collective title Home.
How the Rockvilla project will look. Picture: ContributedHow the Rockvilla project will look. Picture: Contributed
How the Rockvilla project will look. Picture: Contributed

That project signalled the determination of the new NTS – and its then artistic director, Vicky Featherstone – to be a national theatre without walls, working from a small office in Glasgow to make theatre for, and in, every part of Scotland. And over the decade, the NTS has made an impressive effort to fulfil that remit, performing and working in hundreds of communites across the country.

Now, though, the NTS is about to start work on creating its own first permanent home, in the shape of an old cash & carry warehouse at Speirs Wharf in Glasgow, in the old industrial area once known as Rockvilla.

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Over the next year, at a cost of £6.5 million, the old warehouse floor will become the foundation for what the NTS’s artistic director, Laurie Sansom, calls a new “engine room” for Scottish theatre, a big shed-like hub full of rehearsal rooms, workshops, educational space, storage and offices, that will help bring all the NTS’s backroom activity under one roof.

It’s a move that inevitably invites questions about whether the NTS’s “without walls” model is gradually crumbling, under the pressure to become more like a conventional theatre company with its own production base.

The original idea of the NTS, after all – one generated by the Scottish theatre community itself, after years of debate – was that it should be less of a theatre company, and more of an inspired, creatively led commissioning fund and co-producer, pouring all its resources into creative collaborations with other Scottish companies. It’s easy to see how the fact of owning and running its own production base, with lavish rehearsal space, will reduce the pressure on the NTS to get out and about, and to recycle resources into other theatres.

Last week, the appeal for a final £1.9m of Rockvilla funding was launched at a glamorous event in Glasgow, with the support of Alan Cumming, who voiced a video rejoicing that the NTS would now be able to “bring all the artists it works with under one roof” – hardly the decentralising language of a decade ago.

Around Scotland’s theatre community, though, there seems to be a fair degree of optimism that the founding vision of the NTS will survive the move to Rockvilla, and that the new base will help the company to work more effectively. The idea that the building is not a performance venue remains sacrosanct. The new sculpture just commissioned for the Rockvilla foyer will feature a glowing map of Scotland showing where the NTS is at work, as a constant reminder of the company’s nationwide mission.

And the company’s executive producer, Neil Murray, says that the intention is to make the building, which will have large public areas including a cafe, into a resource for Scottish theatre-makers in general, and not just for NTS projects.

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“With the sad recent loss of the Arches, for example,” he says, “it’s clear that there’s going to be a huge demand for the kind of workshop space we’ll be able to provide at Rockvilla.

“That’s happening already, in the very cramped space we’ve got at Civic Street; you stick your head into the tiny rehearsal room, and ask yourself, who on earth is that?

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“At the moment, though, we just don’t have the space to be the creative centre we could be, and we waste a huge amount of energy hauling ourselves from one building to another.

“So although there are potential downsides to a move like this, I think we’re well aware of the need to guard against them; and if all goes well, the benefits of a new creative centre like this could be huge, for the whole of Scottish theatre.”