Joyce McMillan: new initiative offers leg-up to next generation of theatre artists

It's not an age for good news in the arts, or for bold new initiatives that lift the heart; everywhere, the talk is of cuts and closures, as austerity bites. So it feels strange '“ almost revolutionary '“ to walk into the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, and be welcomed by two women absolutely bursting with enthusiasm for a brand new project just conceived and brought to life by the Festival City Theatres Trust, the charitable company that runs the King's and Festival Theatres, and is '“ by most measures '“ the largest single theatre organisation in Scotland. Cat Sheridan is the trust's learning and participation co-ordinator, a brilliantly energetic 26-year-old who was once a struggling actor herself; Susan Worsfold is a director with 20 years' experience, who trained at Scotland's Royal Conservatoire and specialises in voice. And the project that has them both bubbling with energy is the trust's new Attic Collective, a company of 18 young professional theatre artists at the start of their careers, plus 12 additional associates, who will be based in the legendary attic rehearsal room at the King's, will work and rehearse intensively from 10am until 6pm every Saturday, and '“ in return for a world-class free programme of workshops and training opportunities, often featuring artists appearing at the theatres '“ will provide the trust with three full-scale shows a year. This year's programme '“ designed to feature a classic work, a new play and a music theatre piece '“ includes Aristophanes's Lysistrata (about women who try to end a war by going on a sex strike), Brecht's classic political cabaret-drama The Threepenny Opera, and Jo Clifford's previously unperformed play War in America, commissioned by the Lyceum 20 years ago, but never brought to the stage; and every play, say Sheridan and Worsfold, is linked to the key season themes of Cash, Capital, Women and War.

The Attic Collective PIC: Neil Hanna Photography
The Attic Collective PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

“I don’t think we knew quite how innovative the idea of the collective is,” says Worsfold. “It wasn’t until we started trying to publicise it that we realised there isn’t really a word for it. It’s definitely not youth theatre; our company are artists aged between 18 and 26 who are actively trying to build professional careers. Yet it’s not a fully professional ensemble like the one at Dundee Rep; we recognise that our members have to earn a living elsewhere, and that’s why we took the decision to work only on Saturdays. What we’re offering, though, is a chance for young artists to get together and work to the highest professional standard, with all the support of a big theatre organisation – and to get access to a terrific programme of free professional development workshops, like the one given by Alvin Ailey Dance last week.”

Cat Sheridan invented the idea of the collective, presented it as part of her job application when she joined the trust last year, and has put the project together “by sheer force of will”, according to Worsfold, winning the support of Festival Theatres boss Duncan Hendry, who has almost doubled the Learning and Participation budget to £45,000 a year, to enable the project; and she agrees that the initiative is responding to recent changes that are not yet fully reflected in the industry’s thinking and vocabulary. “The fact is that we now have many people undergoing some kind of drama training, and emerging with real talent and skills, into a world where they not only struggle to make a living as theatre artists, but – crucially – often have to pay for the professional development opportunities that might take them on to the next step.

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“That can be crushing for young theatre professionals who don’t have families that can support them, and we’ve seen all the concern expressed recently by leading actors about how this is restricting access to the profession. We thought hard about the ethics of putting this company together when we knew there was no chance, at least initially, of paying them for their work. But we reckoned that in today’s theatre landscape, our offer represents a huge improvement on what currently faces young theatre artists after they graduate, or make the decision to try for a career in theatre.”

And it seems that they were right. In this first year, the collective project received more than 300 applications for 30 places, from all over Scotland and far beyond; and one of the young actors who made it through into the ensemble, Conor McLeod from East Kilbride, believes that for his generation of young performers, this kind of initiative is desperately needed. Conor studied for an HND in drama at Langside College, graduating in 2014, but had to take a year out during his course to save up enough money to complete it, working in the East Kilbride

tax office, as a labourer, and at other jobs.

“So many people emerge from college – really talented people,” he says, “and just end up doing something else, because they can’t afford to pay hundreds of pounds for one-day workshops, or to travel to London for auditions or whatever. So it’s really nice to get this opportunity to work with other like-minded people, to experience these really great workshops, and maybe to meet future partners in new theatre companies, all without having to pay a financial price. And I’m really impressed at how the collective – who only met for the first time a few weeks ago – have already developed a real ensemble spirit, absolutely focused on working together to create great shows. I never thought, when I was at school and loving my drama work there, that it could be a feasible career. But this gives me an opportunity that could lead to that, and extend my skills into whole new areas, too. And that’s really exciting.”■

*The three 2016-2017 Attic Collective productions will appear at the King’s Theatre and other venues in February, May and September 2017.