Joyce McMillan: Scottish theatre’s route to recovery is likely to involve a lot of B-roads

Small-scale touring could be better suited to life after coronavirus, but for it to be a success all parties will have to connect with their communities

John Bett and Elizabeth MacLennan in 7:84's famous touring show, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil PIC: Denis Straugan

It began a few weeks after lockdown, with the thought that small-scale touring venues – as flexible spaces with no fixed seating, often featuring shows with small casts – might find it easier to adapt to social distancing rules, over the coming months, than large, conventionally-designed theatres. The idea was first floated by the critic Lyn Gardner, in a column for The Stage; and over the past few months, the debate has expanded to include a whole range of ideas about the role of theatre in our society and community, and about how small-scale theatre, taking place in local arts centres and village halls, might contribute to the process of “building back better” after the Covid crisis.

“The touring system in England was really in a terrible state, even before the Covid crisis,” says Gardner. “Companies were often trailing round from one underfunded venue to another, sometimes not even meeting the person who booked them, and often unable to get the support they needed in marketing their shows locally – so they’d get small audiences, too, which was a miserable situation.

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“For me, though, it was also that, talking to many young artists, I began to sense a change in what they want to do. Most of them are very conscious of climate change, and of the need to reduce the carbon footprint of their work; and more and more are telling me that they want to work closely with local communities where they live, to make work that is really rooted in the way we live now, and the changes we’re all facing. And that involves working closely with local venues and spaces; even if at first, for safety reasons, it probably also means using outdoor spaces around the community – rarely a bad thing, in my experience.”

And although the situation in Scotland is different in many ways – with a slightly less draconian recent history of spending cuts, and a slower release from lockdown – many of these thoughts about the future of theatre are beginning to strike a chord on the Scottish touring theatre scene. Small-scale touring theatre in Scotland has a spectacularly significant history, of course, with the iconic first tour of 7:84 Scotland’s The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil still remembered as a transformative moment in Scotland’s relationship with theatre, almost 50 years on; and although touring theatre in Scotland is alive and thriving, there is a widespread feeling that it has never quite recaptured the sense of radical purpose, and of a central place in Scotland’s theatre culture, that it had during the 1970s.

Now, though, that sense of purpose seems to be stirring again – and this time, the impetus is coming not only from Scotland’s touring artists and companies, but from the venues themselves.

“Looking back over what we were planning to do in these four months,” says Charlotte Mountford of Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness, “we really were on quite a relentless schedule, presenting a huge number of artists and shows from week to week; and often the artists would just come and go, in a way that gave them no chance to develop a deeper relationship with the audience and community here.

“So this is really a valuable chance to reflect on what we do, and to think how we can change and develop our work. We’ve been very touched by the way the community around here has turned to us for help during the crisis, in areas like home schooling, wellbeing, mental health; and we’ve developed a whole new relationship with Highland Council, who are referring people to us where they think we, and the artists we work with, can help.

“And for us, all this is really quite exciting. To make an arts centre work, in the heart of a community like Caithness, you really need that strong connection between the venue, the community and locally-based artists, and we are definitely discovering new ways of strengthening that. And we know, from our networks, that we’re not alone. I was in a huge Zoom meeting the other day of venues all over Scotland, and I felt that many of them, particularly those outside the central belt, were beginning to think in the same way. What we want is a really deep collaboration between venues and artists – and yes, I’d love to be part of a network of venues that had more commissioning power, in that sense, and more resources to support artists, and to work creatively with them.”

And the director Michael Emans, who has spent 20 years developing close relationships with the network of venues regularly visited by his touring Rapture Theatre company, fully agrees. “If you look at what will be needed to encourage audiences back into theatres again,” says Emans, “then you’re looking for local venues where they feel safe, you’re looking at short journeys to the theatre, and you’re looking for good quality material that creates enthusiasm for getting back into live theatre again. And smaller touring venues that are in close touch with artists and theatre-makers are really well placed to provide all of that.

“What we want is to keep building a bespoke personal relationship with the venues we visit, as deep as we can make it. A recent report suggested that one of the problems for touring theatre is that the audience is never at the centre of discussions about its future. And I think this crisis gives us a chance to change that; and to do some new thinking about what audiences want and need from local arts venues, and how we can build relationships of trust with them that enable us all to go on new creative journeys, together.”

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