Joyce McMillan: without reliable data, we can’t judge funding levels

There was a strange atmosphere of mixed emotions as the Scottish theatre community gathered at the Tron Theatre last weekend to celebrate the annual Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland (CATS).

Mark Thompson. Picture: Stuart Wallace

As ever, there was plenty of thrilling work to celebrate, as Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre picked up an armful of awards for one of the most exciting seasons ever produced there. Yet there was also an undercurrent of sadness and anxiety, following the recent closure of the Arches – until last week, one of the key powerhouses of Scottish theatre.

There was also a sense of insecurity and threat among many other companies at the Tron, including the Lyceum itself, hit by a 17 per cent grant cut in last autumn’s Creative Scotland funding round. This year, in other words, it feels as though Scottish theatre is at a dangerous corner, with a cold rhetoric of enforced economies and imminent cuts sending a chill across the landscape. And yet, this is a sector which has not, overall, suffered any major central government cuts in recent years, and which is – in real terms – almost twice as well funded as it was in the 1990s.

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So what is the reason for this widespread pessimism about the future, amid what seems to be relative plenty? Essentially, it seems the problem is four-fold. First, the culture of inevitable austerity has taken such a fierce grip on the UK public sector that language and management culture reflect those negative assumptions, even when money is not in fact being cut. In a fiery speech at the CATS ceremony, the Lyceum’s outgoing artistic director, Mark Thomson, argued that Scottish theatre-makers should rebel against this pervasive assumption that cuts are inevitable. And if the Scottish Government has done a remarkable job in maintaining cultural funding in tough times, then that achievement surely deserves recognition, rather than a general caving-in to the gloomy language of austerity.

There are, though, also some structural reasons why relatively generous cultural funding in Scotland is perhaps not making the impact it should. First, there is a widespread feeling that given 21st-century management structures, it’s always the new armies of salaried administrators and managers who have first call on arts funds, rather than the artists themselves; this is a serious perceived imbalance, which needs to be investigated. Secondly, Creative Scotland’s laudable efforts to spread theatre funding more widely, across a larger number of companies and areas, including touring companies, has meant that Scotland’s highest-profile building-based theatres have taken a disproportionate funding hit, in recent years; and the mood of the big theatres, with a decline in productions, tends to affect the mood of the whole sector.

And finally there is a recurring complaint that hard information about how money is being spent is now much more difficult to acquire than it was in the days when every Scottish Arts Council report contained a full run-down of each funded company, the number and titles of shows it had produced in the year, its total audience, and the precise composition of its budget. Lorne Boswell of Equity says that it’s now almost impossible for the union to gather its once-meticulous figures on how many weeks of actor employment are generated by Scottish companies. Jon Morgan of the Federation of Scottish Theatre argues that the whole funding debate would be vastly more productive if the industry as a whole, including Creative Scotland, collected data better, and – crucially – shared it better.

And the strange thing about the recent history of Scottish theatre is that it seems this lack of information is not covering up a decline, but actually obscuring what could be a good news story. Provided, of course, that the money is spent where it should be, on Scotland’s great theatre makers and on the spaces where they can create the work that helps us to 
understand the present, and to dream of different and more inspiring futures.