National Theatre of Scotland prepares to move online

As Scotland’s creative community wrestles with the implications of lockdown, The National Theatre of Scotland is taking the arts into cyberspace with new commissions

Jackie Wylie has ambitious plans to take the National Theatre of Scotland's work online

If there’s one thing that’s certain about the current coronavirus crisis, it’s that it will throw up some unexpected winners and losers, in the arts as elsewhere. In recent years, other arts organisations have often envied institutions which were in a position to earn a high percentage of their income at the box office, and from theatre bars and restaurants; but now, suddenly, in these strange times, that commercial strength and relative freedom from arts funding bureaucracy has become a devastating weakness, as earned income plummets to zero.

The exact opposite is true, though of the National Theatre of Scotland, which has no theatre building of its own. It has income from performance projects of course, in the form of fees and box office share; but in 2018-19 – as the company focused on work with youth theatres across Scotland in its remarkable Futureproof season, and on other development and outreach projects – those earnings accounted for under 13 per cent of the company’s income, whereas the Scottish Government’s £4.2 million direct block grant to the company accounted for 63 per cent.

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It’s a model of operation that has attracted some criticism, with the NTS sometimes lambasted – not least at this year’s conference of the stage union Equity – for not employing enough Scottish theatre professionals on large-scale projects, or reaching out enough to large popular audiences across Scotland. Yet in the current meltdown of the theatre scene, the NTS suddenly emerges as a possible point of stability, in the midst of massive disruption. As the crisis broke, the NTS was on the point of launching a busy series of four late spring productions, including its re-mounted version of 1970s classic The Cheviot, The Stag And the Black, Black Oil, set to open at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow on 30 April.

That whole spring season has now gone, at least for the moment; but in the meantime, the NTS is set to use its sheer institutional scale, and relative wealth, to try to provide some vital support for Scotland’s theatre life during the lean months ahead. There are several strands to the company’s plans; but the most substantial involves Scenes For Survival, a new scheme to commission short pieces of online theatre – around five minutes long – from theatre artists across Scotland, and to stream them online, partly through a partnership with BBC Scotland and BBC Arts Culture In Quarantine.

In order to kick-start the project, and give it the highest possible profile, the NTS immediately signed up some leading names in Scottish theatre and culture to take part. Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Blythe Duff, Lorraine Mcintosh, Jenni Fagan, Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin are among the celebrities who have undertaken to produce their five-minutes’ worth, many of them waiving the fee that will be paid to all writers involved, along with appropriate fees for actors and directors, and “paying it forward” into a fund to support further commissions. The NTS’s artistic director Jackie Wylie is keen to emphasise, though, that most of the work commissioned will be from artists who are not so well known, or are at the start of their careers.

“We really have two aims in doing this. One is to keep in touch with our audience, and to keep making people aware of the huge talent that’s around in our theatre scene, and of how much our theatre life matters, even in this dark period. And the other, of course, is to offer some support, and a chance to carry on working, to a community that feels so desperately anxious at the moment.

“I’m very aware that many people may not want to work at this time, or just not feel able to process everything that’s happening. But we’re making a call-out to writers this week, and we hope that those who do feel able to get an idea together will respond to that. We obviously have no idea at the moment how long this will last, or how many of these “scenes” we’ll be able to commission; but in terms of budget, we’re looking to invest thousands of pounds in it – more than £20,000, certainly – and also to raise some money for a new hardship fund for theatre professionals hit by this crisis.”

Beyond Scenes For Survival, the NTS’s lockdown plans include online Play Dates for young children, commissioned from some of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre artists, and a series of “residencies at home” for artists working on new projects, as part of the NTS’s Engine Room programme. And the NTS is also hoping to be able to follow the National Theatre in London in making some of its greatest hits available online, from a back catalogue that ranges from its great inaugural hit Black Watch in 2006, to rollicking musicals including Our Ladies and My Left Right Foot.

“At the moment, all the directors of Scotland’s theatre are meeting online every week, to exchange information and try to give each other some support,” says Wylie, “and it’s really very moving, to see how people are determined to try to stick together in this, and to do what we can to help everyone survive this shock. We’re under no illusion, at NTS, that this online work can replace the unique experience of live theatre in any way. But we hope that these projects will help to keep the memory and the possibilities of theatre very much alive during this strange time, both in the minds of our audience, and for those working in theatre; and maybe also help us prepare for the transformed theatre landscape that’s bound to emerge, when this crisis is finally over.”

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