It’s been a complicated five years for Scotland’s national theatre company, since its brilliant founding artistic director Vicky Featherstone left the job at the end of 2012. Not a lost half-decade, by any means; the company has moved successfully to its fine new production base at Speirs Wharf in Glasgow, known as Rockvilla, and the NTS’s award-winning presence at this year’s Edinburgh Festival – with shows like Adam and Eve at the Traverse, How To Act at Summerhall, and the mighty Citizens’ Theatre co-production This Restless House in the International Festival – demonstrates the density of work that the company now co-produces, inspires and facilitates, through its famous “theatre without walls” working model.
Yet the giant James Plays project created in 2014 by Featherstone’s successor Laurie Sansom placed huge financial and organisational pressures on the company; and Sansom’s departure, in April 2016, was followed by a long and thoughtful pause before the appointment last October of the young former artistic director of the Arches’ theatre programme, Jackie Wylie. Wylie took up the job in March, and has spent the last eight months preparing her first full year’s programme; so when she opened the doors at Rockvilla this week to launch the company’s 2018 season, it felt like the end of a long and tough transition from the NTS’s heady early years, as well as the beginning of a new era.
“I think the most important thing for me in this first year,” says Wylie, in her sunlit office overlooking the canal, “has been the idea of balance – to show how our work covers the whole range of different interpretations of what the art-form can be at this moment, from big conventional nights at the theatre, to work that questions everything it means to be a national theatre at this time. That means we have a very packed programme next year, one that will test even our brilliant production department. But this big range of work feels important for 2018, and we hope it’s going to be a really exciting year.”
The NTS programme for 2018 includes around 20 shows, plus – in October 2018 – a month-long festival, Futureproof, that features another ten large-scale productions made by and with young people across Scotland, from Shetland to Ayrshire, by ten international experimental theatre companies, including Glasgow’s own Glas(s) Performance, Akhe of Russia, and Mammalian Diving Reflex of Canada, who describe their work as “theatre for the end of the world.” 2018 is the Scottish government’s designated year of young people, and Wylie is determined to use the year to ensure that NTS not only creates a remarkable nationwide international theatre festival reflecting their ideas and concerns, but also integrates a younger perspective into all the company’s work; so that throughout the year, a steering group of young people aged between 14 and 24 will be in residence in all the NTS departments, offering feedback and ideas.
Ambitious though it is, however, the Futureproof event represents only one element of a programme that also includes a large-scale new Dominic Hill production of Edwin Morgan’s Cyrano de Bergerac co-produced with the Citizens’ and Lyceum, an expanded Edinburgh Festival re-working of the David Greig romantic comedy classic Midsummer, and the climax of NTS Learn’s current Shift community project in North Lanarkshire. At North Kelvin Meadow in Glasgow, in June, director Graham Eatough will mastermind a new outdoor show about the experience of autism based on the powerful book The Reason I Jump; and there will also be a major Scotland-Quebec co-production called Nous/Us for Edinburgh in August, a joint project with the Birds Of Paradise company based on the legendary disability story My Left Foot, and a new touring children’s show with Catherine Wheels Theatre.
In Glasgow in August, the cutting-edge experimental group Gob Squad will create a love-song to the city called Super Night Shot, and next November, the NTS will stage Citizens Of Nowhere, a Brexit-era meditation on identity and new technologies, to be curated in Dundee by William Galinsky. And that’s to say nothing of planned revivals of four existing NTS shows – Adam, Eve, How To Act, and The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart – and many other projects, involving partners across Scotland.
So how would Wylie respond to the suggestion that this whirlwind of activity is just too diffuse, and too hard to grasp, if the NTS is to fulfil its function of reaching out beyond the theatre community, and making theatre a vital and legible part of Scottish public life? Or to the risk – given current strong funding pressures – that its “without walls” model may gradually fade into an infrastructural and funding role, in which it supports work and projects that would, in better times, be financed by theatre companies themselves?
“My feeling is that when people see the work – the scale of it, and the boldness – they won’t find it diffuse,” says Wylie. “I hope that they’ll find it brilliant and full of impact, from Cyrano to all the Futureproof shows. And on the question of just becoming part of the funding infrastructure – well, I’d say that’s absolutely not how we work. We have a real creative input into all the shows we co-produce; Cyrano de Bergerac, for instance, would be a very different show without our involvement.
“So what I’ve tried to do, for next year, is to create a programme that both honours what’s already been achieved in theatre in Scotland, and looks very strongly towards the future. It’s a big programme, but it’s the flavour and balance I wanted, for my first full year. And if there’s any organisation that has the capacity to get on and deliver a programme as big and complex as this,” she adds, glancing round Rockvilla with a gleam of real pride, “it’s definitely this one, the National Theatre of Scotland.”
*For more details of the NTS 2018 programme, visit www.nationaltheatrescotland.com