Joyce McMillan: After the storm, what now for Mull’s arts scene?

Comar's creative director Alasdair McCrone directs The Drawer Boy
Comar's creative director Alasdair McCrone directs The Drawer Boy
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IT’S been a stormy season on Mull, and not only in terms of the weather.

Back in July, something like a popular rebellion broke out on the island, after Comar – the new organisation combining the island’s two arts institutions, Mull Theatre and An Tobar gallery and music centre – announced a new management plan which involved maintaining the posts of creative director and chief executive, but getting rid of the organisation’s two long-standing artistic leaders, Alasdair McCrone of Mull Theatre, and music man Gordon Maclean.

So protest meetings were held, an elected shadow board was set up, the previous board resigned, and last week the Transition Board announced that McCrone and Maclean would be reinstated, with McCrone taking over the job of creative director, and acting chief executive. Now, the grassroots Comar members’ organisation has begun the process of electing and appointing a new board; and as McCrone – a talented actor as well as a director – takes the stage as the Dame in the Tobermory community panto this week, it’s tempting to see the whole story as something of an island fairytale, in which the good people of the village triumph over the dark forces of modern management-speak, and top-heavy administration.

As he settles into his new role, though, McCrone is under no illusions about an easy happy ending; on the contrary, he is well aware of the financial pressures that led the previous board to conclude that top jobs in the organisation had to go, and is clear that the levels of spending that were possible during the founding phase of Comar – when the organisation benefited from transition grants – cannot be built into its long-term plans.

“Essentially, we have a Creative Scotland grant of £416,000 a year, which represents between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of our income,” says McCrone, “and that’s just a little bit more than the total the two organisations had, before the merger. So my starting-point is that we should be able to maintain our level of creative activity, across theatre, music and the visual arts, and then look for ways to improve our income and expand Comar’s work, in a gentle, organic way. We’re hoping, for example, that Mull will start to benefit greatly from the new road equivalent tariff that’s just been introduced, which will slash car-ferry fares; so one priority for me would be to reinstate some kind of summer season on Mull, to meet demand from visitors.”

The idea of a summer season represents a nod to the history of Mull Little Theatre, founded at Dervaig in 1966 by actors Barrie and Marianne Hesketh; but as director of Mull Theatre – now based at Druimfin, near Tobermory – McCrone’s pride and joy is his programme of newly-commissioned plays, funded by Creative Scotland to tour throughout the country, which in 2016 is set to include Peter Arnott’s new play Unspotted Snow, about the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic, and Robert Dawson Scott’s The Electrifying Mr Johnston, about wartime Secretary of State Tom Johnston, the visionary founder of Scotland’s Hydro Electric Board. First up, though, will be a revival of a gorgeous play, Movietime, written by the late island bookseller David Pitman, and set in the projection booth of a 1940s Glasgow cinema.

“I think the point about this organisation is that to make it work, everyone has to multitask a bit.” says McCrone. “Gordon Maclean, our music director, is also a working musician, and a great technician. I’m happy to take on the responsibility of being chief executive, but I also direct plays, act and write; the same applies to the visual arts. And hopefully, if we keep our focus on the organisation’s creative output, we’ll be able to come together to make the idea of Comar work really well, both for Mull, and for the whole Scottish arts scene. Because in the end, the work we produce is the only reason we’re here; and so long as we remember that - well then, I’m optimistic.”