In theatre there’s a time-honoured tradition of the industry’s front-line workers – the writers and actors – striking out and forming their own companies, when they want to see real change in the way the art-form works. John McGrath did it in the early 1970s, when he left behind a successful career in television to form 7:84, whose greatest hit The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil is currently being celebrated in a terrific revival at Dundee Rep. Molière did it, running, writing for and acting in his own company for decades, until he collapsed and died during a 1673 performance of his comedy The Hypochondriac.
Shakespeare was one of a collective of nine actors incorporated to form the King’s Men in 1603. Alan Ayckbourn, perhaps the most successful of all living playwrights, ran his beloved Stephen Joseph Theatre at Scarborough for more than 35 years; and playwright James Bridie and actor Tom Fleming both did it, when they launched the Citizens’ Theatre Company in the Gorbals, and the Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh, 70 and 50 years ago this autumn.
What’s still much more unusual, though, is to see a practising playwright appointed to the helm of a major existing theatre company, and appointed not as part of a collective leadership, but in his or her own right: which is why ripples of excitement have been running through the Scottish and international theatre scene since the announcement, last week, that from the summer of 2016, leading Scottish playwright David Greig will take over from Mark Thomson as artistic director of the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. In his appointment statement, Greig said that he was “thrilled and flattered” by the confidence the board has shown in his vision; and he will now say no more until early next year, when he launches his first Lyceum programme.
Yet already, the news of his appointment is raising a series of exciting questions. Is there, for example, any chance that Greig’s appointment will lead to a reversal of the huge Creative Scotland grant cut set to hit the Lyceum from next summer? Will it encourage the closer relationship with the neighbouring Traverse Theatre, for many years Greig’s second home, that Creative Scotland wants to see? Will Greig want to write new plays of his own for the Lyceum stage, or concentrate on the other aspects of the role?
And will the presence of a playwright in the artistic director’s office present a challenge to the surprisingly rigid hierarchy of modern theatre, in which directors and producers can aspire to run large organisations from an early stage in their careers, whereas actors and playwrights – and other creative workers – increasingly find themselves treated as poorly paid freelance labour, rarely involved in core decision-making?
All of this remains to be seen: for now, Greig will be concentrating on putting together his first 2016-17 season, while the Lyceum Company throws itself into a year of 50th anniversary celebrations, starting with this month’s all-star Waiting For Godot. It’s worth remembering, though, that Greig is no novice at theatrical multitasking; he often directs his own work, and for almost 20 years, from 1990, he and Graham Eatough were artistic directors of their own highly successful company, Suspect Culture.
So perhaps Greig’s career at the Lyceum will mirror the complex experience of two poet-playwrights who did take on directing roles in major cultural institutions, at a time of national upheaval – Henrik Ibsen in the Norway of the 1850s, and William Butler Yeats, who was one of the founding directors of Ireland’s national theatre at the Abbey; or perhaps he will succeed in resolving some of the tensions that baffled them. For Greig himself, though, there’s no doubt about one question that will always be uppermost in his mind: how to ensure that he remains a playwright first and last, no matter what other roles he chooses to play, and how much success he may enjoy in them.