Joyce McMillan: New NTS director Jackie Wylie offers breadth of vision

Jackie Wylie, newly-appointed Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland.
Jackie Wylie, newly-appointed Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland.
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At the heart of most arts organisations there is an inevitable tension, sometimes creative, sometimes destructive. On one hand, there’s the widely acknowledged need for creative organisations to be led by creative artists. And on the other, there is the need for the leader of a major organisation to carry out all the multiple roles that go with being a chief executive, from keeping an eye on the organisation’s overall finances, to developing a long-term creative programme, and acting as chief ambassador and public representative of the organisation, both at home and internationally.

It’s a tough remit; and although some remarkable men and women take to it without apparent strain – the great Giles Havergal, for 34 years artistic director of the Citizens’ Theatre, is an outstanding example – others act out the tensions in a style flamboyant, constructive, or disastrous, depending on their personalities. And of all Scotland’s arts organisations, the young National Theatre of Scotland – which launched its first shows just a decade ago, after years of effort by the Federation of Scottish Theatre to draw up a model for a 21st century national theatre that finally won the support of the then Scottish government – is the one where that tension appears in its sharpest form. Its magnificent founding director, Vicky Featherstone, was a rehearsal-room director to her fingertips when she took up the job, in love with the business of nurturing and presenting new plays for her previous company Paines Plough.

Yet it took her just a few months to work out that if she was to do justice to the strategic and political demands of the job as a whole – and to the NTS’s theatre-without-walls commitment to serving and reflecting the whole of Scotland – she would have to put her own directing work on hold for at least a couple of years. And after she left the NTS in December 2012 to become artistic director of the Royal Court in London, she was replaced by Laurie Sansom, another inspired rehearsal-room director who poured most of his energy, during the first two years of his directorship, into producing his remarkable large-scale productions of Rona Munro’s James Plays. The huge history cycle was co-produced with the Edinburgh Festival and the National Theatre in London, and was hailed by one London critic as “better than Shakespeare”; but Sansom’s heavy rehearsal-room commitments are said to have contributed to a build-up of tensions at the NTS’s Glasgow headquarters in the old Port Dundas canal basin, which led to his abrupt departure in June of this year. And when the NTS board began the

search for a successor to Sansom earlier this year, this continuing tension must have been uppermost in their minds.

Cometh the hour, though, cometh the woman; and in appointing former Arches artistic director Jackie Wylie as the new leader of the NTS, the board recognised the emergence of a new generation of creative leaders who might have been made to work with the revolutionary NTS model of a 21st century national theatre without walls, without a theatre building, and without a permanent performing company. Essentially, that model always involved something more like a creative production fund, linked to a co-producing hub. And at 36, Wylie is a new-generation creative producer with a brilliant record of identifying and fostering rising talent, and an impressive network of UK and international partners already in place; a creative artist, in other words, who is ready and able to pour all her vision and energy into the work of the NTS as a whole, balancing its huge range of commitments and partnerships, and using the unique platform of a national theatre company both to reach out to new audiences, and to assert the role of theatre as a vital part of Scotland’s national life at a time of intense debate over the nation’s future.

That Jackie Wylie has lived and worked almost all her life in Scotland undoubtedly gives her a head start in this most complex of jobs. She grew up in Edinburgh, went to Glasgow University, and worked as a location-finder in the film industry before she went to work with Andy Arnold at the Arches in the mid-2000s. Her sense of Scotland’s physical landscape is therefore almost as detailed and passionate as her knowledge of the newly confident post-1980s Scottish cultural scene in which she grew up; and already, in her mid-30s, she can claim almost all of Scotland’s current rising generation of theatre writers and makers - Rob Drummond, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair, Julia Taudevin, Nic Green – as Arches graduates, who first found their voices there.

She would, though, be the first to say that what matters here is not her nationality, but her passion for the place and its people, and her already encyclopaedic knowledge of where its current creative strengths and potentials lie. Her artistic directorship will not be without its problems, of course. She will need an executive producer/deputy director in charge of financial and organisational structures with whom she can work seamlessly to provide a stable future for the company, and she will need to lead the NTS through what may well be tough financial times.

After the announcement of her appointment last week, though, the NTS chair Seona Reid talked about the breadth of vision that Wylie offered for the NTS as one of the clinching factors in her success. And Scotland’s national theatre company may well find that it has been fortunate indeed, in finding a new leader born of the age we live in, who wants and needs to express her creative energy in supporting artists across the widest national and international canvas; rather than in the intense space of the rehearsal room, where the work itself is finally made. ■