Joyce McMillan on Rockvilla, the National Theatre of Scotland’s new £6.5 million home

The cast of Let The Right One In rehearsing in Rockvilla PIC: Gillian Hayes
The cast of Let The Right One In rehearsing in Rockvilla PIC: Gillian Hayes
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It was a beautiful, misty winter’s morning in Glasgow, as the Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop raised a giant pair of scissors, invited the assembled local schoolchildren to count down from five, and – with the help of Glasgow City Council leader Frank McAveety – cut the big red ribbon wrapped around the National Theatre of Scotland’s new headquarters at Rockvilla, designed by Hoskins Architects, on a curve of the Glasgow Canal just north of Port Dundas.

The building is an old cash & carry warehouse, now converted in less than two years – at a cost of £6.5 million raised from dozens of sponsors and donors – into a base that brings all the company’s administration, storage and rehearsal facilities under one roof, as well as offering space for education, community and development work. So far as performance is concerned, the NTS remains the co-producing “theatre without walls” it has been since its inception, in the early 2000s; there will be no performances at Rockvilla.

Yet on a cold winter’s day touched by a glimpse of sunshine, the official opening of the new building – with that brief moment of harmony between the SNP culture secretary and McAveety, who as Labour culture minister in 2003 announced the decision to create a national theatre – seems to offer a glimmer of hope in a difficult time; and one that’s genuinely welcomed across the Scottish theatre community, whether they’re speaking on or off the record.

“The very first impact of moving here has been for the people who work at NTS,” says the company’s acting chief executive Lucy Mason, who has been one of the key figures in steering the move. “Instead of being in tiny offices at our old base in Civic Street, or scattered around across the city, we’re now all in the same space, and able to see that we are a company. It makes all our communications so much easier and more efficient, and everyone is really loving it.

“I’d also hope, though, that everyone working in Scottish theatre begins to see this building as a potential resource, particularly when they’re working on a show with the NTS, but also when they’re looking for a supportive environment to develop their work. Obviously there isn’t room for everyone here, but we already have our Starter For 10 group of emerging artists here, and we’re providing some hot desk facilities too. We’ve always said that we want Rockvilla to be a kind of engine room for all of Scottish theatre, and we’re very hopeful that it’s already starting to play that role.”

Cora Bissett, the director of Glasgow Girls and an NTS associate artist, shares Mason’s optimism about the atmosphere of the building and the quality of the rehearsal space, describing it as “amazing” to work in; and she doubts whether the existence of this new space will make the work of the NTS more Glasgow-centric. “I wish more people could see the care that’s taken here,” she says, “balancing different types and scales of work, different partners. And of course, the geographical spread of the work, across Scotland and beyond, is one of the biggest factors in that decision making.”

And at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, David Greig is equally happy about the emergence of this new Glasgow base for Scottish theatre. “In my experience, theatre people essentially treat Glasgow and Edinburgh as one city,” says Greig, “and the only problem is trying to get audiences to do the same. I don’t think people want the NTS to start staging performances at Rockvilla – that would be the point at which the NTS starts being a competitor, rather than a powerful co-producer. But it’s a beautiful building in a beautiful place, and I think it’s a wonderful thing that our national company is going to have facilities of this quality in which to create great work – it can only be good for all of us.”

The NTS’s incoming artistic director, Jackie Wylie, is currently involved in final preparations for the new Take Me Somewhere Glasgow-wide performance festival, set to open in February, and doesn’t take up her post until March. But while the NTS currently makes the most of its impressive back-catalogue of shows – Let The Right One In, The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart and Glasgow Girls are all on tour outside Scotland this spring – there’s no doubt that some of the younger generation of Scottish theatre artists are excited at the prospect of Wylie, as former artistic director of the Arches, once again taking charge of a space in Glasgow.

Jenna Watt, who’s about to launch a tour of her Fringe First winning show Faslane, says that she has already had substantial support from the National Theatre of Scotland over the last five years, and that strong efforts are being made to make young artists aware of what’s available at Rockvilla. And the playwright Kieran Hurley, whose award-winning 2016 monologue Heads Up also goes on tour shortly, admits that as a theatre-maker who began his career at the Arches, he can’t help feeling a twinge of excitement.

“Rockvilla’s not going to be a new Arches, of course,” says Hurley, “and everyone knows that. But I do hope it will become a centre where people feel they can develop great ideas, something a bit more than an NTS office and rehearsal space. Obviously it’s going to be an unknown quantity for all of us freelance artists, until we see how it works. But in general, it just feels great to me that at a time when funding is short, and the whole world seems in such an uncertain place, the NTS has been able to do this, to raise the funds and create something so positive; and I hope it’ll be a source of strength for all of us in Scottish theatre, whatever comes next.” ■