Outgoing National Theatre of Scotland director warns of ignoring Scottish artists

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VICKY Featherstone, the outgoing artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, has issued a stark warning against the country “ignoring” its artists.

With arts agency Creative Scotland under increasing fire from an artists’ rebellion, the highly-respected NTS figurehead stressed that its most successful productions had been “artist-led and audience focused.”

She said she had found Scotland’s artists “desperate to say challenging new things in brilliant new ways” during her eight years in the job and said the nation boasted some of the best playwrights in the world.

In a BBC Radio 3 interview, her first since her departure at Christmas was announced, Ms Featherstone said: “Scotland is made up of mavericks and artists, poets and thinkers, musicians and rebels, warriors, clans and tribes, we ignore them at our peril.”

Ms Featherstone said although the SNP Government - which directly funds NTS - believed in the country having “culture at its core”, there had been no artistic intrusion or “any kind of censorship.”

She also admitted that controversial play Caledonia had been perceived as NTS’s big failure but said she still considered it a success despite the “vitriolic” it had received.

Some of Creative Scotland’s strongest critics have been playwrights, including David Greig and John Byrne, while theatre companies were left furious after losing out on regular funding in a controversial shake-up earlier this year.

More than 400 artists have now backed a letter of damning criticism into the running of Creative Scotland, with major changes due to be announced in the next few weeks.

Ms Featherstone, who said the job she took on was a “great honour and an even greater responsibility, was appointed in July 2004 and the first shows for the fledgling organisation were staged in February 2006 in 10 locations across Scotland.

She admitted she would have “probably” have walked away from the job had she realised the weight of expectation on her shoulders for “over a hundred years” of debate about whether Scotland should have its own national theatre company.

But she credited former First Minister Jack McConnell for paving the way for NTS to be born with a keynote speech on culture and its importance in post-devolution Scotland at the RSAMD in Glasgow on St Andrew’s Day in 2003.

She said: “The spirit of that St Andrew’s Day speech has been upheld and multiplied by the current SNP government, who really do believe in their DNA that the only chance of being a healthy independent country means that they must keep culture at its core.

“As Scotland moves towards asking the question of independence, what NTS must do is continue to create the platform for those artists to keep asking ‘who are we’ and for making sense of the world around us.

“The work which has toured internationally is the work which is the most personal. Black Watch started from interviews with six soldiers one Sunday afternoon in a pub in Dunfermline. Glasgow Girls is about one block of flats in Glasgow where the asylum seekers are sent.

“Our best shows, I realise now, demonstrate part of the national conservation. They are the personal made universal, the local made international, they are artist-led and audience-focused and are shows only we can make.

“What of the future then? Scotland is made up of mavericks and artists, poets and thinkers, musicians and rebels, warriors, clans and tribes, we ignore them at our peril.”

Ms Featherstone said she had felt “empowered” in her post because culture was politically more important in Scotland than she had known before.

She added: “What has been very interesting for me is we are being directly funded by the government, so there is no arms-length body for us, like an arts council, so we are much closer to politics than I have ever experienced before, but they have been incredibly clear right from the beginning that it is not about the programme or any kind of censorship.”

It emerged last month that Laurie Sansom, artistic director at the Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton, is to take over the top job at NTS when Vicky Featherstone leaves.