National not nebulous plays for today

WHEN Vicky Featherstone announces the inaugural programme for the National Theatre of Scotland on Tuesday, it will be a milestone in Scottish theatre history.

Insiders indicate the list of productions for 2006 is large. It is expected to include shows by an ensemble company and several to be seen at home and abroad. There'll also be behind-the-scenes workshops, performances for children and community theatre. Opening night will feature several site-specific performances, one of which will be performed at Edinburgh Airport, called Roam. Another work which has been confirmed is Gregory Burke's The Black Watch.

The 7.5m scheme has been a long time coming. In the 1920s, the Scottish National Players aimed to "found a Scottish National Theatre along the lines of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin". Could they have guessed it would take so long.

Yet Featherstone's programme in a way resembles what they envisaged. For though their dedication to "realistic plays of a peasant or folk character" seems quaint, they shared the view that a national theatre should not be restricted to one urban centre. "It must carry its work to the small town and village as well, and this it should do consistently and thoroughly," said a newspaper report in 1926.

That's not so different from the "commissioning model" developed by the Federation of Scottish Theatres in 2000, given the thumbs-up by the Scottish Executive in 2003 and culminating in this week's launch. The FST idea was to recognise the existing wealth of Scottish theatre and fashion an organisation to capitalise on the best of it.

Where King George IV, James Bridie and Bill Bryden had national aspirations for the Edinburgh Theatre Royal in the 1820s, the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre in the 1940s and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in the 1970s, here was a scheme with no interest in buildings, still less in temples to art. What counted was the artists in the buildings, or even Grid Iron from Edinburgh or Poorboy from Angus - outside, performing in playgrounds or docklands.

The risk is that, without a building, the NTS will be too nebulous an idea for audiences to grab hold of.

The advantage is the organisation can perform where it likes and is not lumbered with an unsuitable home.

Having no restrictions does not mean that Featherstone's organisation won't develop its own character. With her appointment in July 2004, the ex-Paines Plough director made a significant shift in the way the NTS had been conceived.

The assumption had been that the artistic director would be a producer, marshalling the resources of Scottish theatre but staying largely out of sight. Featherstone, however, has given the organisation an artistic heart, promising to direct some shows herself and creating some work independently of existing companies.

The decision will prevent the NTS from being a soulless machine but puts pressure on the director and her colleagues to satisfy two centuries of expectations on their own. Their track record is encouraging. Featherstone directed Pyrenees by David Greig, which won the TMA award for Best Play. Her colleagues - associate director John Tiffany, from the Traverse and Paines Plough; education director Simon Sharkey, from Cumbernauld Theatre; and executive director Neil Murray, from the Tron - have similarly strong reputations.

When you throw in David Greig as dramaturg and artistic associates such as Liz Lochhead, the team looks to have a bias towards new writing. Perhaps that makes sense when playwrights have long been the jewel in Scotland's theatre crown, but it might worry those who like an established repertoire.

Featherstone insists they needn't fear. "The most important thing is that all the people who think the NTS is not for them realise that it is," she says.