FOR many arts lovers, the past few years seemed to announce a change – if not a new dawn – in Scottish attitudes towards theatre. In Edinburgh, the International Festival and the Fringe were offering more work that blurred the old boundaries between art forms. In particular, Aurora Nova, the Fringe's acclaimed festival of international "visual theatre", saw dance and theatrical performance melded into a dazzlingly impressive whole.
In Glasgow, the city's great post-industrial venues, Tramway and The Arches, offered audiences exciting programmes of experimental home-grown and international work. Meanwhile, the annual National Review of Live Art (NRLA) and its parent festival New Territories (previously New Moves) continued to stage the kind of leftfield performance that used to be both championed and derided (according to taste) as "avant-garde". Even the grand old Victorian playhouse that is Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre got in on the act. During the final years of director Giles Havergal's three-decade reign, the Citz's studio spaces hosted a brilliant array of radical reinterpretations of classic texts. A brazen 2003 adaptation of Diderot's novel The Nun – which included a neon crucifix and a male actor cross-dressing as one of the Holy Sisters – was especially memorable.
Just six years ago, it was perfectly imaginable that the old barriers separating one theatre audience from another were about to come down. If you were happy to see Diderot recast in neon, there was, surely, no reason why you couldn't be tempted to check out the theatrical experiments going on at The Arches or the NRLA.
Fast forward to February 2009, however, and it seems that the artistic Holy Grail of the "crossover audience" has not been achieved. As The Arches and the Tramway prepare to host the NRLA and New Territories, the Citizens' pulls out that most commercial of old theatrical warhorses, Willy Russell's Educating Rita. The old division between popular theatre and the radical fringe looks like it's made a comeback.
The Citz's artistic director Jeremy Raison has no problem with the idea of the fractured audience. "In Glasgow you have different audiences for Tramway and The Arches, which tend to attract similar audiences, the Tron and ourselves," he says. "Our market research bears that out."
The Citz's role, says Raison, is that of a "flagship theatre" primarily presenting "classic traditional theatre" on its main stage. The director has raised eyebrows with his decision to stage Russell's bankable 1980 drama, but he maintains that it is in keeping with the work by the likes of Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, which the theatre has staged of late. "In our main house, in recent years, you've seem Hamlet, Waiting for Godot and The Caretaker," he says. "I sort of include Educating Rita in that list; it is a modern classic."
For Raison, the idea that the Citz might stage the kind of radical work that could attract the young theatre audience over at The Arches is second to the need to consolidate the theatre's existing audience. In any case, that audience is pretty diverse, he says, citing the recent sell-out run of David Leddy's gothic promenade Sub Rosa.
There's a big gap between Leddy's piece or Ibsen's play Ghosts (which opens at the Citz in May) and Educating Rita. However, where some people see the eclecticism of Raison's programming as diluting the theatre's identity, the director sees it as both right and necessary. "Our programming has to be eclectic in order to talk to a broad audience," he maintains. "The Citz has a broad audience. There isn't a core audience that just comes to everything."
Raison appears to be unperturbed by market research that suggests not only that people who go to the Citz may rarely, if ever, attend other Glasgow theatres, but also that he is himself catering to a diverse and fragmented audience. For Nikki Milican, artistic director of New Territories, however, the lack of a crossover audience between theatres like the Citz and the kind of experimental performance she presents is a source of frustration.
"There are always going to be audiences that cross over," she observes, "but they are few and far between. I think we're dreaming if we think that's going to be an achievable ideal. People just aren't open or curious enough to try new things, generally speaking. Even though I've been presenting work in Glasgow since 1986, I would still find it difficult to persuade the Citz or the Tron to stage the kind of work we programme. We've done stuff at the Tron, but it was hard to persuade them. They don't feel, generally speaking, that their audience would be interested in what we do. That's why Tramway and The Arches are such great stages for us, because they have more open policies where programming is concerned."
For Milican, the aversion to left-field or experimental work on the part of UK theatre audiences is rooted in a historical conservatism in British culture, which likes to see art forms kept within neat, clearly defined boxes. Mixing forms or radically reinterpreting established texts is, she says, much less accepted in the UK than it is across continental Europe or elsewhere in the world.
She highlights Quebecois company UBU's Technological Phantasmagorias I, II & III (technology-driven pieces inspired by works by classic authors Maurice Maeterlinck, Jon Fosse and Samuel Beckett), which she is bringing to the UK as a complete trilogy for the first time (at Tramway, 5-7 March). "This is a classic example of trying to engage with a conventional theatre audience and persuading them to see Jon Fosse or Beckett being presented in a different way," she says. "In Europe, this is not a problem. It still remains a problem in the UK."
New Territories has done audience research of its own, and it shows that there is a crossover audience for their work, but that it doesn't come from other theatres. "We tend to cross over into audiences who go to places like the Glasgow Film Theatre, or to music gigs or to visual art shows," says Milican.
This comes as little surprise to Jackie Wylie, who recently succeeded Andy Arnold as artistic director at The Arches. She says that the largely young audience that exists for the kind of experimental theatre and performance that her venue specialises in is more likely to come back to The Arches for club nights or music events, such as the Instal festival, than go to other Glasgow theatres.
"There's a sense of identifying yourself as alternative to the mainstream, of being part of something subcultural. That doesn't exist in any other theatre in the city," she says. "The building takes on the emotional meanings of the events, and the people and the audiences within it, and we're so lucky at The Arches that it's imbued with hedonism. I think often our audience don't even consider themselves to be coming to The Arches to see theatre. Take something like (experimental theatre festival) Arches Live. That audience isn't defining itself as a theatre audience, it's defining itself as an Arches audience."
This is not to say that Wylie no longer considers The Arches to be a theatre venue. "I think there's a real problem when people stop using the word 'theatre' because they think it suggests something 'traditional'," she observes. "Let's just grow up and realise that what's important is pushing the boundaries of how we define theatre."
That comment will come as a great relief to those who were worried about Wylie's recent decision to close down the Arches Theatre Company. The Arches will, she insists, continue to produce its own theatre works, including, she promises, a major co-production with a leading European theatre company later in the year.
So, as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the much vaunted demise of the traditional barriers between theatre audiences appears to elude us. However, from the Edinburgh Festival to New Territories and The Arches, we can at least celebrate the fact that, despite the UK's historic scepticism of the avant-garde, we still have a healthy radical fringe. Perhaps the real question is about the future of the mainstream.
• New Territories is at The Arches and Tramway, Glasgow, 11 February until 21 March. The National Review of Live Art is at the Arches, 11-15 February. Educating Rita is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, 11 February to 7 March.
• The National Review of Live Art is sometimes baffling, sometimes alienating, sometimes exasperating. Sometimes it is also moving, funny, beautiful and exhilarating. With over 20 performances each day (apart from the shorter opening day), you are likely to get both extremes whenever you choose to go.
The point is, don't let that put you off. Last year, I had about two or three experiences that have stayed with me ever since and, in small ways, changed the way I looked at the world. Given that I only went for a day (which costs 15) that was a pretty good result.
If more people aren't willing to try the NRLA, the festival itself must take some of the blame. Its programme is mostly written in forbidding academic language that is at best dense and at worst impenetrable (compare it to the straight-talking programme of the Arches' equally leftfield Instal festival, which goes out of its way not to scare off its audience). The introduction, meanwhile, rather gives the impression it is a closed community gathering. But that, in the spirit of breaking boundaries, is all the more reason to go. Cancel your Educating Rita tickets and take a chance. I dare you.