Why we can't afford to lose the plot

BY THE TIME you read this, Scotland's arts community will be in the throes of a major debate about the controversial Culture Commission's proposals for the future of cultural funding in Scotland - whether the Scottish Arts Council can survive, whether the "arm's-length principle" it embodies is dead, and whether the future lies with a culture ministry or a new overarching cultural quango.

Since her appointment 11 months ago, artistic director Vicky Featherstone, along with the NToS board, has been steadily appointing a core artistic and management group, bringing together a formidable dream team of talent. Just a fortnight ago, the company made its first outline announcement of how it hopes to operate.

But it takes only the briefest glance at the details of that announcement to remind us of the tremendous complexity of the task facing Featherstone and her team. For when Scotland's flourishing theatre community came together five years ago to debate whether newly devolved Scotland should finally have a national theatre, there was clear agreement that it would be disastrous to set up something that would be just another company, bound to compete with the existing theatres for funds, and - in most instances - bound to win.

The solution came in the dream of a 21st-century model of a national theatre; not a building or a company, but a lightly staffed commissioning body, led by strong creative ideas, but working mainly through the existing organisational structures of Scottish theatre, so that almost all the cash provided for it would find its way straight on to Scotland's stages. It was a model that attracted huge international interest, as a genuinely innovative plan for avoiding the risks and inertia associated with big national theatres in other countries of similar size. It was with this model in mind, back in 2003, that the Scottish Executive finally announced that it would make funding for a national theatre available - roughly 4 million a year, a colossal, almost 50 per cent, increase in central government funding of Scottish theatre, which is bound to make a huge impact.

So how does the company's recently announced operating plan measure up to that dream model? At first glance, it makes slightly ominous reading. The company's operating plans are presented in 11 bullet points, only one of which refers explicitly to co-production with Scottish companies. Three of the others refer to the "creation" of what look like new structures, including a new ensemble touring company to travel around Scotland every summer; and most of the remaining points list the number of productions the NToS hopes to present at various levels and scales, without any commitment on whether these will be co-productions or not.

But the briefest trawl of experience and opinion around Scottish theatre shows that Featherstone and her team are in fact engaged in an intense process of discussion with artists and companies across the country, many of which are bound to produce what in effect will be co-productions. Featherstone herself is passionate about the need for the National Theatre to create new projects only where there is a clear gap in theatre activity or development, so that the company's overall programme represents "joined-up thinking" for the Scottish theatre scene as a whole. Her new touring ensemble, for example, will only be a group of four actors, mainly dedicated to giving extra life to existing small-scale touring shows. And she is determined to walk successfully along the fine line between developing the National Theatre as just another individual producing company - which would lead to pointless competition for resources - and reducing it to nothing more than a glorified alternative funding body for cash-strapped theatres.

And she will succeed, if brains, determination and talent can do the job. But I foresee a lurking danger, in the form of the abiding political risk, for any national company, that the presentational tail - as seen in the wording of last week's announcement - will begin to wag the artistic dog; that the need to "big up" what the National Theatre is doing in order to justify its funding, and to exaggerate the level of innovation involved, will begin to exert a subtle pressure on the project actually to work that way.

So long as Featherstone and her team are in charge, there's no doubt that the pattern of intense co-operation and co-production with existing Scottish companies will continue. But a few years down the line, words uttered in a spirit of optimistic spin can become hostages to fortune, short-term political expectations that have to be met.

That's the point at which the National Theatre could begin to become what all those who care about the vitality of the arts in Scotland dread: a centralised institution sucking up resources from the rest of an increasingly impoverished theatre scene. And it's time to wish Featherstone every success in making of our new light-touch National Theatre such a triumph that it never experiences the pressure to become more institutionalised and heavy-handed - pressure that would, indeed, mean the end of a dream.

• Joyce McMillan is The Scotsman's theatre critic.