Kirsty Gunn: Thinkers, makers and artists can’t stick being part of a factory line

The Dundee Rep's critically acclaimed 2015 revival of The Cheviot, the Stag and  the Black Black Oil
The Dundee Rep's critically acclaimed 2015 revival of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil
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Actors are a wonderful lot. Where would we be without their life-enhancing ability to stand up on stage in the guise of someone else and transform our experience of…experience – of reality – all in one night?

And to do that by dressing up, making gestures, by speaking words out into the dark air? It’s not the movies or TV. Those actors and theatre professionals who spend their whole working lives magically bringing together, night after night, plays that only happen once, acted out in real time, with each performance always unlike the last… They’re amazing. There’s no second take or second chance. When you think about it, the whole concept of theatre is one gorgeous, risky, extraordinary event that, somehow, we get to make part of our humdrum lives.

I was thinking about all this last week after seeing a terrific new play at the Rep Theatre at Dundee – Stand By – by ex-policeman Adam McNamara, drawing on his experience in that volatile much-maligned profession now so challenged and straitened by the new centralised version of Scottish policing. It’s a richly Dundonian play this, full of dialect and local incident and detail, and it all takes place – brilliantly directed by Joe Douglas who has a great feeling for drama and tragedy and incident while never letting it intrude on the real life like situation he’s portraying – in a police van.

The audience, all of us wearing police earpieces ourselves to bring us inside the action, were borne up entirely by the concept of the thing. The van… well, it became the world.

The Rep is such a great theatre, of course. Our family have been going for years – back in the days when it was run by the incomparable Hamish Glen, a creative director with an intellectual’s understanding of European theatre and Scotland’s role in it, with a network of directors and writers he could call on that criss-crossed the world. Back in those days the Rep might have had Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise one night, Brian Cox the next. A Russian version of The Seagull followed by a knock-out panto and a season of new writing. Hamish was amazing.

Then James Brining came along and he, too, celebrated the great tradition of repertory theatre in a programme that was always diverse and challenging, cleverly mixing art house productions with musicals, large-scale crowd-pleasers with tricky little two-handers.

James and I became friends as we worked together with Brian Cox and our then Head of College, Professor Christopher Whatley, to create a Theatre Studies Degree. Our writing students could go over to the theatre to learn about the craft from the boards up, as it were, thanks to the patience and thoughtfulness of so many who are involved in making that theatre in Dundee the place it is.

Things have changed though. As with the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre across the road, a great cultural institution seems to be going the way of the universities – replacing creativity with bureaucracy, artists and intellectuals with managers.

It’s all part of what my friend the writer Meaghan Delahunt has shown me is “the military industrial model” of work and productivity being put to work in the arts and education, where everything is measured as a unit of cost.

Thinkers and makers and artists can’t stick being part of a factory line of course. It’s not why any of us signed up for the arts in the first place. I was horrified to hear about the terrible cuts in the production department of the Rep as it’s the engine of the whole place.

The company can’t believe the changes, are devastated and depressed, both. “How can anyone do anything, work productively together as we do if one of is treated like that?” one cast member told me.” “We’re the only Repertory Theatre in the country,” I heard. “Our work is all about building collaboratively, on mutual interests and trust. That goes once you start treating people as though they are no more than cogs in a machine.”

Ann Louise Ross, one of the foundation members of the company, is one of our great actresses, of course, with a breadth and range that can take you from light comedy to the depths of Shakespearean shadow in one breath. She can be anybody, on film, TV or theatre, and always is: that person precisely. Later this year she’ll turn into Mr Scrooge in the Rep’s Christmas Carol but before that, one of the maids in Jean Genet’s avant garde theatrical experiment, an altogether different kind of project. A powerhouse, yet I have never seen her so low as when I bumped her into her last week.

And yes, it did make me think about what’s happened to Dundee Contemporary Arts, now that those days of the DCA putting together shows in relation with the artist, displaying all the thought and care that comes from working in partnerships on projects mutually conceived and planned, seem to be gone. Replaced by bought-in exhibitions in a one-size-fits-all kind of way.

So The Rep looks set to follow. Big shows on tour as the mainstay of the programme instead of beautiful, carefully-made selections from a repertoire that is organised around the strengths of the company and the intellectual probity of writers and directors who work with them.

Must money matter so much? That everything need be accounted for, so to pay, pay, pay its way? Last week, too, saw the very last production of Eddie Small’s play The Four Marys of Dundee. Fifteen performances later and it still draws sell-out crowds, this modest story of four women in the 19th century whose lives transformed not only a part of Scotland but the way we’ve all come to think about society, education and the role of women in public life.

Individuals can’t be written into spreadsheets, and none of those incomparable women – Mary Ann Baxter who introduced university education to women, Mary Lily Walker who worked tirelessly to improve social conditions in the slums, Mary Slessor who lived in Africa and raised awareness about the effects of colonisation, and Mary Brooksbank, the millworker revolutionary – could be measured in terms of “unit costs”.

Individual lives and actions are the thing. Art reminds us of that – and we need reminding more than ever in these darkening days.