My Saturday column in The National (online edition), August 22nd, 2015. This is a response to the debate around Liz Lochhead, Scottish national makar [poet], and her comments on the "lack of Scots" employed at the National Theatre of Scotland. All comments/shares welcome.
The Arts aren't about where you're from, but what you know
SHOULD Scots – however we choose to define that term – run Scottish cultural institutions? No, it’s not Alasdair Gray making his unhelpful “colonists and settlers” distinction again, but another Scots literary figure of high esteem – our national Makar, Liz Lochhead.
Quoted in an interview for the literary mag Gutter, Lochhead says it’s “a great pity” that “there’s a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland…I just wish there were more Scots, some more people with a Scottish theatrical culture”. That culture, Liz continues, is “gutsy, upfront, borderline” with a “rough and ready relationship with variety”.
As with the essay behind the Gray stushie of 2012-13, we would all do well to take time out to read the long, expansive text from which Lochhead’s points are lifted. Here, I want to both factually correct Liz, but also dig into the emotional and historical undergrowth of these kinds of statements. My own heart pulls in several directions here, and it may be a modest contribution just to chart those pulls.
A careful report by Phil Miller in our sister paper The Herald debunks nearly every one of Lochhead’s claims about the NTS. “They’ve got all the budget for theatre in Scotland, really.” Fact: NTS gets £4.3m direct from the Scottish Government, but the Creative Scotland theatre budget is actually £15m, distributed across many companies.
“And it’s in the hands of a very few people, few of them Scottish.” Fact: if you’re looking to tick the boxes of birth, upbringing, accent, education, and artistic record, the NTS’s associate directors, Graham McLaren, Cora Bissett and Simon Sharkey are undeniably Scottish, and powerfully talented.
It’s worth dwelling on these three, to see how their routes are as determining as their roots. Sharkey’s journey goes from Cumbernauld Theatre, to producing work in the USA, Singapore, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Ireland and Jamaica, and back to NTS, where he runs their participatory theatre projects.
Cora Bissett passed through the eye of the RSAMD in Glasgow, has notched up a barmaid’s role in Rab C. Nesbitt, and has become one of our most inventive actor-directors.
Her three most recent productions are about Janis Joplin, female genital mutilation (Rites), and the late dance-folk fusioneer Martyn Bennett.
These are Scots in the world, and Scots with the world inside them.
But it’s Graham McLaren – as equally and recognisably Scots-seasoned as these colleagues (RSAMD, Theatre Babel, Perth Rep) – who really begins to trouble Lochhead’s complaint. McLaren and a fellow associate at NTS, Neil Murray, have been “poached” by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, to serve as joint directors from 2016, succeeding Fiach MacConghail.
The Irish Times politely notes that “it’s the first time the role has been filled by theatre professionals working outside Ireland”. The Irish Independent quotes actress Rosaleen Linehan: “I think a lot of our own boys will be surprised… But at least they are Celts” (“Celts”: can you imagine that passing by the Scottish commentariat?).
And as far as I can ascertain online, that’s yer furore. As in: none. The Abbey Theatre is the key institution of the Irish cultural revival, itself a deep driver of Irish independence. WB Yeats once leapt on its stage, to calm the rioting audience during Sean O’Casey’s The Plough And The Stars. This institution has decided that key personnel of an upstart national theatre should be given license to “challenge assumptions around the words ‘national’, ‘theatre’ and ‘Ireland’”, as the new appointees’ put it in their public statement.
Is this an example of Irish “cultural cringe”? I doubt it. But is it an example of observing the success of the NTS as a “theatre without walls”, internationalising its Scottish productions with remarkable success, and wanting a piece of that action? I’d say yes.
And just to remind ourselves that the NTS’s first director was the non-Scots Vicky Featherstone, who now shapes the radical Royal Court theatre in London, and is back in Edinburgh producing a stage adaption of Alan Warner’s The Sopranos (titled Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour).
This playing at a Traverse theatre part founded by Louisiana-born Jim Haynes (alongside John Calder and Richard Demarco)…
FFROM all this, you get the point – or at least one point. Scottish culture and arts have always been wide open to the sensitive and enthusiastic outsider. There are many, many reasons for this, some of them with tortured histories.
We speak the global language, English – Scots and Gaelic having been historically marginalised, often by educational and social coercion.
Also, Scotland missed that 19th century “culture and nationalism” moment, most notably forged by the Nordic and Scandinavian countries (we were doing duty as the “workshop of the empire” at the time).
So even as the main institutions of Scotland persisted after the Union, Scots maintained a degree of looseness about “who we were and are”. This can generate a spirit of openness, a capacity for absorption of influences – but also insecurity and lack of confidence about cultural traditions.
The artistic and creative part of the Yes campaign turned this “Caledonian antisygyzy” into an advantage. It harnessed as many of the overlapping, contradictory “cultures” of Scotland as possible, to a moment of sheer democratic principle. (And it nearly worked. Next time.)
Yet one phrase of Liz Lochhead’s statements intrigues me – her sense of Scottish theatre culture as “gutsy, upfront, borderline” with a “rough and ready relationship with variety”. I think she is right – the writer/director John McGrath (Birkenhead-born, Oxford-educated) and his career with 7:84 proves that.
But I also think it points to something that often lies behind the complaint about who is most appropriate to make decisions about sustaining Scottish culture – and that is class.
Comedy is the indicator here. As much as pointy-heids like myself might wish otherwise, the Scottish working-class doesn’t flock to Kelman readings, or NTS productions.
It’s the 21 sell-out shows of Still Game at the Hydro, watched by 210,000 fans over its run in 2014. What goes viral (or amasses views) on social media isn’t some bravura soliloquy from the Traverse stage, but clips from tv shows like Limmy, Burnistoun, Chewin’ the Fat or Rab C, or comedians like Kevin Bridges or Frankie Boyle.
Yes, TV plays its part in supercharging their interest – and that’s a separate argument: we should be televising much more original Scots drama. But the question still arises: Where else can the Scots working-class hear their vocabulary and diction, and their “gutsy, upfront and borderline” concerns, properly expressed in the mainstream?
There is a flipside to this as well. If a fundamental anxiety about identity still pervades Scottish ordinary lives, then our scabrous, relentless comedy-sector plays a therapeutic role – turning angst and frustration about inequality into soul-saving laughter.
Does all this answer the opening question? Only at this angle. Whoever gets into a commissioning position in Scottish arts and media should at least appreciate the complexities and unevenness (which themselves are creative possibilities) of the culture they’re getting into.
Yes, it’s as likely a New Yorker, or a Varsovian, or a Carioca, could intuitively grasp these polarities as a native Scot – and of course, conversely, that a Scot could also grasp American, Polish or Brazilian cultural dynamics.
But in either situation, however you achieve the necessary mix –between the cosmopolitan realm of art and exchange, and the traditions and energies of the working-class of any nation – it has to be achieved. By personnel, by job specification, by affinity and relationships – I’m not sure of the exact procedure.
However, blithe ignorance of the kinds of plebeian traditions that writers like Gray and Lochhead draw on, develop and innovate with, simply wouldn’t do. Beyond that, the invitation is clear: come ‘a ye.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today)