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Thoughts on: Scottish Theatre

This story begins in 1985.

It was a good year for Scottish theatre. Three new plays had a huge success at the Traverse, and they seemed to signal a renaissance in Scottish theatre writing. There was a buzz about the theatre scene, a sense of excitement: a sense of a new beginning.

The three plays in question - Elizabeth Gordon Quinn by Chris Hannan, White Rose by Peter Arnott and Losing Venice by John Clifford strike me as fine plays any culture should be proud of - and I don't think that's simply because I happened to write one of them.

But you'll understand, I'm sure, that the subsequent fate of these three plays, and the present predicament of their writers should deeply concern me - especially the fate of one in particular. I want to think about them now, not I hope out of sentiment or nostalgia, not out of bitterness or rancour, because I think they can help us reach an understanding about the present predicament of Scottish theatre.

And not simply about its predicament. About its usefulness. About its necessity. Let's get the bad news over first. None of these plays are in the repertoire of Scottish theatre - or of any other theatre. Of the three, only Elizabeth Gordon Quinn has had a second professional production. Losing Venice was revived by the Traverse and seen and enjoyed all over the world - but not in Scotland. It has twice been professionally produced in Los Angeles - but not in Scotland. White Rose, to the best of my knowledge, has not been seen anywhere.

There can be many reasons for this, and the world is full of forgotten plays. I happen to think it is a pity; I happen to think Scottish theatre is poorer for having turned its back on these three. But then I would. I must leave their championing for others: assuming there are any.

And then again, we've all seen dead plays in second hand bookshops. melancholy heaps of them: Best plays of 1955. And 1956. And so on. A healthy theatre culture, I would want to argue, does not stay fixated on the past. But moves on.

But one could also argue that it's a strange kind of industry that seems so unwilling to build on its successes. Any other industry that hits upon a successful product invests in it, promotes it, tries to export it: tries everything in its power to make the most out of its success. Not, apparently, the theatre industry. Or at least, not in Scotland.

This is all the stranger when you consider how difficult it is for the theatre industry to achieve success at all. A normal industry would ensure that its products are in the best possible condition before offering them to the public. The theatre industry, on the other hand, under-rehearses its plays, and then lets critic and public in at the early stages of the run when the play is invariably not seen at its best. If by some miracle critics or public enjoy the result, the show generally closes after a fortnight anyway, without reaching even a fraction of its possible audience. Generally, plays are then tossed aside and forgotten about, and revived, if at all, by some process of random selection.

My play 'Light in the Village' suffered a similar fate. Its gestation was complicated by the fact that even before the read-through one of the cast was telling me the play was impossible, and simply could not be performed. He left after a week; ten days later another cast member agreed. He also left; and when the play opened, it opened to predictably bad reviews. It would have disappeared altogether if it hadn't been published, and didn't happen to have been lying around the National Theatre bookshop at a time when the director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival happened to have been looking for a play by Caryl Churchill. Churchill happens to be alphabetically close to Clifford, and he pulled out my play by mistake. The result was the play was performed at the Oregon Shakespeare festival. Recently I heard of another director who stumbled across the play in a bookshop in Manila. As a result, it will be performed in the Philippines.

Of course, this is all exciting and wonderful news, but is it really sensible just to leave our plays hanging about in the hope someone will stumble across them?

In a normal industry - let's say industrial chemicals - do they spend years of money and expertise developing their products, and then leave them hanging about in warehouses - in more or less secret locations - hoping someone will discover them by accident and then decide they want to make use of them? Don't they try to market their products?

Of course, every theatre has its marketing persons, who struggle as best they can. But the way we market our product is very peculiar. I was amazed the other week to see an advertisement in The Herald for Life is a Dream. It called it a nightmare.

Such a marketing strategy does actually make a strange kind of sense in a context where we tend to use words like 'nightmarish', 'bleak', 'unsettling' 'disturbing' apparently as words denoting praise. It is as if the makers of a new chocolate bar decided to promote it on the grounds that it would taste disgusting and make you feel sick.

I am not simply trying to be facetious, or even trivialise the importance of what theatre can offer. It seems to me theatre should function as a kind of food: food for the senses, food for the intellect, food for the emotions. Food for the soul.

So why not make it more palatable?

But the perversity of the theatre industry, its stubborn inability to work in its own best industries, does not end here. A healthy theatre industry, a healthy theatre culture is healthy because it allows its practitioners the opportunity to develop and grow within their chosen profession.

Theatre at present does the opposite. It drives its skilled and experienced practitioners out of the profession.

To return to the three writers we began with: Arnott, Clifford, and Hannan. Whatever our shortcomings as writers, we have all learnt our craft. We all have a track record that proves it.

So a theatre historian from Mars might find it a little strange to discover that of these three highly professional, highly skilled practitioners of the art of theatre writing not a single one of them is actually engaged full time in writing for the theatre.

Both Peter Arnott and Chris Hannan have emphatically declared -and with good reason - that they cannot afford to write new plays for the theatre.

This bears repeating: the fees paid to theatre writers for the production of a new play are now so low that writing a new play is no longer worth a skilled and experienced practitioners time. The returns are simply not good enough.

Those few of us who still persist in writing for the theatre are either - like Liz Lochhead - skilfully recycling old material, or else - like myself- relying on a salary. Speaking personally, I feel like one of those characters in those appalling advertisements encouraging us to take up 'freelance writing for fun and profit': but however satisfactory my personal solution may be, in general there is no future for theatre writing if it can only function as a hobby for salaried professionals.

It is a strange kind of industry that trains up its professionals only to discard them. It's as if an airline had spent much time, expense and expertise training up its pilots only to refuse to employ them. Presumably on the grounds that inexperienced pilots are more likely to crash: and this makes the journey more interesting.

The analogy is not altogether fanciful. Many times in the last ten years of writing for the theatre I have felt myself to be running up an escalator going very firmly down. Or propping up a roof with my bare hands, a ceiling in a room in a house where all the other rooms are falling down about me. Or one of the men stuck in a swamp in that terrifying Goya picture: belabouring each other with clubs as they sink in the quicksand.

I once wanted to write a play about the last natural trumpeter: he has spent years perfecting the art of producing all the different notes on the trumpet solely by the use of his breath and his lips. And then, just when he had perfected his art, someone invented the valve trumpet and all his art was obsolete.

Is that how it is with us?

We talk of the 'theatre industry' in a rather slack kind of way, but I would question whether theatre is really an industry at all. The whole purpose of the industrial revolution was to permit more goods to be produced by less human beings. Refinements in assembly line production have meant that it is possible to produce a car far more quickly and far more cheaply than even the first model T Ford. And every industrial concern in the world is trying to maximise its profits by minimising its need for human labour.

Imagine the difference between running the Lyceum theatre and the ABC cinema across the road. The cinema can maximise its audience by running 4 or five shows at the same time. It can show them 4 or 5 times in the same day. All it needs to do so are a handful of projectionists and front of house staff. Its marketing is largely taken care of by the company creating the film, who is also able to show the same film in several hundred, or several thousand, cinemas simultaneously to maximise its impact. If the film is made by part of the Murdoch empire, then it can also be publicised on Murdoch television channels and Murdoch newspapers and magazines. And compared to a theatre ticket, it can be shown to its public at half the price.

The theatre can only show at most two shows a day. To do so, it has to create them using its own labour: designers to design the set, carpenters and scene painters to build it, stage managers to operate it. Actors to rehearse and act on it, writers to write it, directors to direct it. The creation of a film is initially a labour intensive process; once made, a film is a product that can be reproduced indefinitely. The creation of a play is inescapably labour intensive throughout its existence; a play is an experience that can barely be reproduced at all.

If theatre is left to the mercy of the market place theatre cannot fail to be destroyed. Those who begrudge theatre its subsidy, those who wish to limit or do away with it, ultimately wish to destroy it.

It is time this was clearly stated and understood.

What is remarkable about theatre is not that it is in crisis - there is no way under current conditions it could NOT be in crisis. What is remarkable about theatre is that it still exists at all.

It is not simply that in an age of computers, theatre is perverse enough to still run on steam. That its problems can be solved by the use of industrial expertise.

Those of us who work in theatre are not artisans trying to operate antiquated machinery. We're blind donkeys on a treadmill drawing water from a well.

And we do so because the water is precious. And because it cannot be drawn up any other way.

Perhaps if we understood this clearly we would stop berating ourselves for not being what we are not - a successful industry - and start to value and respect and develop ourselves for what we are.

For what we are: in what we are: and in what we alone can achieve.

And I know at this point, quite understandably, that you want me to explain this.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to work with an amazing group of actors on my translation of Life is a Dream. We worked with a Calixto Bieito, a Catalan director who comes from a cultural context in which theatre is expanding, not retracting; a context in which theatre is respected and popular and understood as a legitimate form of national and artistic expression. Coming from a culture which valued him and valued his skills, he brought a passion and an energy to his work that none of us had ever experienced in our lives.

The play came from a theatre culture that knew nothing of realism, nothing of that terrible 'fourth wall' that destroys so much communication between actors and audience. It reached out to its audience, it addressed itself to our need for feeling, for thought, for beauty.

Somehow the combination of actors, design, direction and text held its audience listening, with amazing attention, for two hours without a break.

Like all theatre, it was messy, it was imperfect, it didn't always work. But when it did it created an extraordinary and a powerful magic. A magic that arose, and that can only arise, from a group of actors communicating with each other and with their audience.

And no, I still can't explain it. I can only go back and try to create it.

Edinburgh, 1 September, 1998



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