Does Scottish Theatre's Future Lie In The Community?

The last couple of weeks I have made the hour long journey down the coast to the wee seaside town where I lived for almost 30 years. Largs has a population of around 11,000 people, it sits in it's own wee pocket of relative prosperity compared to the other Ayrshire towns that surround it. At the heart of the town is the large Nardinis ice-cream emporium, a beautifully art-deco bedecked cafe where you can indulge in all your ice-cream based fantasies. 

However, I wasn't heading down to eat ice-cream or visit family or even to conduct experiments on the pterodactyl-sized seagulls, but I was heading a little further along the road to the somewhat oddly-name Vikingar! centre. A building that hosts a gym, a swimming pool and (of course) an interactive Viking experience. Oh, and a theatre, and that's why I was there, to check out a couple of shows that the local community groups were bringing to the stage in quick succession of one another.
The Barrfields Theatre, where it all started for me and a thriving theatrical hot spot!

The first show I was attending was the Largs Operatic Societies staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Evita' - not an easy show to carry off by any standards. But there, packed into the 550 seat theatre, was a huge orchestra and a cast of what seemed like thousands. The vocal performances were perfect, the scale and ambition of the production was staggering and the theatre was bursting at the seams, I would imagine that over the course of the show it played to well over 2,000 people.

However, as ambitious as something like Evita was, the second show that I went to see (just last night in fact) was an altogether more adventurous beast. Its called Caledonia/USA, and it's a jukebox musical taking the songs of Gallagher and Lyle with a book written by Maggie Kinloch and Viv Adams. You can watch a Reporting Scotland piece about it here

Gallagher and Lyle are famous sons of Largs (Grahame Lyle could be considered to be Scotland's most successful song-writer, you will have heard at least one of his songs, even if you don't know he wrote it!). The show was instigated, co-written and directed by Maggie Kinloch (another child of Largs) and featured a cast of around 30, ranging from young people who have come up through the ranks of the youth theatre to the local music teacher and, as always, the stalwart members of the club who get involved regardless of the project or what parts they receive. 

I thought Evita was a big undertaking, but this project is unbelievably ambitious. A mammoth story spanning 50 years, a new script, world famous songs, interesting use of projection for backdrops...and all this from a community group in Largs!

Last year they were no less ambitious, I co-directed (alongside Maggie) the Scottish classic 'The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil'. It featured a huge cast, a brilliant custom-built, professional designed set, the local gaelic choir, a ceilidh band and - as you can see from the video below - an audience who were more than willing to join in and make a hugely memorable event.

So what's the point in this blog? Well, as I sat watching the dress rehearsal of Caledonia/USA last night I started to think about Scottish theatre and it's role within the communities of Scotland. Of course, with the shock announcement that Laurie Sansom is to leave the National Theatre of Scotland, I'm not the only one thinking about this sort of thing. But it feels to me that this cross-pollination of professional and amateur theatre that is happening so successfully in Largs is a great model to start to build on. 'The Choir' at the Citizens theatre recently proved that people will come to see shows that reflect their own experiences, it is very rare that I've sat in a theatre and seen the people I'm sitting next to reflected on the stage, but that production did just that - and the box office sales showed that it worked and the idea engaged 'normal' people enough that they made it out to the theatre. Community theatre ratches it up even further - it isn't the people from the community reflected on stage it IS the people from the community on the stage. It's a fascinating dynamic that has, as far as I can see, largely been unexplored in most professional Scottish theatre. And I don't mean like the RSC's model for their recent tour of Midsummer's Nights Dream - where various amateurs are drafted in to fill smaller roles, I mean performances that have the amateur actors lead the way, not be a side-show.

As it gets increasingly trickier to make a career out of directing, Mark Thomson recently stated in an interview with The Scotsman 

“...we’re right on the edge of a situation, now, where there just isn’t an industry in which people can make viable freelance careers. And that’s sad; not least because the people who can survive best, in that kind of landscape, are those with private means, and that increasingly excludes people from my kind of background." 

And as more and more professional theatre shows have their budgets reduced, it is now unusual to see more than 3 people in a performance out with the big producing theatres, I think directors and playwrights need to start getting themselves involved in these community groups in some way. Otherwise we risk losing their skills and their imagination as they lose their self-belief and ability to pay the bills. I fear that we will end up in a situation, if we haven't already, where only a tiny minority will have the skills and experience to work with large casts on ambitious projects. 

Most opportunities for new directors lie in the one actor show
There is no way that the Largs Players would be doing these brilliant projects without Maggie's enthusiasm and creativity, but I also doubt that Maggie would be able to bring these projects to life without the Largs Players, so it's a win-win situation. And there is money. Caledonia/USA has almost sold out it's 5 performance run - that's around 2,500 people paying , on average, £15 per ticket. So the clubs can pay people for their time, of course the commitment is a large one, normally rehearsals last months as the groups can only rehearse for a for hours in the evening every couple of days, but better that than sitting in the house getting rusty!

So I hope that more community groups look at the model of The Largs Players and see that professional input can have a brilliant effect on re-energising their clubs without them losing their identity. And I hope that professionals will not turn up their noses at the amateur groups who could offer them amazing opportunities to experiment and to learn more about their craft.

Of course there are challenges. Working with amateur actors is not the same as working with professionals. A new approach will be required in almost all respects, from the choice of piece to how the rehearsals are run when the lead works night-shift every second week and can only do every fourth Tuesday so long as his wife is home in time. And of course the quality of acting may be more patchy (especially when dealing with so many people), but at the same time you can end up working with people who blow your mind with their talent. The internal politics can be hard to deal with and the run in times for tech are unbearably tight, but it's all part and parcel of the experience!

But you also learn a lot more from people who live in a world outside the theatre bubble and you get to engage with audiences who are rooting for you and who are willing to overlook when a line is lost or somebody forgets to come on at the right time - because they realise that that person's actual job is something quite different to that of a professional actor, but they admire the effort, the bravery and the skill that they are showcasing.

I want Scotland to be producing directors who can compete with our Southern neighbours, and I think that the opportunities offered to new and mid-career directors fall woefully short of developing people with the right skills - assistant directing is all well and good (I wouldn't trade my experiences for the world), but it's not the same as directing. And directing yourself in a self-written monologue performed in some unspeakably cool basement space is not going to give you the skills to bring King Lear to the stage anytime soon. Perhaps the key lies in forward thinking amateur groups like the Largs Players to give opportunities for creative professionals to stretch their muscles whilst also engaging a community with the pleasure of theatre.


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