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Andy Arnold - From The Arches To The Tron By Way of Bailegangaire

Andy Arnold is getting on his bike. Well, the outgoing artistic director of The Arches is actually walking with it from one end of Argyle Street to the next, but given that this most singular of visionaries is about to take up the reins of The Tron Theatre, you get the idea. Arnold is about to give what he laughingly calls a “Churchillian” pep talk to his new staff, who have had an unsettled couple of years via the arrival and departure of two directors in rapid-fire succession. Then it’s back up to the road to rehearse his final Arches production, Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire.

“We’ve always had a tradition of doing Irish plays at The Arches,” Arnold observes, “So to finish with something that’s bizarre and surreal is very fitting. It’s a piece that hopefully should work perfectly in the Arches studio theatre. With these two women stuck in a room, it’s plays like that and The Caretaker, where you become trapped in a room with them, that are perfect for The Arches.

As Arnold’s Arches swan-song, Bailegangaire also encapsulates a17 year reign which has seen Arnold consistently take little-known off-kilter classics and presenting them in the former railway siding’s still charmingly roughshod theatre space. How this works in The Tron remains to be seen, though given Arnold’s colourful back catalogue, it’s likely that some of the Arches spirit will go with him now he’s coming up for air.

“It will be very strange,” Arnold says of his move. “But I’m really looking forward to the challenge of trying to create the same atmosphere and energy of The Arches in a different environment. What we’ve achieved there will never be replicated again, because we started it in 1990, and there’s a great bond there with many people. But The Arches had a relationship with The Tron anyway, so if anything those ties will be stronger now. What I hope to bring here is a belief in a style of leadership based on a passion for what I do, and exploiting the building to the full.”

Such a philosophy wasn’t borne from the usual artistic director’s career path. Because, just as The Arches was never supposed to be a theatre space, let alone a club and concert venue, Arnold never intended to become a theatre director either. The original plan for the Southend born maverick of Irish/Russian/Jewish descent was to earn something resembling a crust as a part-time teacher while quietly pursuing the life of a cartoonist and poet.

“There was this play I wanted to write,” Arnold remembers, “but I never got round to doing it. I did a Social Sciences course, and the first thing I did was join the drama society, but that was run by ex public schoolboys, so I didn’t want anything to do with it. My outlet then was the debating society and student politics. I’ve always enjoyed organising things, and me and a few mates thought about starting up a free school.”

Arnold’s next inspiration came while teaching in Cambridgeshire, when he fell in with a man called Tony Grey. Grey, his brother and performance artist Bruce Lacy ran an eccentric theatre company called The Alberts, who, with Spike Milligan, had produced a show called The Best Of British Rubbish. To illustrate how extreme The Alberts were, while Milligan’s off-the-wall excursions were indulged by television, Gray and co were considered too dangerous for the small screen. Arnold was invited to Stratford East to see “a ridiculous show” by The Alberts called The Electric Element, which was “complete nihilistic nonsense” at the dawn of what used to be called alternative theatre. Arnold was smitten.

“I totally identified with it,” says Arnold, whose first sojourn into performance was with a lifesize puppet show called R.C. Skidmark – Life On The 20th Floor, in-between working as a community artist in Yorkshire after chucking in teaching after a year to publish punk poems in New Wave News.

“I went to Yorkshire Television with an idea for a children’s show called Yorkshire Pudding” Arnold remembers. “It was a bit like TISWAS, but more educational. But then the job as artistic director of Theatre Workshop came up.”

Arnold’s new post, which he took up in 1980, was essentially as a community arts worker. Inspired by a performance space going spare, however, he moved into directing. His first production was a play called The Year Of The Cabbage, written by disabled writer Tom Lannan. This ushered in a golden age of Theatre Workshop, when the venue buzzed with life in a way that has long since faded.

“What I did over the first year,” says Arnold, “was bring in people and empower them to do what they wanted to do. Up until then, all the decisions had been made by the artistic director, but as long as people felt they were getting support and we were all going in the right direction, it created this wonderful energy. Obviously you have to have a vision of what you want, but it’s important to give people the freedom to explore what they want to do. Within that atmosphere other great ideas come out of it. That’s how The Arches ended up doing club nights. Any other building would ask for a business plan, but we thought, if it’s a good idea, let’s run with it.”

After five years at Theatre Workshop, Arnold worked at The Mandela Theatre, situated in The Gateway Exchange, a centre offering opportunities to drug re-habitees set up and run by ex con turned artist, Jimmy Boyle. Arnold directed an adaptation of Boyle’s prison memoir at the Royal Lyceum and worked in prisons. A restaging of Boyle’s The Nutcracker Suite was followed by Barrie Keeffe’s Gotcha. This was followed by an unlikely tenure at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre.

“It sounded very exotic,” Arnold remembers. “But there was no money to produce theatre, and on my nights off I just found myself going into smaller spaces. We managed to take a show to the Old Vic and to the United States, but I missed working in a cultural context.”

Cue Glasgow’s 1990 turn as European City of Culture, when Arnold ended up making street theatre for the short-lived Glasgow’s Glasgow exhibition in what was then a dilapidated railway siding. Arnold pleaded with the Council to give him the keys to the building, and put together a cabaret version of Glasgow poetry anthology Noise and Smoky Breath for Mayfest 1991. The Arches had arrived, and what started off as a small theatre company soon became swamped by clubs, gigs and all manner of site-specific happenings which took full advantage of the building’s dank expanse.

Seventeen years on, and with The Arches a major player on Glasgow’s theatre scene, Arnold’s credentials remain rooted in an alternative ethos.

“I’m glad I never trained in theatre,” Arnold says proudly. “Everything’s happened by chance, and I feel so lucky to be doing it. Because of that I want to push things to the max. Even today at The Arches we just ignore all the rules of doing theatre. It started with poor theatre because we had no money, and we’ve continued doing it that way. The thing that I learnt from The Alberts, and which will stay with me forever, is the anarchy of theatre. Theatre should always be something slightly decadent and slightly smelly. It should be offensive. I still believe in that. I wore a leather jacket, jeans and Doc Martens when I started, and that’s what I still wear now. It’s punk. Putting two fingers up to what theatre’s supposed to be about. I’m too old to change now.”

Bailegangaire (The Town Without Laughter), The Arches, Glasgow, February 26-March 8

The Herald, February 19th 2008


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