Three weeks after Ed Robson was appointed artistic director of Cumbernauld Theatre, he was told that the Scottish Arts Council was about to withdraw the centre’s funding. If he wanted to walk away from the job, the board told him, they’d perfectly understand. Just over two years on, Robson is in rehearsals for a new production of Iain Banks’ cult novel, The Wasp Factory, and his radical vision of turning around the fortunes of a theatre that survived on tribute band nights is bearing fruit.
Box office returns are up by twelve per cent, the theatre’s deficit has been substantially reduced, and a stark but brilliant one-man version of The Oresteia developed at Cumbernauld is playing to sell-out audiences across the country. All this is counter to received wisdom that small regional theatres can only survive via a solid diet of commercial fare. While such work undoubtedly has its place, Robson’s view of how Cumbernauld should move forward is far more visionary.
“When I arrived,” he remembers, “Cumbernauld hadn’t had an artistic director for 18 months. “So there was no visible sense that the theatre was in any way energised. I didn’t want it to just be a receiving house, so we had to re-imagine how to do things. We’ve produced or developed about three things a year, compared to one show a year when I arrived. I would argue that a radical vision has proven to be successful, both in producing great work in Cumbernauld, and in meeting challenging issues to do with developing audiences in the current economic climate. A conservative agenda of withdrawal and shrinkage would not have achieved that. So now you don’t just see work that you can see in Glasgow, but, through a radical, interventionist agenda, you can now see work that is unique to Cumbernauld.”
The Wasp Factory nevertheless looks like a shrewd piece of programming. Originally adapted from Banks’ 1984 novel by Malcolm Sutherland for The Citizens Theatre in 1990, the story of a boy’s macabre obsession with insects is possessed with a power Robson is fully aware of.
“I’ve been a fan of Iain Banks’ work for a very long time,” he confesses, “so there’s this very personal motivation for doing it. The Wasp Factory in particular has acquired this cult status, which rejuvenates itself with each generation who discover it. It’s 24 years old now, so is hardly a young novel, but has this Dorian Grayish sensibility to remain young and re-find itself. That’s something to do with a story that has a deep, dark resonance about living through these quite atrocious death fantasies that its main character has, and a pretty extreme sense of struggling to come to terms with the world.
“With that in mind, I wanted to make a piece of work that would that would appeal to the holy grail of theatre audiences of 16-25 year-olds because of its status and its presence. It’s a calling card in a way, saying that here’s something they know and might excite them, but which isn’t a piece of course work. It taps into something that will be found again and again by younger generations.”
A similar strategy was pioneered by Northern Stage, the Newcastle based company where Robson worked as associate director under its then artistic director Alan Lydiard. This followed a stint at Birmingham Rep courtesy of the Regional Young Directors trainee scheme and work with West Lothian Youth Theatre.
The creative team who served under Lydiard effectively reinvented what had been a relatively staid repertory theatre by introducing audiences to sexy multi-media takes on twentieth century classics including 1984 and A Clockwork Orange. They also programmed major international theatre artists such as Robert Lepage, The Maly Theatre and Belgian company Victoria.
After five years Robson decamped back to Edinburgh, where he set up shoestring company Theatre Objektiv, which rooted itself in the sorts of formal experiments he’s now pushing in Cumbernauld. In a theatre developed in the mid 1960s to provide cultural facilities for one of Scotland’s first New Towns, this isn’t an obvious choice. Robson, though, remains tireless in his enthusiasm for the potential on his doorstep.
“We’re totally influenced by the place where we work and live,” he says, “be it through professional work or through youth and community projects. That passion and that over-riding principle has remained in place throughout the theatre’ history, but the balance of it has changed a lot. This has partly been down to how the theatre’s been funded at various times, but it’s also had a lot to do with the particular artists who’ve been in residence there.”
Robson cites the theatre’s previous artistic directors, John Baraldi, Robert Robson, Liz Carruthers and Simon Sharkey as being crucial to how Cumbernauld has developed.
“Youth theatre especially,” he points out, “has always been a vibrant element of Cumbernauld, to the extent that we have 250 people regularly coming along to various groups, and now have a waiting list. This is annoying in a way, because the easiest way to disengage young people from taking part in something is to tell them to keep calling back and see if there’s a place. They’re not going to do that more than once, so we’re trying to find projects so they can get involved earlier.”
Another major development has been to open the theatre up to developing new work which, while not strictly produced by Cumbernauld, would not exist without it. The success of The Oresteia is living proof of such a policy.
“We wanted Cumbernauld to be a creative hub and a centre for collaboration,” Robson says. “The purpose of the organisation is not just to propagate its own existence, but to throw open its doors to anyone with good ideas and be a resource space. That could be for anyone from a visual artist who needs a space, to a group of experimental theatre makers like Lazzi, who did The Oresteia, or our young people who want to do a project.
“That opens us up to lots of possibilities, like working with Zofia Kalinska, who is a major artist from Poland, on a version of The Portrait Of Dorian Gray which we produced, to working with a company from Bucharest, who we met last year and are coming here to develop something with us. We’ll always try and say yes to such projects, and a lot of smaller projects don’t need much beyond space and mentoring. So there’s a lot of activity going on here, which isn’t just about me doing my work, but is about being open to possibilities. That way there’s an element of curation about things.”
Future activities include a production of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis by Adrian Osmond’s SweetScar company, and a festival of new music.
“The vision of the building is only made real by the activity within it,” Robson maintains. “That goes way beyond just going into the building to buy a ticket. We’re starting to prove what we’re capable of, but I would like to go further. I would like to see less investment in the conservative, and more in the radical.”
The Wasp Factory, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 17–26 April, then touring
The Herald, April 1st 2008