When the National Theatre Of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, Gregory Burke’s dissection of working class squaddie life in the front-line, toured to New York and Los Angeles in 2007. One could be forgiven by the blanket coverage the play received for presuming it to be the first time any Scottish theatre-makers had set foot beyond Queen Street Station. As a major benchmark of this country’s theatre, Black Watch’s success at home and abroad is deserved, and, with it currently touring Australia and New Zealand, looks set to run and run
Beyond Black Watch, though, Scotland has long maintained a rich heritage of work touring abroad, and was wowing audiences on Broadway long before any politicians developed a brand new interest in the arts post Black Watch. With no archive in place to document such work, however, other major achievements from previous generations tend to be forgotten. Where, for instance, can one hear about the Scottish Theatre Company’s 1986 visit to Warsaw with their epic production of Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaites? Recent years too have seen a welter of international exchanges. These include Gregory Burke’s earlier play, Gagarin Way, tour the international circuit for months in its original Traverse Theatre production. Henry Adam’s The People Next Door followed suit, picking up awards at theatre festivals in Kosovo and beyond. Vanishing Point took Lost Ones to Sri Lanka, Grid Iron have worked in Amman and Clyde Unity took work to Nigeria.
Then there is Life Is A Dream, a co-production between Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre and Edinburgh International Festival. Jo Clifford’s translation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Spanish classic. Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s production transferred to New York in 1999, and created such a demand that stories abounded of fights breaking out in the queues to get hold of the hottest ticket in town. Try tracking down any information about it now, however, and there are few who can access any record of it.
At time of writing, no less than three theatre companies are preparing to venture to America and beyond. The Brits Off Broadway festival, set to take place this Spring at 59E59 Theatre, will host three shows from Scotland. While TAG are taking their acclaimed production of David Greig’s Yellow Moon, The Traverse will take another Greig play, Damascus. Like Yellow Moon, Damascus was a hit at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The third piece sees Stellar Quines production of The Unconquered also showcased at Brits Off Broadway.
Also heading to the Big Apple will young people and children’s company, Visible Fictions. They will be developing work with a company of Minneapolis based peers to create a new work which will open in America in Autumn 2008 prior to a Scottish tour. Also touring American festivals, including an appearance on Broadway, will be Visible Fictions’ acclaimed production of Jason and the Argonauts, while a Canadian tour of Shopping For Shoes is also scheduled later this year.
“It’s a hugely busy year,” says Visible Fictions artistic director Dougie Irvine, “and it came about through the company working in Los Angeles, and a meeting being brokered between ourselves and the company in Minneapolis, who someone said shared our aesthetic and our political drive in the way we do things. Of course, like any company of our size, we want to capitalise on these opportunities, but that’s not always easy to find the resources we require. But the more we take our work abroad, the more similarities I can see with work in other countries. Yes, of course there are differences in language and everything else, but the trick is to find the common ground. As soon as you find a connection, it’s a cliché, but the world suddenly seems a whole lot smaller, and when those bridges do get built it’s an amazing feeling.”
As indicated by Irvine, such developments are the culmination of an ongoing relationship between Visible Fictions and American partners dating back over the last decade. This followed the company’s experience as the first ever Scottish theatre company to play on Broadway. Their production of The Red Balloon toured to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Calgary, and should be regarded as the real pioneer of Scottish theatre in America.
“The company created The Red Shoes in 1997” Irvine remembers of the show, directed by Gill Robertson. “It was quite strange, because the reaction was initially luke-warm in this country, but then we got invited to one or two festivals, and the whole thing took off. It was incredible seeing the response it got, because it seemed to capture people’s imaginations in a way that you can’t quite understand why. If you knew you’d try and use that, but we ended up touring the show for seven years. There’s a huge willingness for other nations to bring the work in, and that’s where the more profound relationships come from.”
With this in mind, it’s clear that theatre from Scotland has been punching above its weight for years. As ever, though, it’s only the politicians who came late to the party. Black Watch is quite rightly touring the world, and if its high profile has a knock on effect for some of the smaller companies, more power to it. Yet it’s companies like Visible Fictions, Tag and others who laid the ground-work for the NTS, who need looking after in terms of resources and profile just as much. Irvine has long proved Visible Fictions to be a major international force, and is confident about the company’s continuing status abroad.
“Marketing and publicity are important”, he observes, “but at the end of the day, it’s the continuing international partnerships that matter, and getting the shows out there. That’s where the more profound relationships come from.”
Visible Fictions will develop a new work with Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis in Autumn 2008, which will tour to Scotland in 2009. Jason and the Argonauts play Florida and Los Angeles in Spring 2008, with further nvitations to USA in May 2008 and Autumn 2008, including Broadway. It has been invited to Australia and Canada in 2009. Shopping for Shoes tours Canada later in 2008. For the Brits Off Broadway season, Yellow Moon runs from 22 April – 18 May, The Unconquered between 28 April – 18 May, and Damascus from May.
The Herald, January 2008