IN an open-plan room in Edinburgh’s Dancebase centre, the Federation of Scottish Theatre party is in full swing. It’s the last week of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and seeing the nation’s theatre-makers, producers and arts mandarins in the same room isn’t unusual. The FST bash, however, is more focussed than most, and is a chance for the director of the body set up to provide a collective voice for Scottish theatre makers, Lizzie Nicoll, to take stock of a welter of activities initiated by the FST in the last year. On the Fringe alone, the FST’s profile has been higher than ever before.
“The Fringe is a fantastic platform for the highest quality work to be found and showcased to the world,” according to Nicoll, who highlights slick by Vox Motus at The Traverse and Scottish Dance Theatre as examples of a burgeoning home-grown theatre scene. “ We’re talking to a number of international producers about taking work, and that’s really important for the profile of Scottish work.”
One illustration of this is the success of Ben Harrison’s production of Matthew Zajac’s play for Dogstar, The Tailor Of Inverness. This show picked up the newly inaugurated Holden Street Theatres Award, an initiative set up by a consortium of Australian theatres, which will see the play travel to the Adelaide Fringe in 2009.
Outwith the Fringe, the FST has been quietly beavering away in a manner that suggests the organisation has come of age. In 2007, the FST developed a scheme for young directors to work as assistants with theatre companies across the country. The FST has also been active in responding to legislation in the setting up of Creative Scotland, the body which – tiresome
Holyrood politicking permitting - will be set up to replace the Scottish Arts Council, and has consistently argued for increased resources in the face of continual political ignorance regarding the arts. The fact that the Creative Scotland bill itself was voted down despite cross-party support for it shows what the FST are up against.
Beyond dealing with politicians tying themselves up in knots, the FST is currently concentrating its energies on Scotland Live. This bi-annual initiative which aims to showcase the best theatre work produced in Scotland to invited audiences of international producers. With the second Scotland Live set to take place this October, the FST are currently knee-deep in the process of selecting exactly which shows produced over the last year would benefit from being remounted for the occasion.
With proposals drawn from an array of theatre professionals and informed observers, once a shortlist is created, relevant companies will then be approached to gauge the practicalities of such a move. Only then will a programme be announced and promoters flown in for several days of being ferried around the country to see all the relevant shows.
"It was set up initially with money from the Department of Trade and Industry in Westminster," says The Traverse Theatre’s Mike Griffiths, who is heavily involved in pushing Scotland Live forward. "The DTI had an export fund which they channelled into various organisations, one of which was specifically for work in Scotland. One of the real triggers in the thinking behind it was the explosion of theatre festivals around the world. There are theatre festivals now in a lot of former east European countries that weren’t happening before, which are all designed in a similar style, with ten shows or so and assorted awards to go with it, which is all part of the selling process to their own audiences.
"Normally these have been done in conjunction with the British Council and their offices in those countries, but with some of the changes going on in the British Council, we’ve taken the view that there are other opportunities that don’t necessarily need direct British Council support. They’re interested in helping if they can, but this is about getting international promoters interested in Scottish work, and bringing them over here."
While primarily funded by the Scottish Arts Council, Scotland Live is similar in spirit to the British Council Showcase, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe event which takes place every two years, and likewise selects Fringe shows to be seen by a raft of international delegates. Scotland Live has quite deliberately chosen to operate during years when the British Council showcase isn’t happening. By showing off the country’s wares in the autumn, it’s an attempt too to prove that there is a thriving and healthy theatre scene outwith the August melee.
"It’s important," says Griffiths, "that companies from Scotland who have brilliant shows, but who might have missed the British Council Showcase, still get a chance to push their wares. We’ve got a shortlist of about ten shows which we hope to bus people around Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. But as well as that, there will be some off-the-wall things that aren’t on the list but which promoters will want to see anyway. Promoters are like cats in a bag. Each one has their own individual idea about what they’re looking for, and you can’t really control them because they’ll go their own way."
The Federation of Scottish Theatre has been around since the 1970s when it was first formed as a loose alliance between the major producing houses. As a professional body, the FST didn’t really come to prominence until a few years ago, when it became the main lobbying group for a national theatre in Scotland, by which time the doors had been opened to the plethora of independent companies that now existed. Which some senior members lobbied for their own theatre to be the centre of operations, the model of a none-building based National Theatre of Scotland was presented to politicians as a more creative option.
With this mission accomplished, today the FST has become a body to provide a platform for Scotland-based theatre-makers en masse as well as developing initiatives such as Scotland Live. It was the FST who, along with assorted Edinburgh festivals, made clear to politicians the consequences new rulings on immigration would have on the theatre sector. Tellingly, the prohibitive costs that would be implemented under such a scheme have been scrapped.
While such political representation is a vital platform for the FST to argue their corner regarding support for theatre in Scotland, all concerned would undoubtedly prefer to concentrate on the work itself. Especially with shows as strong as Vanishing Point’s Subway, the Citizens Theatre’s adaptation of Ron Butlin’s novel, The Sound Of My Voice and The Traverse’s Carthage Must Be Destroyed produced over the last year.
"We don’t want it to be a closed thing," says Griffiths. "Yes, there’s work that we all agree is very good, but there may be other people around outwith the showcase that might be interesting. They may be a bit rough round the edges, but may still be worth promoters keeping an eye on to see how they develop."
The effects of Scotland Live may not be immediately apparent. Theatre producing, be it on a local or a global scale, is dependent on a number of circumstances, from finding the right work for the right partners, to basic practicalities of finding funding. The goal, however, is long term.
"A lot of it is about companies and promoters simply making initial contact with each other," according to Griffiths. "It takes time for people to match up. Because of the nature of the pilot project that didn’t always happen. There are two things going on with promoters abroad. One is to see the work and meet the promoters. The other is for promoters to talk about work they want to do which they may have in common. That isn’t going to happen overnight, but by developing initiatives like Scotland Live, it helps raise the bar in terms of confidence in the work that’s produced, and becomes a dialogue. Those relationships take down to develop, and what we want to do is leave the door open for such opportunities to take place. That could take a few years, or sometimes things just click and take off straight away.
"I go and see a lot of work around the world," Griffiths observes, "and I think the world we’re doing in Scotland matches that, even though a lot of those countries have a lot more money. Sometimes there are cultural differences, but other times you’re very pleasantly surprised about what works."
Scotland Live will be taking place in October. The Federation of Scottish Theatre can be contacted at www.scottishtheatres.com
The Herald, September 6th 2008