When Ed Robson took over as artistic director of Cumbernauld Theatre,
to suggest he had something of an uphill struggle ahead of him is
something of an understatement. Here was a theatre with a proud past
both as a community and professional venue, but which had just had its
Scottish Arts Council grant cut. With heavy debts mounting, the
theatre's closure seemed inevitable. Rather than appoint some
number-crunching bureaucrat to step in and manage the venue's demise,
Cumbernauld Theatre's board of directors were convinced enough by
Robson's enthusiasm that he could turn things around.
Seven years on, and things look very different indeed. With Robson
still in post, Cumbernauld Theatre is alive and well with a mixed
programme of visiting shows and in-house work. With an annual
Company-in-Residence partnership set up last year with the
award-winning Tortoise in a Nutshell company, the Edinburgh-based
Stoirm Og company will be the second recipients of an initiative which
aims to culminate in the opening of a brand new co-production at the
2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Stoirm Og's arrival in Cumbernauld comes alongside the announcement
that a brand new building looks set to house Cumbernauld Theatre from
2017, when the company will move into a multi-purpose arts centre more
fitting for twenty-first century pursuits than the theatre's current
home. With all this activity ongoing, Robson is about to take an unpaid
sabbatical to investigate international theatre work and possibilities
for future collaborations. While this sounds like a well-earned
breather for Robson, he remains ebullient about the developments at
Cumbernauld which he helped bring about.
“In a moment of visionary belief in the arts,” Robson explains, “North
Lanarkshire Council has decided to invest four million quid plus into a
brand new theatre and arts centre. A brand new school is going to be
built on the site of the existing Cumbernauld High School, and the new
Cumbernauld Theatre is going to be built next to it. That affords us
the opportunity to share resources and to work on projects together and
develop creative learning work without being totally joined at the hip.”
Robson is philosophical about the state his theatre was in when he
first arrived there.
“It all seems like a long time ago now,” he says. “To all intents and
purposes we were bankrupt. We couldn't afford to pay the bills, and
no-one was going to give us any money to run a new building if we
couldn't afford to run the one we had. So we had to start from scratch
and reinvent the whole thing, and ask ourselves why we were here, what
we were doing and how the building was being used. The only reason
we're talking today to some degree is because we started on this
journey of doing more creative things and being more collaborative, and
endeavouring to make what is a relatively small amount of resources go
a very long way, and to have as much reach and impact as we possibly
can with it.”
This was achieved in part by a series of co-productions, which
eventually led to the current company in residence scheme. Adopting a
philanthropical approach, Robson opened the building up to the wider
community to generate more activity inside it.
“The building itself is bricks and mortar and heating and lighting, but
they're resources which a lot of smaller companies don't have access
to, so these are really valuable things for them to have. So, at a very
real level, we've done more creative things, and more challengingly
creative things, and we've paid off the debt. By changing the economic
way of working and opening up the building, we now have more people
attending events and taking part in things. Once that started to happen
and we turned things around and started becoming successful, we could
start talking seriously about why we need a new building, and why the
building that we've got, as quirky and full of character as it is, is
very much a building of its era, and actually limits what we can do
rather than expands it.”
For Stoirm Og's co-founder, playwright Elspeth Turner, having scored a
hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with the company's first show, The
Idiot at the Wall, the opportunity to be Cumbernauld's company in
residence is one that came at the right time.
“It all seemed to fit,” says Turner. “They wanted an emerging company
that they could help grow, and after The Idiot at the Wall we certainly
had lots of room for growth in lots areas where we needed mentoring and
guidance. We had all the energy and enthusiasm, but just thought we'd
really benefit from having the sort of support network that Cumbernauld
Theatre could provide.”
Robson sees Stoirm Og's presence as a radical move in keeping with his
vision for the theatre's future.
“Scotland is in a really interesting place just now in terms of
language,” he observes, “and we thought it might be interesting to
engage with a company that worked with Gaelic and Doric. Then when we
met them, they had a really wonderful way of describing ideas for
magical realism in theatre and relating traditional myths to the modern
Despite his forthcoming sabbatical, Robson plans to still be in charge
of Cumbernauld Theatre when it moves into its new building. In the
meantime, there is still a lot of work to do.
“To make the new building a reality, we still have to raise another
£1.8 million,” he says, “but given that there is already a significant
financial commitment and political will from the local authority, , I'm
confident we can make this happen.”
Cumbernauld Theatre -A history
Cumbernauld Theatre opened in 1960, after a group of dedicated
residents, upon realising there were no cultural facilities in the
transformed a set of farm cottages into a fifty-five seat theatre.
The theatre thrived throughout the 1960s, and in 1972 an extension was
built that featured the 250 seat theatre that is currently still in
In 1978, Cumbernauld Theatre Company was formed, with a stream of new
community-based plays being produced under the artistic directorships
of John Baraldi and the late Robert Robson, with Liz Carruthers and
Simon Sharkey also taking up the post prior to Ed Robson's appointment.
With a strong focus on youth and community theatre throughout
Cumbernauld Theatre's history, under Sharkey's tenure, major
international collaborations with companies in Singapore, Portugal and
Jordan were forged.
Since Robson arrived in Cumbernauld, companies who have developed work
there include SweetScar and Tortoise in a Nutshell, who were the first
recipients of the theatre's Company in Residence scheme.
The result of this collaboration was Tortoise in a Nutshell's
production of Feral, which became a hit, both on the Edinburgh Festival
Fringe and on tour.
The Stoirm Og company have just been appointed as Cumbernauld Theatre's
second company in residence.
With North Lanarkshire Council approving the £4 million development of
a new building to house Cumbernauld Theatre from 2017, the next three
years will see the current site remain open as a producing theatre
while raising additional funds to complete the move.
The opening of the new Cumbernauld Theatre will mark Robson's tenth
year in post as artistic director.
The Herald, July 1st 2014