JOYCE MCMILLAN: TAKE YOUR SEATS FOR THEATRE IN THE HIGHLANDS for the Scotsman Magazine, 1.11.14. ________________________________________________________
SOMEWHERE in the Highlands and Islands, as I write, a pair of fabulous, brightly-coloured theatre seats are on the road, heading from community centre to village hall, and on across some of the finest landscapes on the planet. They’ve been designed by the Scottish company Fun Makes Good, and they’re gorgeous artefacts, glowing with rich, harlequin colours. What’s most significant about them, though, is the campaign they represent, a new initiative by the Touring Network of Highland and Island arts promoters which aims to make potential audience members across Scotland more aware of the sheer richness of cultural life around the Highlands and Islands, and of the opportunities it offers to see the work of Scotland’s leading performers and musicians in a unique and thrilling context.
“Our network represents 60 independent venue managers and promoters, almost all volunteers,” says the Touring Network’s director Sam Eccles, “and generally speaking, they’re enthusiasm-rich, but time-poor. So when it comes to marketing and publicising the terrific work they programme, it’s often difficult for them to get beyond the immediate local community. Local audiences know all about what’s happening in their own village hall. But people across a wider area – who might be happy to make a journey to see a particular show – often have no idea what’s going on in the other communities they pass through; and tourists from outside the Highlands and Islands are sometimes unaware that the Highlands has any cultural life at all, beyond the occasional ceilidh – they tend to come for the landscape or the walking, and just don’t know that they could also be seeing some terrific theatre or music down at the local hall.”
So last week at the Tramway in Glasgow – with the help of singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, writer Alan Bissett, choreographer Ruth Mills and fiddler Mike Vass – the Touring Network launched a new website, backed by a faceboook page and other social media, which is designed to help audiences find their way around the region’s rich cultural offerings; and with six vivid pages of events on display – featuring music, theatre, dance, film, comedy, children’s shows and circus – the website certainly challenges any stereotyped assumptions visitors might make about cultural life in the Highlands and Islands. The theatre work alone ranges from Mull Theatre’s current touring production of the award-winning Canadian drama The Drawer Boy, through the MacRobert’s fierce monologue for teenagers, Titus, to Beulah, a November spectacular from the York-based Flanagan Collective, inspired by the works of William Blake; and although there is plenty of traditional music, the range and quality of music available – from classical and jazz to a December appearance from rising stars Adam Holmes And The Embers – is impressive, and sometimes dazzling.
“The point is that this experience of Highland touring is abaolutely central to Scottish culture, nor peripheral to it,” says Sam Eccles. “Ever since the early days of 7:84, the Highland touring experience has been shaping the work of some of our leading artists, precisely because these venues and spaces offer such an intimate experience in such a memorable setting, and such an intense interaction between audience and performers. I have some favourite venues, yes, like Easdale Hall on the west coast where everything has to be transported tothe hall by flat-bottomed boat and wheelbarrow, or the wonderful Lyth Arts Centre in Sutherland with its terrific programme, or the beautiful Universal Hall at Findhorn.
“Whether our promoters are in an arts venue, though, or doing something site-specific, or just presenting work in a local pub, there’s never any question of having to provide people with an easy, unchallenging night out. I think that here in the Highlands, we have some of the most well-versed and culturally aware audiences you’ll find anywhere in Britain. And now, our aim is simply to draw a bigger audience towards this experience, from across Scotland, and beyond; and to make sure that our network of venues and promoters goes on developing, from strength to strength.”