Category Archives: Other Theatre Writing

Change At Dundee Rep

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHANGE AT DUNDEE REP for The Scotsman magazine, 21.11.15.
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THE TRADITION OF ARTISTIC LEADERSHIP goes back a long way, at Dundee Rep. In the 1970’s, the theatre’s artistic director was the writer, actor and director Stephen MacDonald, who went on to run the Lyceum in Edinburgh. And his successors have included the veteran actor-manager Robert Robertson, two inspired producer-directors – Hamish Glen and James Brining, now in charge of the Belgrade, Coventry and the West Yorkshire Playhouse respectively – and the acclaimed former Traverse boss Philip Howard, who became chief executive in 2012, sharing the artistic directorship of the theatre ensemble with Jemima Levick.

Today, though – if you wander up Tay Street to the Rep’s handsome modern building, opened in 1982 – you’ll find that the man in charge is top theatre executive Nick Parr, who left his previous job as Commercial Director at the King’s and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh to become Dundee’s chief executive earlier this year, after Philip Howard moved on to concentrate on directing and touring in Scotland.

“I know that people often groan when they hear about this kind of change,” says Parr, “because they feel that an artistic organisation should be led by a practising artist. And actually, I have a lot of sympathy with that view.

“I do think, though, that boards have to think through what’s best for any organisation at a particular moment, and I think they’ve made the right decision for Dundee Rep at this stage. The Rep is a particularly complex producing organisation – not only one of Scotland’s top producing theatres with its own unique acting ensemble, but the home of Scottish Dance Theatre and a huge range of community work; and I think I’m the first chief executive of this company who’s really been able to focus equally on the dance and theatre aspects of the company, rather than trying to run the whole show with one hand, while also being artistic director of the theatre company with the other.”

And Anne Bonnar of the theatre consultants Bonnar Keenlyside, who advised on the changes at Dundee Rep, agrees. “I think the key point about Dundee Rep is that the organisation has just outgrown the model laid down by Hamish Glen I the late 1990’s. In particular, Scottish Dance Theatre, now directed by Fleur Darkin, has grown to become a leading international company in its own right, rather than a junior partner. So it seemed right, for now, to set up a different structure, with a chief executive for the organisation as a whole, working closely with powerful artistic directors of the two producing companies, Jemima Levick and Fleur Darkin.

“And don’t get me wrong,” adds Bonnar, “I’m absolutely in favour of artistic leadership of arts organisations as a general rule. I was brought up at the Citizens’ Theatre in the early 80’s, so I was trained by Giles Havergal, who was the artistic director par excellence – a practising actor, writer and director himself, but also a superb theatre boss. So it’s not that I want to see some kind of triumph of the uber-administrators – and if you look around the theatre scene at the moment, you can see that the artistic-director-led model has proved much more resilient than some thought it would, 20 years ago. In
Scotland, we’ve got PItlochry and the Citizens’ at the moment – just to give two examples – both being led by artistic directors, exactly the kind of practising artists who can subsume their creative “selfish gene” into the work of a whole organisation; and Vicky Featherstone is another great example, a superb founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Above all, though, I think the key to success for any arts organisation is to be flexible and to respond to change. And the worst thing that can happen is for any management and staffing structure to become set in stone. Because ultimately what matters is the art, and the structure has to serve that, no matter what.”

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Chrysalis: Scotland’s New Festival Of Brilliant Youth Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHRYSALIS for The Scotsman magazine, 14.11.15.
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IT’S A GLOOMY NOVEMBER Saturday in Edinburgh, and rain is beating down on the city centre. Underground at the Traverse, though, there’s nothing but warmth, enthusiasm, and a glow of creative energy, as youth theatre companies from Scotland and beyond gather for the second day of Scotland’s first-ever Chrysalis Festival, designed to bring together companies from the fast-growing youth theatre sector, and to offer them a chance not only to experience each other’s work, but to debate and discuss it, in the context of Scotland’s wider theatre scene.

The Chrysalis Festival has been brought together – after four years of thought and preparation – by Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, the Edinburgh-based umbrella body for youth theatre groups across the country. The festival is co-curated by Viviane Hullin, producer with the award-winning Junction 25 young company at the Tramway in Glasgow, and a former J25 member herself; and the shows represented this year include two from Scotland, and two from leading companies in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Scottish-made shows are Junction 25’s 2014 hit I’d Rather Humble Than Hero, and the Citizens’ Theatre Young Company’s Southside Stories, a brave and impressive verbatim piece with music about community tensions in Glasgow’s hugely diverse Govanhill area. And they are matched by Headz, a selection of three breathtakingly vivid urban monologues from a series of eleven written by Keith Saha in collaboration with Liverpool’s 20 Stories High company, and the Contact Theatre of Manchester’s Young Company in Under The Covers, a wise, bold and funny devised piece about sex in the 21st century.

All four shows are fine pieces of theatre, mainly co-created and devised by youth theatre members in the 15-19 age range; but what’s especially thrilling about watching them in the context of Chrysalis is the sheer intensity and warmth of the young people’s reaction to each other’s work, as they crowd into the Traverse’s two auditoriums to watch and learn, and then emerge in an excited buzz of critical chat and response. And to help the conversation along, the festival also features discussion sessions – one on reviewing youth theatre, led by critics Mary Brennan, Mark Fisher and Thom Dibdin, and one on international exchange and collaboration in youth theatre, with speakers including Casper Niewenhuis of the Like Minds company in Amsterdam, and Simon Sharkey of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Essentially, our aim with Chrysalis is to widen the audience for the best of youth theatre in Scotland and beyond, raise people’s aspirations, and open up critical discussion about youth theatre,” says Viv Hullin, “and this festival feels like a really, really successful first step in bringing people together and starting those conversations.

“I think it’s in the nature of youth theatre work – which is often fitted in around a very busy time in young people’s lives – that they get very little chance to see other people’s work, or to reflect on what they’re doing in a wider context. And I think you can feel from the extraordinary atmosphere in the Traverse over the weekend how much people welcome that opportunity, and how much they’ve enjoyed it.

“For the future, I think we’d like to do more on how shows emerge, and the different working processes used by youth theatre companies. And we’re interested in different models of performance that might allow shows to tour to a wider audience – Headz, the Liverpool show, is an interesting example of that, with a huge flexibility about which monologues appear at any one performance.

“On the whole, though, we’re just delighted that this first Chrysalis festival has come together so successfully. Chrysalis is funded for three years, up to 2017; so we hope that over that time, we’ll be able to develop the idea much further, and start to make a real positive difference both to the ambition and achievement of youth theatre, and to the quality of debate it inspires, in Scotland and beyond.”

The next Chrysalis Festival will take place on 11-13 November, 2016.

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Kath Mainland Leaves The Fringe

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KATH MAINLAND LEAVING THE FRINGE for The Scotsman, 10.11.15
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IN ALL ITS history of almost 70 years, I doubt whether the Edinburgh Fringe has ever found itself in the hands of a leader who understood it more thoroughly, or nurtured it more carefully and effectively through what could have been difficult times, than Kath Mainland. When she took over the job early in 2009, the Fringe was struggling to recover from the 2008 box-office meltdown which almost destroyed the most vital of all the support services the Fringe Society offers to Fringe companies.

Yet during her time in the job she has not only stabilised the operation in practical and administrative terms.  She has also, despite the deepest recession in recent economic history, presided over yet another period of sustained growth both in the number of shows presented in the Fringe, and in the number of tickets sold, which has grown since 2009 from 1.8 million to almost 2.3 million. And she has also been a strong supporter of initiatives such as Made In Scotland and Escalator East to Edinburgh, which have provided strategic support for companies facing the ever-increasing costs of presenting work in Edinburgh in August.

Questions always remain about the Edinburgh Fringe, of course, notably around the issue of those high costs.  As the co-ordinating body of an open, unprogrammed Festival, though, the Fringe organisation  cannot begin to try to dictate the size of the event, or the detail of who takes parts, without totally destroying the special and often anarchic atmosphere which has made the Edinburgh Fringe the biggest arts Festival in the western world. Kath Mainland  perfectly understands that essential truth about the Fringe; she sought to support, to co-ordinate, to inform,  to publicise, to encourage, but never to direct – indeed the very difficuly of giving a name to the job of running the Fringe, which has morphed over the years from “administrator”, to “director”, to “chief executive”, highlights the sheer uniqueness of the job.  And the most significant danger, in replacing Kath Mainland, will be the temptation to appoint a figure with impressive experience as a Festival diretor, perhaps of one of the world’s many programmed “Fringe” festivals, who does not fully grasp that the Ednibrgh Fringe demands a completely different and more self-effacing range of skills.  For that reason, this is a Festival that often responds well to the appointment of an experienced Fringe figure; Kath Mainland worked for Assembly Productions for many years before she became Fringe boss.  And whoever takes over the job, it’s as well to remember that directing has nothing to with it.  It’s all about responding, nurturing, helping and facilitating; and if that’s not your style, then this job is definitely not for you.

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Eden Court: Time To Turn A Spotlight On Scotland’s Most Northerly Big Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on EDEN COURT for The Scotsman magazine, 7.11.15.
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AS THEATRE LOCATIONS GO, it’s perhaps the best in Scotland; right at the heart of the country’s fastest-growing city, yet perched in gorgeous parkland, on the banks of the fast-flowing River Ness. Anyone who visits Eden Court Theatre in Inverness is bound to admire its elegant modern building complex – first opened in 1976 – and its fine river views.

Yet despite its annual £5 million budget – which makes it one of the largest theatre organisations in Scotland, surpassed only by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Kings’ and Festival Theatres trust in Edinburgh – Scotland’s most northerly large-scale theatre is often overlooked in public discussion about the Scottish arts scene, in terms both of its actual performance, and its huge potential.

Since it reopened in 2007 after an extensive refurbishment, Eden Court has one large 840-seat theatre, one smaller 250-seat theatre, two small but excellent cinemas, and two studios, as well as a bar and restaurant, and extensive conference and function space. The theatre offers a jam-packed programme, ranging from daytime educational activities – Eden Court runs the largest theatre-based arts education programme in the UK, with team members all over the Highlands, and is the only theatre actually to teach Higher Dance and Drama – through large-scale and small-scale theatre, classical music, opera and ballet, to blockbuster musicals like Hairspray (due to visit in March), the beloved annual panto produced with commercial company Imagine, and a thriving cinema programme, including this weekend’s Inverness Film Festival.

And although it mainly functions as a receiving theatre, Eden Court is gradually becoming a stronger presence in theatre production. Earlier this autumn, the theatre produced Philip Howard’s touring production of Not About Heroes; and it has also co-produced David Gooderson’s Hector, about the disgraced Highland military hero General Sir Hector MacDonald, which appears at the Traverse next week.

It’s therefore not surprising that an audience member recently told Colin Marr, the theatre’s chief executive since 1997, that Eden Court was like “all the theatres, cinemas, and concert halls in Edinburgh rolled into one, with just a little bit of each of them”; and it’s easy to see how this massive programme – straddling not only the commercial and subsidised sectors, but also very different scales of work, and most art-forms within the subsidised arts – makes it difficult for the theatre to project a clear image of its work beyond Inverness, where it has become a completely essential part of the cultural and entertainment landscape, with few competitors.

Questions remain, inevitably, about how Eden Court might move forward in future, and how – beyond its much-admired educational work – it can best use the £1 million pounds of public money it receives. Could it invest more than its current £45,000 or £50,000 a year in producing new work? Could it open up a strand of new work for children created by its multi-talented education team, who already produce a hugely popular Christmas show for tiny tots? Could it perhaps, at some point, afford to produce its own home-made Highland panto? And could it – should it – develop a more closely-integrated and mutually supportive relationship with the Highland Touring Network, which brings professional theatre and music to community venues across the region, rather than simply competing with them for the best small-scale shows?

For the time being, though, it’s steady as she goes on the banks of the Ness, where the Eden Court operation is thriving and growing as never before. And whatever decisions are eventually made about its future, the theatre’s current success in earning more than 60% of its income at the box office forms a strong basis for those choices; and gives Eden Court the potential to play an ever more creative role in the life of the Highlands, a region already rich in grassroots cultural life, and capable of becoming steadily richer.

For details of the Eden Court programme, including this weekend’s Inverness Film Festival, see . Hector is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-12 November, and on tour.

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A Hallowe’en Column On Going Backstage – Into The Mysterious Side Of Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on GOING BACKSTAGE for Scotsman Magazine 31.10.15.
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IT’S LATE AND DARK on an October Friday evening, and I’m standing in a crowd of people at the top of a long, bleak staircase, looking down at the floor beneath my feet. Something about its texture catches my attention – very old boards, nailed into place 130 years ago, darkened by layers of dust, creaking slightly to our footsteps; and just for a moment, there’s a dizzy feeling of moving back in time.

The place is the top of the balcony stairs at the Royal Lyceum, the place where audiences once filed up to the “gods”, and still do, on occasions; and we’re there to experience a remarkable show called Hidden, put together by the Lyceum Youth Theatre as part of the company’s 50th birthday celebration. Theatres have always offered backstage tours, of course, to audience members fascinated by the secrets of theatre production. In Scotland at the moment, you can buy or book a ticket for a backstage tour around the Citizens’, the King’s in Edinburgh, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and many more; and they cater to a fascination with the mechanics of theatre, rather than its meaning, that I’ve always found vaguely irritating.

Hidden, though, is a show that takes that fascination further, into a dark and hugely imaginative exploration of the atmosphere that clings around the backstage areas of an old Victorian theatre like the Lyceum. Devised by a company of 60 young people and four directors – including artistic director Mark Thomson – the show leads us, over 65 minutes, through ranges of old dressing-rooms, down to the stage where fretful performers prepare for curtain-up, into the depths beneath the stage where strange children – or are they theatre mice? – play and rant in some kind of imprisonment, and then up those haunted back stairs to the gods, where competing deities fight for the soul of a boy who is strongly advised, in the end, to rely only on his own heart and creativity.

It’s a powerful show, which perhaps takes some inspiration from David Leddy’s unforgettable backstage promenade piece Sub Rosa, first seen at the Citizens’ in 2009; and it’s to be hoped that audiences will have a chance to see Hidden again, during the Lyceum’s anniversary year.

Yet in this Hallowe’en week, the show also raises questions about just why we see the backstage spaces of theatres as such spooky and ambiguous spaces; and why theatre history is so haunted by the figures of those who have died in the act of performance – like the renowned magician The Great Lafayette, burned to death at the Empire Theatre, Edinburgh (now the Festival Theatre) in 1911.

It’s as if we feel, somewhere, that the intensity of theatrical experience is a kind of devil’s bargain, which demands that performers sacrifice something vital of themselves, in order to create the spectacle on stage; so that backstage, after the show is over, all the regret and pain associated with that sacrifice – whether of family, respectability, wealth, peace of mind, or life itself – gathers and waits to claim the next generation of artists driven to live the same life.

And although, in 21st century theatre, that sacrifice is mercifully much less than it was – and most of our talk today is of artistic achievement, workable business plans, decent working conditions, health and safety, and the huge positive contribution a great theatre can make to the life of a community – perhaps this is the one week of the year when we can make a brief nod to the more mysterious side of the business: to its strange, brief intensities, to the roar of applause that seems to seep into the walls of an old theatre building, to the millions of dreams, hopes and yearnings that have flowed through its spaces over the decades; and to the ghosts that haunt the galleries and backstairs of every self-respecting theatre, brought to life in shows like Hidden, and then – in our age of reason – firmly sent back to sleep again, until the next All Hallows’ Eve.

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Tipping The Velvet At The Lyceum, And A New Age Of Co-Production

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CO-PRODUCTION – A THEATRE SOLUTION, OR A WHOLE NEW SET OF PROBLEMS? for Scotsman Magazine 24.10.15.
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TAKE A LOOK AT THE LYCEUM THEATRE’S autumn programme for this 50th anniversary year, and you’ll see a short season book-ended by the recent smash-hit Lyceum production of Waiting For Godot, and the forthcoming Christmas show, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

In the middle, though – and set to open next week – there’s something else entirely: the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith’s stage version of Sarah Waters’s Victorian lesbian romance Tipping The Velvet, which opened in London four weeks ago, to a delighted audience response. The show is directed by Lyndsey Turner, who has recently won international fame as the director of the controversial Barbican Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and its presence in the Lyceum’s in-house programme raises all sorts of questions about the new culture of co-production and partnership between theatres which funding bodies seem so eager to encourage, as an obvious way of reducing costs.

For even quick glance at the detail of how Tipping The Velvet was put together is enough to suggest that the process of co-production is far more complex than that. It’s clear that Tipping the Velvet is a Lyric Hammersmith show, conceived there, cast there, and rehearsed there. Yet the Lyceum organisation has been involved in discussions about the project from the outset. The scale of the production is dependent on resources the Lyceum has been willing to bring to it, in both cash and kind (some of the set has been built at the Lyceum’s Roseburn workshop), and the concept has partly been shaped by the idea of creating a show set in and around the world of Victorian theatre, for two exquisite Victorian auditoriums.

“It is emphatically not all about saving money,” says the Lyceum’s executive director Alex McGowan. “Tipping The Velvet is actually a more expensive show for us than, say, Faith Healer, the opening Lyceum production of this year; what the co-production does is to enable us to stage a bigger show, with a larger cast and a more complex set, than either theatre could afford on its own. If you’re doing a co-production project for the right reasons, though, then the upsides of it are huge, and not only for the audience, who get to see a wider range of work. It helps people working in theatre to expand their horizons, and to get to know – and be known by – different organisations; it’s great for career development, and for making you think in fresh ways about your own organisation.

And all of this points to what Mark Thomson, the Lyceum’s outgoing artistic director, says is the most significant thing he has learned about co-production; that the project has to be based on a genuine creative impulse, and not on some imposed structure that requires routine co-production. “That kind of structure,” he says, “leads rapidly to either to a lowest common denominator, or a kind of servitude, and neither of those is good. It’s also not good if co-production just becomes a way of reducing the total amount of work created; that reduces opportunities for actors, writers, designers, directors, and takes away the distinctiveness of each company’s work.

“On the upside, we’ve done a huge amount of successful co-production in recent years, both as the lead producing house and in projects led by others; we led on last year’s production of Pressure, which was co-produced by Chichester Festival Theatre, whereas Crime And Punishment, for example, was led by the Citizens’. But you simply can’t afford to get locked into a co-production routine that makes you into a receiving house, for part of the year, rather than a producing theatre. It has to be about fun, about the work, about the creative stimulus of working with different people in a different company with different ideas. And it can’t be about obligation; because obligation is never, ever a good basis for art.”

Tipping The Velvet at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 October- 14 November.

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To Rockvilla: National Theatre Of Scotland Moving On

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TO ROCKVILLA: NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND MOVING ON for the Scotsman Magazine 17.10.15.
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IN FEBRUARY next year, the National Theatre of Scotland will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its first-ever production, the amazing series of site-specific shows, staged all across Scotland from Shetland to Dumfries, that were known by the collective title Home. That project signalled the determination of the new NTS – and its then artistic director, Vicky Featherstone – to be a national theatre without walls, working from a small office in Glasgow to make theatre for, an in, every part of Scotland. And over the decade, the NTS has made an impressive effort to fulfil that remit, performing and working in hundreds of communites across the country.

Now, though, the NTS is about to start work on creating its own first permanent home, in the shape of an old cash-and-carry warehouse at Speirs Wharf in Glasgow, in the old industrial area once known as Rockvilla. Over the next year, at a cost of £6.5 million, the old warehouse floor will become the foundation for what the NTS’s artistic director, Laurie Sansom, calls a new “engine room” for Scottish theatre, a big shed-like hub full of rehearsal rooms, workshops, educational space, storage and offices, that will help bring all the NTS’s backroom activity under one roof; and it’s a move that inevitably invites questions about whether the NTS’s “without walls” model is gradually crumbling, under the pressure to become more like a conventional theatre company with its own production base.

The original idea of the NTS, after all – one generated by the Scottish theatre community itself, after years of thought and debate – was that it should be less of a theatre company, and more of an inspired, creatively-led commissioning fund and co-producer, pouring all its resources into creative collaborations with other Scottish companies; and it’s easy to see how the fact of owning and running its own production base, with lavish rehearsal space, will reduce the pressure on the NTS to get out and about, and to recycle resources into other theatres. Last week, the appeal for a final £1.9 million of Rockvilla funding was launched at a glamorous event in Glasgow, with the support of Alan Cumming, who voiced a video rejoicing that the NTS would now be able to “bring all the artists it works with under one roof” – hardly the decentralising language of a decade ago.

Around Scotland’s theatre community, though, there seems to be a fair degree of optimism that the founding vision of the NTS will survive the move to Rockvilla, and that the new base will help the company to work more effectively. The idea that the building is not a performance venue remains sacrosanct. The new sculpture just commissioned for the Rockvilla foyer will feature a glowing illuminated map of Scotland showing where the NTS is at work, as a constant reminder of the company’s nationwide mission. And the company’s executive producer, Neil Murray, says that the intention is to make the building, which will have large public areas including a cafe, into a resource for Scottish theatre-makers in general, and not just for NTS projects.

“With the sad recent loss of the Arches, for example,” he says, “it’s clear that there’s going to be a huge demand for the kind of workshop space we’ll be able to provide at Rockvilla. That’s happening already, in the very cramped space we’ve got at Civic Street; you stick your head into the tiny rehearsal room, and ask yourself, who on earth is that?

“At the moment, though, we just don’t have the space to be the creative centre we could be, and we waste a huge amount of energy hauling ourselves from one building to another. So although there are potential downsides to a move like this, I think we’re well aware of the need to guard against them; and if all goes well, the benefits of a new creative centre like this could be huge, for the whole of Scottish theatre.”

http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content/default.asp?page=s8_15

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