Setting the Stage

<strong>Gareth K Vile</strong> introduces you to Scotland's theatre and performance scene.

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 05 Aug 2009

One of the purest joys of student life is being a target audience. Throughout Scotland, theatres and performance companies are desperate to get students along, offering cheap tickets, special events and shows aimed at that beautiful demographic: from Scottish Opera to Rockaburley, students are welcomed and wanted.

It doesn’t hurt that Scotland’s drama and dance scenes are growing and dynamic: every city has brave bands of experimental artists, established venues and grand old companies. Not only does each place have its own atmosphere – as in Glasgow’s fierce radicalism and Euro-centric Live Art, or Edinburgh’s bustle of new writing – The National Theatre of Scotland is constantly on the move, dropping in for tours, site specific sessions and high quality productions. Whatever the scale, whatever the genre, it is being done with finesse and originality.

First up, Glasgow. Home to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, it dominates the alternative theatre for the eleven months of the year that are not The Fringe. Perhaps because of its traditions of politically engaged drama, which are still kept alive by the Tron and the Citizens, the presence of a Contemporary Performance Practice course at the RSAMD, and an intellectual and searching Drama department at the University, the rough and immediate, the awkward and the challenging can be found everywhere.

The Arches is making a name for itself for contemporary performance, with at least three festivals a year, including the National Review of Live Art and Behaviour, celebrating the new. On the Southside, Tramway still picks up larger scale adventurers from home and abroad, as well as being home to Scottish Ballet.

The Tron and the Citizens have a year long programme of scripted work, both in their large auditoriums and smaller spaces, while the King's and the Theatre Royal cater to national touring companies. Add in the Oran Mor’s Pint, a Pie and a Play, and it is possible to be out every night. With companies like Scottish Opera, Cryptic and Fish and Game based in the city, there’s little excuse not to be.

Edinburgh has the Lyceum for their own productions, usually of classics or new scripts; the Traverse is just next door with a particular remit for young, exciting playwrights. Here the grand names of modern Scottish theatre premiere their latest: from John Byrne to David Greig, this is the perfect place for the enthusiast of contemporary writing with strong casts and imaginative direction.

The presence of the Festival Theatre, another King's and the Playhouse makes sure that the big names visit – including Breakin’ Convention, the annual hip-hop jamboree. Edinburgh gets the musicals, the well-known names from England and has a thriving student scene. The recent opening of the GRV in Chambers Street has given the city a bijoux venue that perfectly contains intimate shorts.

Edinburgh is a regular stop for European and American ballet companies, and the International Festival and Fringe offer programmes that are almost beyond comprehension. Suffice to say that in one month, it is inevitable that the best and the worst, the safest and most dangerous theatre will be seen, even by passers-by on the Royal Mile. While August sees venues pop up in every nook and corner, there is a year long string of well-produced and freshly minted drama.

Dundee and Aberdeen have smaller performance scenes. Aberdeen Performing Arts is behind the resurgence of two major Aberdeen theatres – the Lemon Tree and His Majesty's. Between them they cover the spectrum of performance: The Lemon Tree presents the smaller scale, more experimental pieces, while His Majesty's has those impressive, popular and lavish shows that go through The King's and The Playhouse in the Central Belt. There are also a few local companies based in Aberdeen – Attic, Aberdeen Community Theatre, The Phoenix – not to mention the City Moves dance space. Dundee on the otherhand is showing signs of a healthy revival. Dundee Rep is establishing itself as a serious contender – their relationship with Janet Smith's Scottish Dance Theatre has opened up new approaches and new audiences, and their productions are gaining wide critical approval.

There are some scenes that cross cities. Burlesque and cabaret are genuine grass-roots movements that are flourishing: classes in burlesque are featured at both Glasgow’s Dance House and Edinburgh’s Dance Base, led by Viva Misadventure and spilling over into nights like High Tease, Itsy’s Kabaret and Rockaburley, Spangled and anything by Rhymes With Purple.

The neo-burlesque scene is especially exciting for the way that the various nights refuse to compete, but instead find niches. High Tease does glamour and gloss, Kabaret is anarchic, Rockaburley has a rockabilly, fairground chic. While they share artists – The Creative Martyrs, Missy Malone, Cherry Loco, Cat Aclysmic and Miss Hell’s Bells are frequent suspects – the atmosphere and crowd lend every show its own flavour. The annual Cabaret Festival in Glasgow during July is thriving, and shares in the overall mission to bring local and national stars together.

Scottish Ballet have spent the last eight years over-hauling what was a tired franchise. Apart from moving into new premises at Tramway, their Artistic Director Ashley Page has revolutionised the repertoire, commissioning new works from contemporary choreographers and blending Balanchine with up-to-the-minute moves. And even Scottish Opera is modernising: their Five:15 programme has new, short operas, and they have special offers for students for their huge productions.

That leaves the National Theatre. In a radical step, they decided to have no fixed home, roaming instead around the country and balancing the large and small. Using local talent and established names, they are a National company that are striving to represent all Scottish work. Experimental, vibrant and restless: Scotland is a world leader in the performing arts.