Student Life: Theatre ain't what it used to be

Musty curtains and dusty stages? Theatre is no longer for the blue rinse brigade, as sexy shows and exciting productions are homegrown on your doorstep

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 16 Sep 2008
  • Architecting

Even those culture vultures without an ounce of nationalist pride would be forced to admit that Scottish theatre is finally challenging the world. Scottish Ballet have become a vibrant contemporary company; The National Theatre of Scotland is collaborating with small groups and major venues to create a varied and imaginative programme; everything from traditional Shakespeare to obscure Live Art flows through the listings; and our playwrights, directors and performers are internationally respected.

Up in the north, 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.

Aberdeen Performing Arts don’t just book shows: they are working up a comprehensive programme of education events with opportunities to get involved, and are revitalising the performance scene by supporting actors and writers. They also have a really nice website, boxofficeaberdeen.com, which covers both venues and The Music Hall.

There are also a few local companies based in Aberdeen - Attic, Aberdeen Community Theatre, The Phoenix - not to mention the City Moves dance space. Even outside of university, it is easy to get involved in a drama. Beyond this, there are plenty of other venues, including the Capitol, and the annual Youth Festival, which happens in early August.

Aberdeen is certainly benefitting from the recent surge of cultural energy across Scotland. Plans are afoot to restore the Tivoli as a mid-scale venue: all this is a far cry from a year ago, when The Lemon Tree was closed and the theatres seemed to be struggling to survive. Also in the pipeline, if it can avoid the financial problems the council faces, is a new centre for contemporary art in Union Terrace Gardens - proposed by Peacock Visual Arts, currently found on Castlegate (see our section on Volunteering).

Dundee 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. The Projector Festival at the start of the year showcases the best of animation - last year it collaborated with the puppetry festival, which brought some incredible international work to the east coast. And it's just a short hop to St Andrews, where the Byre Theatre hosts drama and dance all year - and is currently supporting Al Seed, the award-winning dark clown of physical theatre.

Inevitably, the Central Belt is almost embarrassingly fecund. Glasgow seems to have a new festival every month - except for August, surprisingly. Favourites include the eclectic Merchant City Festival, the massive West End Festival and the challenging National Review of Live Art. Tramway and The Arches offer the edgy stuff: the Tron and the Citizens tend to feature excellent scripts. Dance gets everywhere - not least due to the influence of Dance House, Glasgow’s wonderful adult school - and The King’s Theatre and Theatre Royal cater for big touring musicals, major international dance companies and opera.

Glasgow’s unique atmosphere is the product of the more underground strands of performance: physical theatre, experimental dance and performance beyond any categories all thrive. Local artists - like Martin O’Connor, Molly and Me or Fish and Game - are looking at ways to expand theatre without losing the audience. The Tron, The Citizens, The Arches and Tramway are worth a visit just for the spaces themselves, and they all have lovely cafés as well.

Edinburgh counters with two huge spaces. The Playhouse is one of the largest theatres in Europe, and consequently can stage the really popular musicals and gigs. Edinburgh Festival Theatre attracts serious companies from England and around the world - including the Nederlands Dance Theatre, Royal Ballet and, well, The Singing Kettle.

The Lyceum and The Traverse both create their own work: The Traverse has developed a reputation for cultivating the finest Scottish authors, while the Lyceum has consistently breathed energy and life into some stuffy classics. Theatre Workshop organises community-orientated projects (and the occasional burst of intense Beckett) down in Stockbridge. Meanwhile, local companies are developing smaller places - bars and cafes are often used as makeshift theatres. The Forest Café has an upstairs stage which is open to new ideas and pieces.

Dance is also well served: there is Dance Base, which offers one hundred and thirty classes a week, while Curve Foundation operates a modern ballet company from the Brunton in Musselburgh. It goes without saying that August is, well, rather busy, what with the world's biggest arts festival (The Fringe) and one of its most prestigious (the International Festival) all coming to town... and there are plenty of student jobs going then. Hundreds of venues seem to appear, as churches, buses, fields and cinemas are commandeered by fame hungry actors and directors.

There’s no doubt that the strength of the National Theatre of Scotland - along with Scottish Ballet’s new found confidence under Ashley Paige - has had a remarkable impact on the arts. Since the NTS has no home venue, it pops up everywhere, like a cheerful fungus, creating work at different scales, with different attitudes. It doesn’t have the élitist sense that it might have had, and has avoided merely resuscitating old works or making predictable choices. However, both of these national companies are fortunate to have such a strong infrastructure and a supportive audience. In the theatre at least, Scotland can be a proud nation.