21 Years in The Arches

Jackie Wylie, artistic director of The Arches, looks back over the illustrious history of the multi-discipline arts space, and tells us what's in store for the birthday celebrations

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 16 Oct 2012
  • Alien War

From its beginnings, when it was rescued from a disappointing entry in Glasgow's 1990 City of Culture programme by a determined Andy Arnold, through its status as an iconic venue in the late rave era, to its contemporary manifestation as a respected multi-arts space, The Arches has manifested much of Glasgow's vibrancy, as comfortable hosting up-for-it clubbers as challenging, experimental performance.

This twenty first year has demonstrated the range of The Arches' theatrical concerns. Alien War has returned to the basement, Arches Live! has just concluded its annual celebration of emerging and established artists, and the upcoming Autumn season is promising wild dance from David Hughes, eerie drama from Alan Bissett, and a theatrical remix from Ben Harrison and Louise Quinn, alongside gigs that prove The Arches' confidence as a major musical venue.

"This whole year has been epic," remembers artistic director Jackie Wylie. "In March, we had the Vital Sparks commission of Whatever Gets You Through the Night. Then we had the success at the Fringe with Bullet Catch. Now Gary McNair and Kieran Hurley are going touring. We've got Adrian Howells with Lifeguard with the NTS, and we are co-producing with Catherine Wheels at the end of the year. It's just been the most packed year."

It's telling that three of the shows in The Traverse's Fringe season came from writer-performers who are associated with The Arches: Rob Drummond (Bullet Catch), Kieran Hurley (Beats) and Gary McNair (Born to Run) have all won either the Platform 18 award or its earlier incarnation for new work from The Arches. And, as Wylie points out, the nature of The Arches' programming encourages such ongoing support."You can look at the journeys that some of the artists in Arches Live! have gone on. Beats came through Arches Live, and then it went to the Fringe and now it is going to go touring next year. Bullet Catch, Nic Green - all those artists have gone through Arches Live!"

The Arches has been instrumental in developing talent. The tour of the Highland and Islands that Hurley and McNair are currently following takes two works (Hitch and Crunch) that first appeared at the Arches and presents them to a national audience. Hurley's Fringe entry, winner of the Critic Awards for Theatre Scotland, Beats, is a team up with The Arches' own DJ, Mr Johnny Whoop.

Rob Drummond, alongside director David Overend, has also been making theatre with The Arches throughout his career: his Wrestling was another Vital Sparks commission. It's unlikely than any other venue could have accommodated the need for two stages - one a standard theatrical space, the other a massive wrestling ring for Drummond to throw down with the heroes of the square circle. Bullet Catch was originally developed for the intimate space offered in the Studio Theatre. Her enthusiasm for Drummond's success is perhaps a clue as to why The Arches continues to cultivate new talent: as artistic director, Wylie is consistently engaged with the artists who perform in her theatre. Reflecting on Arches Live! she notes: "Its life blood is that we keep rooting out artists who are not usually associated with The Arches. The audience understand it is an opportunity to try something new.

Since taking up her post four years ago, Wylie has subtly evolved an identity for the venue that both builds on Andy Arnold's legacy and aligns with the international traditions of Performance Art. Until 2010, The Arches was the home for The National Review of Live Art and while that weekend of anarchic creativity, along with its parent festival New Territories, has sadly disappeared, the spring Behaviour festival gives Glasgow a much needed shot of global experimental theatre.

"We are trying to differentiate work," Wylie explains. "Behaviour is very much about artists who are ready to view themselves at an international level, AL! is about artists at the beginning of a journey with their work. Over the years, the differentiation has become clearer.”

But before Behaviour's return in 2013, there are plenty of other shows that measure up to that international stature. David Hughes Dance - who were the controversy of Fringe 2011 thanks to their Al Seed-led take on Sawney Bean - arrive in November with The Chinaski Sessions, a mash up of dance, alcohol-soaked poetry and Belgian Math Rock. October begins with Biding Time (Remix), a musical take on the way that artists can be chewed up by the industry courtesy of Grid Iron's Ben Harrison and A Band Called Quinn. And Scotland's young champion of the word, Alan Bissett, rolls in with his sinister peak at life in a laboratory. Wylie is pleased that Bissett has chosen The Arches. "He is an another ascending star: there's an acknowledgement of his politics and he is actually putting his head above the parapet and being quite radical in what he expresses in his writing.”

If the upcoming programme reflects something of The Arches' identity, as a space that does not flinch from bringing experimental work to Glasgow, and that balances between the local and the international artist, the actual birthday celebrations are a powerful statement of intent. A visit from Akhe, the Russian theatre architects, will provide a focal point for the party.

"We were thinking about what theatre company might ignite all of the audiences and Akhe are like wizard geniuses," Wylie says. "They are doing a special happening. And Mischief la Bas are coming back." It was Mischief's founders, Angie Dwight and Ian Smith who added an edge of avant-garde performance to early clubbing events at The Arches, before founding the company who have been "warping the underlay of the carpet of society" for the past decade. Elements of Whatever Gets You Through the Night, Swimmer One and Cora Bissett's massively ambitious fusion of music and theatre, will also be revived.

Looking back over the past year, and towards the dim and distant past, when Arnold first got the keys to what was simply a disused space belonging to British Rail, Wylie can see a pattern emerging. "I look at Buzzcut and the SWG3, who are working in similar ways, and I feel like The Arches has been here a long time, and that we are experts in certain areas, and the twenty-first birthday has given us the opportunity to reflect.

"The journey has been from a subcultural, hidden venue in the city centre to a confident, mature organisation which is leading in the development of a particular, risk-taking art. If you look at the breadth of what has happened in this one year, you can really see all the variety of that coming to fruition."

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