Brexit, Stage Left: Scottish Theatre and Europe

With weeks to go until the UK plans to withdraw from the EU, The Skinny asks theatremakers from around Scotland what Brexit could do to Scottish theatre, and wonders what impact Brexit has already made on the industry

Feature by Amy Taylor | 12 Mar 2019
  • Brexit's Impact on Theatre

It started, as so many things do these days, with a Twitter thread about Brexit. But, unlike most Twitter threads about Brexit, this one – by former Artistic Director of the Dundee Rep Joe Douglas, now the Artistic Director at the Live Theatre in Newcastle – was focused on Brexit’s impact on UK theatre. The issue, he felt, was that UK theatre – with the exception of children's theatre – was “already pretty Brexited.”

But what compelled Douglas to write these tweets in the first place?

“The news prompted it and all the talk of the ‘threat to British industry’,” he explains. “It just started me to thinking about how little integration really happens in most of the theatre industry and how much we’d actually notice the effect.”

This lack of integration within the industry is something that Douglas is keen to change but, he adds, there are many barriers in place that are stopping that happening. “I have very little working relationship with other European theatres outside of the UK and Ireland. I want to change that, but it will take time to build relationships. There are lots of barriers – water makes it trickier, lack of language skills is a barrier,” he continues.

Language Barriers

For some of the theatremakers we speak to, our reluctance to engage with other artists by learning another language is part of the reason we are so cut off from European colleagues.

“I’m struck by the disjunct between a Scottish theatre sector largely united in lamentation over our imminent departure from the EU, and the crashingly pervasive monolingualism among that same sector – and worse yet, the sheer level of institutional complacency about that monolingualism. You’re part of the problem, guys, and please don’t pretend otherwise.” says Alan McKendrick, a playwright, director and writer.

“Going to the effort of having learned a second language currently seems about as welcome an attribute in a Scottish theatre context as being left-handed was in a Victorian school classroom,” he continues.

Scottish Theatre is European Theatre

Despite the lack of a common language between artists, Douglas is unequivocal when it comes to discussing European theatre’s contribution to Scottish theatre.

“Scottish theatre is European,” he explains. “‘European theatre’ sometimes feels like a catch all for ‘something that isn’t a kitchen sink drama’. But you’d have to look to the Citizens programming in the 1970s-90s and latterly some of Dominic Hill’s experimentations with form – his collaborations with composer Nikola Kodjabashia, for example.”

It’s true to say that a lot of 20th century Scottish theatre was influenced by playwrights and companies from mainland Europe, and Scottish theatrical heavyweights, such as John McGrath, 7:84 and Wildcat were heavily influenced by Brecht and Dario Fo, while companies such as Communicado and Theatre Babel gave their own spin to other European classics.

For many of the artists we interview, the impact that theatre from Europe had had on not just their work, but also their feelings about the industry is obvious.

“The European theatre I saw in my early days at the Edinburgh Festival, particularly the work of Kantor and other Polish theatre makers brought over by Richard Demarco, had a massive influence on me,” says the actor Tam Dean Burn.

For the award-winning performance maker Nic Green, European theatre is responsible for creating some of the most important theatrical experiences of her life. “Some of my most formative and important experiences in the theatre have been watching work from across Europe. I have always identified as much with the canon of contemporary European theatre as I have with theatre from Scotland or the UK, perhaps even more so,” she explains.  

Emerging artists based in Scotland have continued to be inspired by work made in Europe, with some of the sector’s up-and-coming artists creating performances that have not only been inspired by international artists, but also continue to seek out opportunities to work with them.

“There’s a whole host of younger artists and companies coming through – Tortoise in a Nutshell, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, Sara Shaarawi, Company of Wolves to name a few – who seem heavily influenced by work outside Scotland and actively seek international collaboration,” says Douglas.

What Happens After Brexit?

No one knows what will happen after the UK withdraws from the EU on, or perhaps even around, 29 March. But what can theatremakers in Scotland do to ensure that they celebrate and maintain their links to mainland Europe?

“I refute the idea that this sense of identity and influence will change in the face of Brexit,” begins Green. “However, because of it, I feel a need and responsibility to reach out more openly to the European artists and organisations I respect to counter the perceived barriers people in power draw around us. Collaboration is political! If only the government knew how to do it better.”

Her sentiments are echoed by Dean Burn: “I’m hoping that whatever happens with Brexit that theatremakers across borders will reach out to each other to break through Fortress Europe and offer theatrical elements to the growing international youth rebellion against climate catastrophe.”

While many of the artists interviewed believe that Brexit will make it harder to collaborate, Leonie Rae Gasson, a theatre director and artist, sees it as an opportunity for creative people to work together.

“Brexit will likely make it harder to work with our European collaborators sure, but I've never known a creative to be put off by a challenge – it's in our blood to find new ways to solve problems,” she says. 

In fact, Gasson believes that Brexit has propelled artists to become more involved in political work, which has changed their outlook and their goals. “Actually, the biggest impact of Brexit that I am seeing in Scotland's creative sector is a renewed energy, it’s not enough anymore to stand on the sidelines. I look around me and artists are becoming more politically engaged and they are looking to reach new and bigger audiences. I mean god forbid we left politics to the politicians.”

While many artists credit Scotland’s festivals as platforms for seeing European work, others are critical of the lack of similar work available to audiences outwith these events.

“I really feel it would be a wonderful thing for a great many of our current Scottish practitioners to witness truly cutting-edge European work, not the heritage-rock international-festival circuit stuff which we do most often get instead,” says McKendrick.

“It would be great for many current Scottish establishment figures to see genuinely radical European theatre for once, because it would hopefully shock them into realising that so much of their own work is utterly aesthetically juvenile and artistically unambitious in comparison, and that they should stop wasting everyone’s time and cease any and all further attempts at artistic creation right now.”

Liam Rees, a Scottish dramaturg, who is currently doing an internship with BRONKS, the Brussels-based theatre company, echoes McKendrick’s thoughts about the disparity between Scottish and European plays, and sees Brexit as a symptom of a bigger problem in society.

“In Scotland, I found the International Festival and Fringe would come and consistently the best work I saw was by European makers, and then the work for the rest of the year just felt incredibly dull and safe by comparison,” says Rees. “Theatre is overwhelmingly white and middle/upper class – we need to sort those problems because Brexit and our insularity are just symptoms of a more fundamentally rotten system.”

Alan McKendrick, Tam Dean Burn, Nic Green and Leonie Rae Gasson will all appear as part of Dear Europe @ SWG3, Glasgow, 29 Mar