Jackie Wylie on NTS' Scenes for Survival

Jackie Wylie, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, tells us about Scenes for Survival, the NTS crisis project responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

Feature by Eliza Gearty | 06 Apr 2020
  • Jackie Wylie National Theatre of Scotland

“Are you feeling safe and well?” says Jackie Wylie almost immediately after answering the phone, her voice full of warmth and concern. It’s the very first day of the UK lockdown, and, like most of the nation, the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland is working from home. 

It’s certainly a strange time to be conducting an interview. With the streets outside deserted and people relying on technology for all human contact, it feels as if we’ve been transported into the world of a dystopian play, such as Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward… or Hannah Kahil’s Metaverse, produced by the NTS this time last year. 

Theatres have closed their doors for the foreseeable future, and theatre-makers and lovers are anticipating hard times ahead. The National Theatre of Scotland, however, is offering a not-so-small glimmer of hope. Not only is the company honouring its contracts – paying full wages to those who were expecting to be paid from projects that have been postponed or cancelled – it is also launching a new season of short digital works called Scenes for Survival. The programme will allow audiences in isolation to enjoy theatre throughout the pandemic, and, crucially, provide theatre-makers with continued opportunities for employment. 

Curating the Crisis

“The first thing we had to do was make sure we were very clear [about] still paying everybody who would’ve been paid had this crisis not happened,” says Wylie, when asked how the NTS initially reacted to the news that, in this case, the show(s) must not go on. “We did that first.” The company then began thinking about how to use their platform to “articulate how we’re feeling on a national, cultural level”. The online programme they came up with already has some big names attached, including Cora Bissett, Mark Bonnar, Tam Dean Burn and Ian Rankin. 

So how exactly will it work? “We’re putting together mini-teams – a writer, an actor and a director,” explains Wylie. Teams will create short pieces of digital theatre remotely from their personal spaces of isolation – they could be new pieces of writing or extracts from contemporary Scottish plays. The short works will appear across a series of online platforms and channels over the next few months, delivered in association with BBC Scotland and the BBC Arts Culture in Quarantine project. 

Financial Support

With no clear guidance from the government regarding freelancers and the self-employed at the time of writing, it's not surprising that many people in the theatre industry are anxious about the financial implications of COVID-19. It's something that Wylie says the NTS was very aware of when sketching out plans for Scenes for Survival

“[The programme] will have a fundraising campaign attached to it – [proceeds] will go to those who are facing the largest amount of hardship in the theatre sector,” she explains. Every artist involved in the project will be paid; big names can choose to ‘pay forward’ their fee if they wish, contributing towards supporting lesser-known artists. The NTS approached some of the more high-profile artists directly, but writers of all levels are encouraged to respond to a call-out to have their work commissioned for the project.

Wylie’s hope for Scenes for Survival seems to be that it will keep the theatre community alive and connected; that audiences can tune in and feel less alone, but also that theatre artists can continue to work and feel valued. Having said this, she’s keen to stress that artists shouldn’t feel under any pressure to create. “Not all artists should be expected to have a response to what’s going on,” she emphasises. “Some people will need to pause and be reflective, and they might not want to be making work. For others, the act of making art and creating is a way of … [maintaining] hope and purpose. Both of these positions are totally fine.”

Technology and the Live Experience 

Theatre is, in Wylie’s own words, a "shared, communal live experience". In this new temporary world, how will digital, online theatre distinguish itself from TV and film and preserve what makes it unique?

“One thing I’ve noticed is how much the theatre community is able to react fast, share experiences and act with a unified, collaborative voice,” Wylie responds. “Theatre is a rapid-response art form – we’re aiming to have our first Scenes for Survival pieces out within a fortnight.

“The reason we are trying to continue to work – even in isolation, which is kind of the antithesis of the theatrical experience – is because we want to keep audiences together,” she adds. “When this is over, we want people to still want to go to the theatre, because it’s continued to be a part of their lives. It’s not replacing the live experience – it's drawing attention to the continued importance of the live experience.”

Supporting new stories, she says, has never been so important. “In the last fortnight, the level of humanity that we’re all sharing is completely different to what it was a few weeks ago. We’re suddenly understanding our neighbours and our communities and the NHS workers and the people who work in shops." Theatre has a role to play, even if it's offstage: "We can find storytellers who can navigate that into a future where we can sustain that feeling.”

Find out more about Scenes for Survival at nationaltheatrescotland.com