Theatre in Glasgow after The Arches

Very few have forgotten the closure of The Arches, which shook Scottish culture last June. In the month that should have been dominated by Behaviour festival, we look back at the building's theatrical legacy, with the artists it helped to shape.

Feature by Emma Ainley-Walker | 04 Apr 2016

If Scottish theatre were to be divided seasonally, Behaviour festival would be the forerunner of spring, signifying a time of experimentation, of excitement and of something a little bit dark (or at least, not especially spring-like) taking place underground in the perfectly suited caverns of The Arches. Seven years after the festival’s first run, however, it is sorely missing from this year’s theatrical calendar. 

We're not quite a year on from the closure of The Arches, but the hurt caused by this building’s absence can still be felt in Scotland's arts scenes, and its legacy remains visible in Scottish theatre. But where will young and emerging artists turn to now to advance their careers? There are excellent and supportive programmes at the Traverse, at Tramway and throughout the Edinburgh festivals to name only a few, but the Arches – in particular Behaviour Festival – sparked something of a trend, with artists like Kieran Hurley, Rob Drummond, Gary McNair and Ishbel McFarlane finding a launchpad for their careers there. Not only that, but The Arches played host to renowned artists from Bryony Kimmings to Gob Squad and Dead Centre, all of whom found a comfortable home at Behaviour festivals past, bringing exciting and often award-winning work to Scottish audiences. 

With no Behavour for the first time in seven years, its absence is best expressed by those artists who found a home and a career there. The Skinny checked in with some of these artists to see exactly what the loss of both the festival and the venue means to them.

Ishbel McFarlane

“I have been missing The Arches a great deal recently. More than usual. It's still like a bereavement. At Arches Live time in the autumn I was conscious of the lack, but it's not really until now that I realise how out of touch I felt with the scene, because there wasn't that oasis that allowed you to check in with what's happening, who is making work. It's really clear that without Behaviour there is going to be a larger, wider lack in the whole Scottish scene. It's much harder to see international companies' work. I paid to go down to London in January this year to see some shows because nothing was coming here. But I can't afford to do that more than once or twice. 

“Winning Platform 18 changed my life. It was a supportive and supported environment to take my first steps as a lead artist on a full show. The award was supposed to give me support for the full year, to potentially help me tour the winning show, but a few weeks after I performed, the venue was closed and I was calling in favours on 20 hours' notice to rush in and rescue my set before it was swallowed by the administrators. The staff were so helpful. Jill Smith, one of The Arches' producers, went through the massive store areas to look out for my things. Jules, who was FOH manager came in especially to open the doors for me. They'd just been made redundant and were no longer getting paid, yet here they were, still helping artists.” 

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Rob Drummond

“If The Arches didn’t exist I don’t know if I would now be making a living out of theatre. I was untrained, untested and had no idea what I was doing. All I knew is that I wanted to make a living out of telling stories and the Arches gave me the time, space and support to learn how to do that. They didn’t blink when I told them I wanted to give an audience member a gun. They didn’t laugh at me when I said I wanted to become a pro wrestler. Instead, Jackie just looked me in the eye and said, 'That sounds exciting, let’s make it happen.' It was a rough, ramshackle and at times chaotic institution where ambition led, and infrastructure and implementation had to catch up. Everyone was learning together and when we put on the world tour of Bullet Catch it felt like both me and The Arches had grown up together. It’s a shame we’ll never know how far it could have gone. 

“Now, without The Arches, there is one less place for new artists to go to experiment and work out what their work is going to look like. I don’t want to speak too much for those artists but the main problem will be that, at a critical time in their development, they may not be exposed to the world class artists that I was. What would my practice now look like if I hadn’t seen (and shamelessly borrowed from) Tim Crouch, The TEAM, Ontroerend Goed, Ann Liv Young, and many many more dangerous, daring and unique performer/writers that The Arches programmed? Growing up (and I mean that) in that building and seeing such an eclectic array of talent, both experienced and emerging – it was like a family atmosphere where everyone was pushing and learning from each other. I do a lot of mentoring work now and I’ve lost count of the times when the conversation has turned to The Arches. 'You know where this work would have been perfect for? … If only it still existed you could have tried that out at The Arches … This feels like an Arches show …' If anything I’m even angrier now than I was at the time. It’s so reactionary and short-sighted. Fuck the police. Fuck the council.”

Sita Pieraccini 

“It’s very sad that The Arches has closed, it’s a difficult one. The Arches was a great platform. In a way it is quite exciting, even for the artists themselves, looking to new places. The people I’ve spoken to and have been in touch with like Dancebase and The Tron have been really supportive. It felt like quite a natural step for me at the time to be seeking other platforms. I think what Feral [the company started by Jill Smith and fellow ex-Arches producer Kat Boyle] are doing is really exciting, still championing the development of new work. It doesn’t feel like there’s been a collapse in the scene, for me anyway. People have still found other spaces and venues — in a way it pushes people to create things in new ways.”

From Pieraccini’s positivity, and her push to find new ways forward in the light of the loss, to Drummond’s anger and McFarlane’s remaining grief, it’s clear to see that the emotional loss of The Arches is still hitting hard. Where are these artists now? McFarlane is now touring her Platform 18-winning show with Feral but, in her own words: “It has been much harder not having the building and the team all together. They were a venue who knew me after five years of working my way up the ladder. That is something huge that Scotland has lost.” 

Drummond was recently announced as an associate artist at The Traverse. “Part of the reason I don’t feel that I can really speak for the artists who have been affected by the closure of the Arches is that it happened at a fortuitous time for me. I hate to think what my career would look like had it happened just three years earlier,” he says. “Two of the upcoming shows I’m most excited about started life as Arches projects – one is on at the festival this year and the other is on at The National in London fairly soon.”

Pieraccini is fresh from appearing at Manipulate festival, with her show Bird, and is still working on Make A Hoo, with support from Feral. “Make A Hoo was at the last Arches Live before it closed,” she explains. After a redevelopment of the work supported by Feral, it has been commissioned for Manipulate 2017. 

The careers of these three artists continue to grow, but without Behaviour and Arches Live, the opportunities that were offered to them are harder to come by, and Scottish theatre cannot help but continue to mourn. As McFarlane concludes: “The performance scene has lost its beating heart and its growing ground, and we are so much the poorer.”