Month of the Venues

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 06 Jun 2011


When the National Theatre of Scotland defined itself as a company “without walls”, they echoed the discovery of many cash-strapped dramatists: an established venue is not necessarily essential. Theatre can happen anywhere, from a warehouse (Dundee Rep’s latest production, Rhymes with Purples’ water-boarding special), through airports (The NTS) to the side of the Clyde (Kate E Deeming – Glasgow’s morning dancer). At the same time, a National Theatre could only make this brave decision because Scottish venues were already diverse and plentiful.

It hasn’t been a great year for venues. G12 Gilmorehill’s commercial management team was disbanded by Glasgow University, Te Pooka’s bold attempt to maintain the Red Door in Edinburgh’s pubic triangle failed, and The Ramshorn, after fighting successfully for its life last year, is being threatened with closure by Strathclyde University. Other spaces are developing new identities: Tramway is slowly strengthening the connection between its visual and performance art, and booking big name choreographers; The Citizens had bagged Dominic Hill as artistic director. And smaller companies are unearthing new places – Fort Tightlaced in Edinburgh, or the SWG3 in Glasgow – to respond to the economic climate. 

Vague attempts to challenge cuts in state funding – the odd Facebook campaign and the occasional ranting article – would be better co-ordinated towards a defence of existing venues. It might be possible to find new places, and it is always exciting to be driven out to an industrial estate to watch actors torture each other, but established venues provide both the stage and a forum for networking and discussion. Programmes like Mayfesto, the Traverse’s autumn offensive and Arches Live! are more than just a selection of plays. They are the epicentres of artistic communication.

The reopening of Cottiers, and the appearance of the Glue Factory in Glasgow are to be welcomed: Cottiers’ return suggests that theatres are viable economic concerns, but the history of public funding warns that venues are not safer in state hands. Leith Theatre, now hosting Dance Base’s expansion, was rescued by a local trust, that feared for its safety within Edinburgh Council’s care. This was in 2004, a time of supposed prosperity, in a city that has the largest Fringe festival in the world. Hacking at theatres and public spaces is going to be very tempting for local authorities when cuts start to bite.

Whether the state’s attack on the arts is philistinism, or a conscious effort to undermine a fruitful space for public discussion – the NTS’ Dunsinane is a reminder of how theatre trumps politicians in the understanding of national identity – a strategy of resistance could concentrate on protecting existing spaces. Whether they book in major tours – the EFT, Theatre Royal, the two Kings and Macrobert – maintain a strong company themselves – Dundee Rep – or reach into the community – Citizens, Traverse, Tron – the theatres are symbols of a healthy performance community.

Unfortunately, the vision of local authorities can be confusing. In 2010, the English Higher Close Reading reprinted a report on Glasgow’s approach to city planning. It clearly identified the emphasis on tourism as a trap, and the best festivals have always had a firm support both from and by the local communities. As long as councils are intent on showing off to the world – Scotland with Style – the actual ongoing work of community development will be marginalised, effectively destroying the culture that allows the boasting. Back in the 1990s, the Merchant City was a shit-hole, and the Ramshorn was one of the first places to establish a beach-head. This was then followed by visual artists, resisting the establishment of GOMA by having their own galleries in the cheap East End. Two decades later, Glasgow City Council wades in to gentrify the area, capitalising on the pioneers. If they do this at the cost of grassroots activity, and fail to support venues that are willing to take risks, there will be nothing left to build their next international bragging session.