Flagging national flagship: the role of the politician

On the face of it, there is little connection between the Théâtre National de Nice and Scottish Opera but while their raison d’etre and repertoire may diverge (as the French might say), there are interesting parallels in current stooshies which are affecting both.

First, Scottish Opera which has been plunged into crisis by the swift departure of its Musical Director Emmanuel Joel-Hornak after only 58 days.  It is supposed this came about when Joel-Hornak discovered he did not enjoy the artistic freedom he assumed was due to a musical director of an opera company and found himself restricted by a powerful general manager.  I say ‘supposed’ because there has been a refusal from Joel-Hornak and Scottish Opera to make any comment beyond the announcement. Considering the level of public money that is given to the company every year, this silence has raised eyebrows.

Whatever the problem, what is not in doubt is that both the board of Scottish Opera and crucially the Scottish Government has responsibility to sort this out.  As an organisation directly funded by the Government the Cabinet Secretary has to take this one on herself.  This is not, as a Scottish Government spokesperson claimed,  ‘operational matters for Scottish Opera.’ The cancellation through illness of an appearance of a soloist is an operational matter.  The resignation of the musical director because of artistic differences, is an artistic crisis.

So where does the link come with the Théâtre National de Nice?  The French Ministry of Culture recently agreed a new set of regulations for those running national institutions (of which this theatre is one).  In essence, no one is permitted to do more than three terms of office as artistic leader of these institutions.  Interesting idea that presumably has been introduced to ensure regular refreshing of the artistic approach and has the effect of allowing younger, different leadership.  Whatever the motivation, the fact is that Daniel Benoin at Nice has been in charge for four terms (twelve years) and it is time to move on.  However he has a powerful ally in the Mayor of Nice who has been involved in a stand off (describe in the French press as ‘arm-wrestling’) with the Ministry of Culture insisting that Benoin continue and rejecting any suggestion that a new director be appointed.

This resulted in a letter being sent from Aurelie Filippetti, Minster of Culture that stated her case in no uncertain terms.  For those who read French, I re-produce in the original.  It’s a corker:

Dans l’éventualité où vous confirmeriez votre souhait de ne pas respecter les règles propres aux centres dramatiques nationaux, je vous informe que je serai amenée à étudier concrètement la possibilité de retirer le label de Centre Dramatique National au Théâtre National de Nice, et, de procéder au désengagement financier de l’État.

In essence:  follow the rules or I will strip from you the title of a national centre and I will cut your state money.

So what’s the parallel with Scottish Opera?  It is this:  the Scottish Government, and specifically the Cabinet Secretary has the power and the responsibility to intervene.  For the most part, direct state funding of the national companies, galleries and museums brings with it positive headlines and a warm glow to Ministers.  This is the other side – the crisis when political leadership is necessary.  There is no shortage of advice around (and some very good historical material: Scottish Opera has been the subject of consultancies and reports every few years over the last few decades) but whatever is decided, there has to be some evidence that the Government, working with the board, is getting to grips with the problems that currently beset the company.

And a final word on Nice.  The new artistic director, due to take over 1 January 2014, is the French-born British actor and director, Irina Brook, who, incidentally fulfils another of Filipetti’s commitments – to increase the number of women in charge of French cultural institutions.



WARNING: Research can be bad for your health

I want to draw your attention to a new piece of research commissioned by the Scottish government which offers definitive evidence for the first time that cultural engagement is having a positive impact on the nation’s health and life satisfaction.  Janet Archer, CEO, Creative Scotland, in an address to FST/ITC Reception, 20 August 2013, Edinburgh.

I was there, unhealthily sipping my wine, when I heard Janet Archer mention this new piece research in her speech and immediately my interest was piqued.   When I was Director Centre for Cultural Policy Research (CCPR), at the University of Glasgow, we were commissioned by the (then) Scottish Executive to find the evidence of the link between arts and sports participation and quality of life and well-being.  From this we were asked to develop indicators which could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of a culture or sport intervention. Susan Galloway at CCPR reviewed the extensive literature on well-being and quality of life and we worked with Professor David Bell, an economist from Stirling University who examined the economic literature on subjective well-being.

Quality of Life and Well-being: Measuring the Benefits of Culture and Sport: Literature Review and Think-piece was published by the Scottish Executive in 2006.   In this we concluded:

‘The central issue for cultural social impact research remains the lack of both empirical evidence, and the lack of a theoretical basis with which to support the claims about the impact of cultural participation.’ (p.42)

In summary, we found that there is no evidence of a link between participation in the arts and sport and quality of life and well-being.  This does not mean that there is not one, but there is no evidence.  Moreover there are challenges in researching this area –mainly around issues of definition. What exactly is quality of life and well-being?  We concluded:

‘What this review tells us, however, is that, in the wider policy literature relating to quality of life and well-being, there is no clear definition of terms and that, the absence of such, leads to a lack of clarity in the policy focus. This, in turn, leads to a ‘back to front’ approach to enhancing quality of life and well-being in communities and for individuals: what can be measured is measured, and what is measured drives the policy. The development of new ways of measuring tends to focus on the quantitative with qualitative measures focusing on satisfaction surveys. Anything even attempting a comprehensive approach to measuring the impact on quality of life can lead to unwieldy data sets. ‘(p. 145)

This is a chunky piece of research and my summary does not do it full justice but essentially it flagged up for researchers and policy makers questions which need to be addressed when looking at the relationship between arts and sport and quality of life and well-being.  So when I heard about this new research I was intrigued to find out how they had tackled the problem of definition, methodological questions around qualitative and quantitative approaches, the issue of large datasets and what evidence was being presented.

This new piece of research, published by the Scottish Government, Healthy Attendance? The Impact of Cultural Engagement and Sports Participation on Health and Satisfaction with Life in Scotland uses the Scottish Household Survey as its data source.  Since 2009 this survey has contained questions on cultural and sports participation and on life satisfaction and self-assessed health.  The researchers analysed data from both of these to reach the conclusion that,  ‘those who participate in culture and sport or attend cultural places or events are more likely to report that their health is good and they are satisfied with their life than those who do not participate.’ (p. 5)

In our research in 2006 we said something similar:

‘In as much as culture and sport is seen to have a role in enhancing quality of life […] it appears consistently […] as one of the indicators and descriptors used in domains encompassing subjective well-being, expressed as satisfaction with life as a whole, and social inclusion/social well-being/social relationships.’  (p.137)

So in the area of ‘subjective well-being’ we too found a link. We go on:

‘This is perhaps not unexpected as it is often assumed that participation in culture and sport has a positive impact on aspects of quality of life as it relates to social inclusion. The academic literature suggests, at best, an association rather than a causal link between these. ‘(my italics) (p. 155)  And finally we are more blunt, ‘While the evidence suggests an association between cultural and sports participation and an improved quality of life, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the two.’ (p. 155)

But then neither does this latest research claim cultural participation or attendance is the cause of good health.  Specifically they state: ‘Being cross-sectional, this study cannot determine causal relationships.’ (p. 17).  Throughout the researchers are careful to point to an association between participation and attendance in culture and sport- not that one leads to another.

What does this mean?

First, this is not the ‘definitive evidence’ policy-makers claim. We might look for associations between other activity and health benefits – for example being part of a religious group, being a volunteer in a hospital or working with refugees, having an allotment – and a myriad of other activities which are part of our social capital. Making a claim for a casual link between the health of our nation and engagement in culture is, frankly, spin.  Echoing this point, Tiffany Jenkins in the Scotsman pointed out that some art might have the opposite effect and ‘culture was not the solution to our health problems’.

And surely we have moved beyond this attempt to account for cultural spend because of non-cultural outcomes?  After all what was the Talbot Rice Gallery speech by Fiona Hyslop all about if it wasn’t underlining the importance of the arts and heritage to ‘our heart, our soul, our essence’?

But the real lesson from this research is to be found there in the Introduction:

‘Sports participation and cultural engagement levels are highest in the highest household income groups in Scotland and decline to be lowest in the lowest household income groups. Similarly, adult participation in cultural and sporting activities varies by area deprivation, with participation increasing as area deprivation decreases.’ (p. 7)

What that tells us is that not only does high deprivation bring with it poor health (which we already know from epidemiological studies in Scotland), but it also brings a reduced participation in arts and sport.  Surely this is all the evidence we need to know that more work has to be done to bridge the gap between those who have all and those who have none?  Let’s move away from making exaggerated claims for the benefit of cultural participation and attendance and focus on what really matters – creating greater access to all for all.






Stands Scotland where it did? : Work in progress

Paper presented at the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) conference at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on 4 September 2013, with fine assistance from actor Stuart Hepburn1.

If Scotland had a Facebook profile then its relationship status would be ‘it’s complicated’.

First there is our relationship with England and our role within the UK:  when it suits, you can hear the girning and moaning about being oppressed while our history shows us to have been a willing partner in imperial ventures; or what about Scotland’s role in the recent financial crisis when the banks which bore its name nearly brought the economic systems crashing? Then there are our close ties in family, language and culture while constantly banging on about being different.

Scotland also has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world – striving to be a kind of celtic Borgen with a modest yet influential role while all the time basking in the glory of being part of one of the world’s most powerful nations; presenting a profile which is modern, enlightened, inventive, a land of discovery –while marching along 6th Avenue once a year in tartan hoping to attract those tourist dollars to the shores.

But Scotland’s most tricky relationship is with itself.

There are many examples of Scottish art which have dealt with the binary nature of Scottish identity – the rural v urban, Highlander v Lowlander, Jacobite v Hanovarian, poor v rich, newcomer v native, catholic v protestant, romantic v rationalist, enlightenment v fundamentalism but I have chosen a piece of 19th century fiction and a piece of theatre it inspired to illustrate the artist’s response to Scotland and to its split personality.

It is possible that even in this well read audience many of you will not have read nor even heard of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Or to give it its full title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor.  Unlike the great classic Scottish novelists Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, Hogg and his work are relatively unknown.  A contemporary of Scott, he too lived in the Scottish Borders where he worked as a shepherd, educated himself and went on to write both poetry and novels.

Published anonymously in 1824, Confessions was presented as if it were a found document dating from early in the previous century.   It is offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed editor. It purports to be the memoirs of Robert Wringhim from the Scottish Borders, who falls under the influence of a stranger Gil-Martin. Wringham believes in predestination– a Calvinist doctrine in which a place in heaven is secured regardless of actions in life.  He commits several crimes including the murder of his brother, and descends into madness but not before confessing all in the document that is ‘discovered’ after his death.

The central part of the book is the confession preceded by a long introduction by the editor and the story of Wringham’s decline and fall is in effect, told twice in sometimes contradictory terms. The final section is an explanation by the editor of how the confession was discovered. Throughout the book, Gil- Martin, the stranger, exerts greater and greater influence over Wringham and appears to be able to change shape and identity.  It is left to the reader to decide whether Gil-Martin is the devil, a figment of the protagonist’s imagination or in fact a representation of his spilt personality.

It is part-psychological thriller, part-crime novel, set in Scotland with accurate geographical references but at the same time inhabits a gothic world of horror and fantasy. It deals with madness, the supernatural and religious intolerance and is considered to be the inspiration for Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The principal actions of the novel take place, as I said, in the very early 18th century around the time of the Union in 1707.  It can be read as a metaphor for Scotland itself and its struggle to resolve the schism in its own identity.  Perhaps it is for this reason it has provided the basis for film, opera and theatre adaptations—few which have been realised and of those, not all successful.

Earlier this year, Untitled Projects, in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland, undertook the task of meticulously re-creating an earlier attempt at staging the work by the late Paul Bright, a theatre-maker working here at the end of the 20th century and who died in Paris in his 40s.  Under the title Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, this production takes the form of a carefully researched and re-created archive, and an illustrated talk by the actor George Anton, one of Bright’s collaborators, with archive footage and contemporary filmed interviews with people who knew or worked with Bright— Tim Crouch, Annie Griffen, Giles Havergal, Katie Mitchell, Alison Peebles and Di Robson.

It tells the story of Bright’s attempts to stage the work in various site specific and theatre settings including an episode on Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh and Traquair House in the Scottish Borders as well as a disastrous production at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The critical response to this re-creation was overwhelmingly positive:  beautifully written by Pamela Carter, exquisitely realised by Stewart Laing, and passionately performed by George Anton.  However what did concern some of the critics was the idea that they were part of a hoax – a new take on the unreliable narrator. It was not what it seemed and did it, in the end, cheat?   For Paul Bright never existed.

The production is an exploration of the complexities of the split personality presented in extreme terms. And above all it is the way the artist lies to get at the truth.

To quote George Anton in the play:

‘I knew I wanted to be an actor from about the age of eight. I remember it very clearly … watching a film with my dad… a Truffaut film … ‘the 400 blows’. I remember very clearly watching this scene where this boy was lying to a person in authority … and I had this sort of revelation … this kid’s lying and getting away with it … I get it, he’s acting, that’s what acting is … lying and getting away with it. Imagine being able to do that for a job?’

And here he is quoting Paul Bright:

‘what is the artist if not a shaman … a seer … how else will I alter states if I can’t alter my own state and release what is buried within me … the real, the truth’.

As Scotland again faces up to an uncertain constitutional future which turns a spotlight on its inherent contradictions, here is one response to the current debate on independence and cultural identity – a play about a play that never existed based on a discovered and edited narrative which purports to be a true story, and which was itself a hoax.

Paul Bright’s Confessions is also about how theatre is made and how it works. Specifically how it can destroy those who believe in their own genius and indestructability.  It is, to quote the brief for this talk, ‘the re-creating of mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre and performance-making’.  But it is also about how theatre was made in the 1980s and exposes the differences between the pre and post devolution theatre in Scotland.

Katie Mitchell, English theatre director, in the interview for Paul Bright’s Confessions says:

‘It was difficult in the late ‘80s starting out as a director … it was the latter stages of Thatcher’s regime and we all felt very much on the outside and at that time the mainstream was pitted against the fringe. I think we all felt that maybe at that time there was a possibility to make a change to create a different mainstream culture. I think we thought that was a fight we hoped to win, but most of my generation didn’t get near to fighting that fight and definitely we lost.’

Wow, ‘we lost’.  Just to be absolutely clear this quote from Mitchell is in the context of a piece of fiction but this position is echoed by others working in English theatre.

Mark Ravenhill in the inaugural speech for the Edinburgh Fringe last month asserts that artists in general and theatre in particular, bought into the Blair agenda of the late 1990s and early 21st century because, in part, the money flowed to the arts, and in part because the artists, like the much of the rest of society, wanted to believe it really was a new dawn and the third way was possible. He implies the arts community sold out by adopting and accepting the new cultural lexicon of ‘business plans and strategic thinking’.

No doubt that there was a growing target culture in the way in which the arts were viewed; that the importance of the creative industries became a cornerstone of Whitehall policy; that the role of the artist in social inclusion and urban regeneration became part of the way in which the arts were discussed and supported. But what I would question is, did this start with Blair or is this not simply a continuation of the policy of the Thatcher/Major years?

Ravenhill’s conclusion is that anger drives theatre and the arts are at their most powerful when in opposition to government (as they were under Thatcher) and asserts, ‘ thank god we’ve got a government in Westminster we can properly hate and wholeheartedly attack’.

How does this play in Scotland in policy terms?

Agreed that the politics of the 1980s and 1990s provided the same oppositional position for theatre in Scotland but, I contend, with a very different outcome. In a paper in 1990, I argued that the then growing confidence of artists was because of, not in spite of Thatcherism and Scottish artists were drawing inspiration from being in opposition to what was happening in the political sphere. 2.

A decade or so later, in a paper I co-authored with Adrienne Scullion in 2003, we reflected that one reaction to a hostile Westminster government was for artists to ‘refocuse[d] their attentions on work for and in Scotland, looking to the past with new application, creating texts of linguistic and visual specificity, reassessing the cultural influences that make Scotland’.  This could well be a description of Paul Bright’s Confessions.

We also argued, that the arts in Scotland were open to influences from beyond –driven to some extent with the increasing access to international work and concluded that, ‘both dynamics were about bypassing London, or at least finding ways of working beyond the ‘them and us’ identities that the Thatcher government engendered in Scotland.’

And echoing this in a piece just last month in the Scotsman, political commentator and critic Joyce McMillan pointed out that in the 80s and 90s ‘Scotland’s artists, writers and musicians did most of their heavy lifting – in terms of reimagining a post-modern Scottish identity that would be inclusive, creative, and infinitely open to changing accounts of itself.’

So out of being in opposition came a re-visiting of Scotland’s distinctive cultural identity—and no suggestion that ‘we lost’.

Devolution in 1999 was the driver for that change. It unleashed an energy in creation of work and brought the political and artistic worlds closer together in dialogue if not in agreement.  They were part of a shared future:  ‘This is about more than our politics and our laws.  This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves’, said Donald Dewar (Labour) First Minster at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

A recent speech by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture in the (SNP) Scottish Government put clear tartan water between her and Maria Miller, Secretary of State for culture in England:

‘We do not measure the worth of culture and heritage solely in pounds and pence – we value culture and heritage precisely because they are so much more, because they are our heart, our soul, our essence.’

So what have these fine words 14 years apart delivered for theatre in Scotland? And what is theatre delivering for Scotland?

Government funding to the arts and heritage has been but cut but not slashed nor threatened completely as it has south of the border or elsewhere in Europe. Can we argue, however that theatre is telling the truth to politicians? Is this a community which has acquiesced to government control and is tick boxing its way to more money?

Scotland has not escaped the ideas so derided by Ravenhill.  Creative Scotland, the relatively new body created from a merger of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, has faced a barrage of criticism from the arts community about how it speaks about and to the arts and artists.  So much so that battle between the agency and the arts community (known locally as #CSstooshie) led to the departure of its chief executive and a senior member of his team and a commitment from the board to re-visit its policies and its language.

But what is happening on the ground, in theatre itself?

One of the first cultural interventions of the Scottish Government post devolution was to establish a national theatre.  The vision from the theatre community was ‘The Scottish Parliament and a National Theatre for Scotland reflect[ing] each other in the enterprise of a truly democratic civic society.’3.  So moving from being oppositional to being reflective. This civic role for theatre, I would argue underpins not only NTS itself but also the theatre community more widely.  It sees itself as part of the new Scotland with a voice in its future.

Last year I led a review of theatre in Scotland for Creative Scotland and one of the most striking conclusions is the importance of new work – mainly but not exclusively new writing – to the theatre landscape here.  We undertook and analysis of repertoire sampled over three decades. This sample showed that not only has there been an increase in the number of shows produced but that the largest increase is in new writing from Scotland.  This in part can be ascribed to the development of lunchtime theatre in Glasgow at Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons but not exclusively.

There has been a surge in new work, and a flagship company which has accepted and delivered on its role to present to audiences across Scotland a huge range of work –much of this in collaboration with the theatres and companies which lobbied for its creation in the first place.

But what is theatre saying and where stands Scottish theatre on the question of the day? Yes or no? And here we do come to work in progress.

The question was raised during this year’s Edinburgh Festival, where is the Scottish independence play?  Echoing Joyce McMillan’s comment earlier, the reaction from some Scottish playwrights is, ‘I wrote it five years ago’

McMillan also argues that Scottish playwrights and theatre makers are just as concerned with ‘extreme political violence and our response to it, or the rise of right-wing politics in Europe, or the growth of a pervasive sadistic porn culture on the internet, [which] are not at least as important and urgent as Scottish independence’.

As for 2014 and the referendum itself, NTS has risen to the challenge and commissioned work which will deal directly with the arguments from both sides. However the other chatter from the festival was the outgoing Director Jonathan Mills’s infelicitous comment that there will be no events specifically dealing with the referendum in 2014 and the festival will be a politics free zone. Presumably the Commonwealth and the First World War – which will be festival themes — don’t count as being political.  Or perhaps as journalist Lesley Riddoch has pointed out, these are British political themes and count in a different way.

‘It’s very hard to think about any dramatist who has not had a point of view on the politics of the country in which they work.’ riposted Alasdair Gray, novelist and author of Lanark. Gray has form in this debate. Earlier this year he published an article which talked about ‘settlers’ and ‘colonists’ in Scotland – the former being folk who choose to move and settle here (implication good) and the latter those who choose to further their career by coming here for a few years and then moving away again (implication bad).  The problem with Gray’s analysis is that the language is inflammatory and verging on racist, and the examples are often shot through with inaccuracies.  More recently James McMillan, composer took a view at the opposite extreme and made some unfortunate remarks accusing artists in the Yes campaign of ‘fascistic mob mentality’.

However the debate generally amongst artists has not been as ill-tempered and these voices might be regarded as outliers in the debate.  Generally Scottish theatre makers’ involvement, while passionate,  is more measured- sometimes even nuanced.  The majority are in the Yes camp, but it is not all one way, and there are many who support a No vote—fearing nationalism and arguing for the route to internationalism, preferably of the Marxist variety.  However, the mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre are not yet the place in which they have explored the issue directly and instead have taken to blogging and other forms of social media.

Here is an imagined landscape, created by the playwright David Greig on a blogging site Bella Caledonia:

Leaving the Castle

There is girl. She’s seventeen. She and her three siblings have lived all their life inside an old castle. It’s a vast rambling pile with hundreds of rooms, once it was the fortress of powerful landowner but it’s long ago fallen into disrepair. The kitchens have been abandoned, the rooms are riddled with damp, the floorboards rotten. The roof has mostly fallen in and the windows are shuttered. The girl and her brothers camp now in the old ballroom where they burn the furniture to keep warm. There, they are attended to by old retainers in faded liveries who serve bad food on silver plates. Every day the retainers demand the siblings enact the old rituals of chivalry that were established when the house was first built. They bow and curtsey, they swear allegiance, they practice sword fighting, they call each other Lord and Baron and Knight. Meanwhile, in the attic of the west tower the old king, demented and sick, bangs on tin cans and shouts out to the empty fields about his power and his glory.

The girl has known nothing else. Doesn’t every child live like this? But deep down she has a slowly growing sense that something’s wrong. And then one day her unease becomes too much. She breaks the rules of the house and she opens the shutters of the ballroom window. Her eyes are dazzled briefly by the light but then they adjust and she sees: in the distance, in the valley below, a village. In the village people are going about their business, children go to school, people work, people play football, they garden…she sees and for the first time the girl realises. There is another way things can be.

So Bella, when you ask me how I’ll feel on the morning of independence my answer is this. Imagine that girl walking boldly down the long rotten corridor of the castle, imagine her stopping at the great wooden door, imagine her pushing at it and finding it open, imagine her stepping out into the fresh damp air of a spring day? That. That’s how I’ll feel.’

In summary, theatre makers in Scotland are part of the debate: issues of national identity are already there in the work, and more direct dealing with the referendum issue is yet to come.

However, I say to David and other theatre makers, the day after the referendum, regardless of the result, we will still be facing the same economic and environmental problems and issues of inequality.  And we will be a place which if not exactly torn itself apart, has inflicted on itself wounds which will be hard to heal.

So David, the real challenge for Scottish theatre makers, is imagining a Scotland in 2015 and beyond.




1. Brief for the paper: The panel is asked to reflect on how the practices and insights of contemporary theatre and performance might help to inform, broaden or indeed reconfigure the cultural and political discourses around possible independence in Scotland and accompanying notions of national identity. How might the mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre and performance-making offer productive ways of (re) thinking our views about self-determination, democracy and cultural production in a local, national and global context in the early 21st century.

2. Keynote Speech, Council of Regional Arts Associations Conference, 16 July 1990.

3. Federation of Scottish Theatre, Proposal for a National Theatre for Scotland (Edinburgh: FST, 2000), p. 3.


Women in Theatre Scotland: Where next?

Are women playing a full role in theatre in Scotland?  A quick look around suggests ‘no’.  On the one hand, all theatres profess to have an ‘equal opportunities policy’ on the other hand, the Review of Theatre in Scotland last year showed that fewer than half actually monitored that policy.  Recent research by Equity shows that opportunities for female actors are shrinking.

Does this matter? After all we can see women everywhere in theatre in marketing, management, front of house and other roles.  Are women just not interested in running theatres or taking a lead creative role?  What affect does this have on the work and on what audiences see?  How does this differ from the situation elsewhere in the UK and Europe?

Come and debate and discuss at Traverse 2, Cambridge Street, Edinburgh EH1 2ED Thursday 26th September 6pm -7.30 pm with glass of wine in bar afterwards.


  • Max Beckmann, Equality Organiser, Equity
  • Christine Hamilton, arts consultant and author of the Review of Theatre in Scotland 2012
  • Blandine Pélissier, founding member of the H/F association for gender equality in culture in France

Chair: Sheena McDonald, journalist and broadcaster.

Supported by the Equity, Federation of Scottish Theatre, Playwrights’ Studio Scotland and Scottish Society of Playwrights, organised by Christine Hamilton Consulting christinehamiltonconsulting@gmail.com

Event is FREE but please book via the Traverse box office www.traverse.co.uk 0131 228 1404


Thanks to the Traverse Theatre for their support.


August in Edinburgh- some observations

(Grumpy old woman alert!)

As the Fringe and Book Festivals pack up for another year, the media are full of stories on ticket sales and overviews of the highs and lows of the arts in Edinburgh during August. There is still more to come, of course but I wanted at this point to add some highs and lows as a visitor (from Glasgow) and member of the audience in Edinburgh during the summer.  I have been coming to the festival since I was a child and, as an adult, I have been every year for more than I can remember. This year, like every other, there have been many wonderful moments which I will cherish and some (very few) I will happily forget.   But this blog is about the wider experience.

The city looks magnificent.  It always does look pretty special and the sunshine definitely helps.  But big congratulations to the staff of City of Edinburgh Council who kept the place so clean.  Given the number of flyers being thrust into my hands and those of other visitors, we should have been knee-deep in litter.  The fact we weren’t is down to the unsung heroes of Street Care and Cleaning.

This is the last year BT (before trams) and I don’t want to add to the grumbling we have heard for too long about the disruption caused by their construction – and at the same time the re-construction of both Edinburgh’s main stations. It has been an obstacle course round diggers and Heras fencing for too long. However the city has never been kind to pedestrians and the relationship between those on foot and those in vehicles is fraught.  This year I brought my bike through on the train to aid getting from one venue to another and let me tell you Edinburgh bus drivers just don’t care.  My hope, therefore is that in the brave new Tramworld, we see a better layout of roads and pavements and special lanes which can accommodate everyone.

Another infrastructure issue is access to wifi. For overseas visitors this is crucial for getting information, booking tickets, using maps to find venues on smart phones without incurring huge bills.  No point, promoters, having shiny apps if your customers can’t afford to access them. I can attest to the fact that in parts of Quartermile it is impossible to get 3g never mind wifi.  Many venues offer access but often it is not adequate for most purposes beyond email. So Edinburgh, bite the bullet and create a city centre wifi zone and be an enlightened city for the 21st century.

However wifi is just one aspect of accessing information.  Most phones need regular re-charging and a common site in the city is of folk crawling along the floor of bars and restaurants trying to find the socket used by the cleaners for their vacuums in order to plug in an i-phone –and then hovering around anxiously making sure it is not stolen.  This is one for the private sector. Install proper phone charging facilities which can be freely accessed for those buying a meal/drink/ticket.

I want to put on record my great box office moments—the Edinburgh International Book Festival which refunded my tickets I booked online by mistake; the Edinburgh International Festival which re-printed lost tickets (twice!); the Fringe box office which refunded money for a cancelled show before I even knew it was cancelled- and joy unconfined- the Fringe Booth at Glasgow Queen Street! Thanks to them and their lovely helpful staff. Less impressive was the attitude of the front of house staff in some of the temporary venues. It is likely that they were overworked, low paid and lacked training. Back-to-back shows mean we have to expect queuing and crush but so much of that can be made bearable by good customer care. If you want to see how to do it, go to the Traverse, Edinburgh International Book Festival or Summerhall which managed to cram in audiences to its rabbit- warren of venues with a smile and charm.

Summerhall, however scores less well on my final point: toilets. With the huge numbers of folk passing through venues, this becomes a real issue. Not enough, not clean, not working. Temporary venues in old buildings have a problem. They cannot address the issue with portaloos, like the big tented spaces or with lovely facilities you find in lottery funding-enhanced theatres. However Summerhall is not a temporary venue and it needs to look at its operations in this area.  But it is not just venues. How is it possible that a new restaurant facility like Peter’s Yard is allowed to get away with inadequate number of loos?  Whether you are using temporary toilets or not, they need to be cleaned — and regularly.  And ‘out of order’ signs should be a badge of shame.  Perhaps there is a lesson to learn from those who clean Edinburgh’s streets, not just during the festival period, but all year round.







A Modest Proposal: a new structure for the arts in Scotland

It is with some trepidation that I publish this proposal about the future of the arts in Scotland.  I was one of those who applied for the post of CEO of Creative Scotland and was not interviewed.  This blog, therefore, could be read as the response of a bitter and spurned candidate.  It is not, but I understand why it might be considered such and there is little I can do about that.

Throughout the last 15 years of observing the development of the arts and creative industries in the run up to and post devolution, I have had a growing sense of a systemic problem in the way government develops and delivers policy in the cultural sphere.  While on the one hand the arts are flourishing and our international reputation grows, on the other we have been suffering ‘planning blight’ in the policy.   From a cultural commission spawning huge unworkable recommendations, through structural changes which took longer than they should, to ‘stooshies’ about how decisions are made to what appears to be a botched recruitment process with distinguished names being mentioned but no final announcement, we have witnessed, or so it appears, a series of failures in governance and management. In the course of preparing my application for the post I began to wonder if there were not something more fundamentally wrong with how things were structured- although, I admit, that did not stop me throwing my hat in the ring. Now I am free to examine these concerns more openly.

My thesis is that the arm’s length policy by which government funds the arts via non-departmental public body no longer serves us well, and has not since 1999, and it is time to look at the creation of a Ministry of Culture and funding the arts directly from government.

A useful starting point is work by Susan Galloway and an article by her and Huw Jones, The Scottish dimension of British arts government: a historical perspective[1] in which they examine through the archives the relationship between the arts and government pre-devolution.  One of their conclusions is that that as Scotland became more autonomous as a nation at the same time the arts policy function became more politicised.   In the 1970s and 1980s the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) automatically received 12% of UK arts funding via the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB), and then spent it in ways it chose even if that did diverge from ACGB policy.  SAC was ‘at double arm’s length’ from government.   In 1992 the responsibility was moved from Westminster to Edinburgh and the Scottish Office which brought arts policy closer to Scottish politicians.  Then, of course, along came devolution which was, it was argued, a means by which decisions taken previously at distance from government were placed in the heart of a democratic process.   Yet despite these changes, and the subsequent merger of SAC and Scottish Screen into Creative Scotland, there has been no fundamental challenge to the notion that politics and the democratic process has no part to play in cultural policy and we persist with the fiction that somehow the arts are too important to be part of that process.

The ‘arms- length’ principle for the arts was established in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and was in part in reaction to the twin threats of fascism and communism and the fear of a state run arts world doing only state-approved art. Its intention was no more and no less than to prevent politicians interfering in decisions about what should or should not be funded.  The principle has its roots further back in the establishment of the BBC and our University system.  It is a very British compromise with all the brilliance and muddle that implies. And indeed it has worked:  I can think of no evidence to suggest that there has been one exhibition or performance which has been approved or banned because of central government interference. However what is clear is that spending public money means being accountable for it.  The government of whatever persuasion has its own priorities and will direct money in that way.  This is called democracy but sometimes this has been interpreted as ‘political interference’.  So let’s do away with the muddle and establish some clean lines between the artist, the arts organisation, the creative project and the political process which votes the money.

After all what have we got to fear?  Freedom of expression is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.  This is the structure which works across most of Europe including Germany where the federal cultural budget has just been increased while government spending overall is being tightened. In none of the countries which fund the arts directly– with left or right wing governments –is there any suggestion that individual artistic decisions are influenced by party politics.  The biggest threat to the arts comes from the economic crisis – and some might argue, the failure of global capitalism.

And what would it mean in Scotland?  As we have all witnessed in other areas, Government decisions are open to scrutiny: we have a robust committee system in the Scottish Parliament with the checks and balances needed to prevent undemocratic political actions and we also have more media outlets than you can shake a stick at.

But the most persuasive argument is that it already happens.  Government directly funds our national performing arts companies, museums and art galleries.  As far as I can tell, the orchestras are not being instructed to perform Hamish MacCunn in every programme nor is National Theatre of Scotland doing all its plays in Doric. In fact we can see a flowering of many of our national institutions – one only has visit the Scottish Portrait Gallery or National Museum of Scotland to see that. What’s more it is time our national companies were pulled more closely to the rest of the cultural world in Scotland. We are too small a country to have such a division in the way things are managed.

What about cost? Well of course we would have to write off the money and time already spent on setting up Creative Scotland but it’s minuscule in comparison to the billions written off in badly thought through government procurement projects.  Mistakes happen. Let’s move on.   There are potential savings too. The Government would require additional expertise internally drawn from existing Creative Scotland staff but staffing in of central functions could be merged with existing corporate departments.  The use of ad hoc external expertise would address some of the recent demands of the arts community to be involved more in consultation on funding decisions and the process whereby some of the funding is already devolved to small specialist organisations could be extended—especially the funding of individual artists.  Few would weep at the disposal of Waverley Gate – and probably the Glasgow office — with the new Ministry accommodated within the existing estate.  There is, of course a lot of devil in any detail and this proposal is intended as a point of departure for debate not as a blueprint.

In 2002 I co-authored a report to Scottish Executive about the Scottish Arts Council, as part of the quinquennial review of the organisation.  Re-reading the conclusions, I can see hints of concern about the structures which operated:  “There is confusion about the role and remit of SAC that affects all aspects of its work. To clarify this the arm’s length principle needs to be re-visited and relationship made clearer between the Executive, SAC, the cultural community and the partners and agencies which interact with SAC. ‘Ministerial interference’ needs to be transformed into ‘Ministerial leadership’.”

Now is the time to see evidence of that Ministerial leadership and a maturing of the relationship between the arts and government.




[1] Susan Galloway and Huw David Jones, (2010) The Scottish dimension of British arts government: a historical perspective, Cultural Trends, 19, Issue 1&2. 


Feminism is like housework. You need to re-visit it every 10 years.

On 8 May I participated in a round table discussion in Lyon on Gender equality – Europe in motion : women in the cultural sector organised by H/F (home/femme) Rhones-Alpes.   The event was part of a European Lab which ran alongside the music festival Nuits Sonores.  The aim was to share experience across Europe and identify actions to influence the new EU cultural programme. Below is the paper which formed the basis of my contribution to the discussions over two hours. For a summary of the discussions and their outcomes, see Europe de la culture : où sont les femmes ? ( in French).

 H/F Rhones-Aples is part of a network in France which promotes gender on equality in arts and culture.  The campaign has gained new energy from the election of Hollande and a left government and the leadership of the Minister of Culture, Aurelie Filippetti who has called on all organisations in France in receipt of public money to take account of gender in programming and employment and has pledged to collect and publish data. 

As indicated below, gender equality in arts and culture is a  campaign which has been going on for many decades in Scotland and across the UK.   It is time to re-start the campaign. 

Feminism is like housework.  You need to re-visit it every 10 years.[1]

« Le féminisme c’est comme le ménage : il faut y repenser tous les 10 ans. »

This quote – which comes from one of our foremost poets and playwrights  — is intended to be partly a joke but carries with it a serious message.  It is echoed in a piece published in Causette in 2010 « Le féminisme, c’est comme le ménage, si on ne s’y colle pas régulièrement, on finit par s’habituer à la crasse. » [2]

This is not empty rhetoric.  In preparation for this event, I have gone back through my personal archive and found material/research prepared over the past four decades- mainly, but not exclusively, in theatre and performing arts:

  • In the 1980s— I was involved in campaigns on women in the arts.  This work originated from the Labour Party and the publication of  a report on women in the arts and media, The Missing Culture.  I was working with the trades unions in Scotland at the time and organised a campaign and a conference on this in 1989. Our concern then was that the exclusion of women was not simply an issue of jobs but also affected the very roots of our culture.[3]
  • In the 1990s I was working at the government agency, the Scottish Arts Council.  We introduced a policy that all organisations that received public funding, monitored their activity and produced figures on equal opportunities.  In 1996 we analysed these figures in a major review which highlighted continuing inequalities facing women in positions of influence and power across the arts. This led to the development of policies in that area.[4]
  • In the first decade of the new millennium, I undertook a review of theatre directing in Scotland and identified the lack of women directors in our theatres.
  • More recently, I led on a review of theatre for Creative Scotland, the new government agency for culture in Scotland which replaced the Scottish Arts Council.  We uncovered the absence of monitoring of equal opportunities policies within the theatres which received public funding.   Nearly 50% of those surveyed did not bother to monitor. Creative Scotland itself took no steps to gather data nor monitor the application of these policies.  This means that there are no current data available on the number of plays by women which are produced, nor on job opportunities for women directors and designers in theatre in Scotland.  This takes us back before 1990s.

For today’s event, I could be reading a paper I prepared at the end of the 1990s and apart from updating the statistics slightly and making some of the references more contemporary, nothing has changed. The conclusions are just the same.

The most detailed recent research in Scotland comes from Stellar Quines, a feminist theatre company which commissioned research comparing the position of directors, writers, actors, designers and composers in theatre when they were founded in 1993 with the situation in 2009.

Key findings are:

  • The gender balance in a typical theatre season was more female in 2009 than 1993 but in no one category were women represented at a level of 50% or more.  Indeed in only one category (actors) was women’s representation above one third. Recent research in England characterised the problem as 2:1 issue: two men for every one women working in theatre in creative roles.
  • In general comparable data from UK, European and international sources showed an increase in women represented in theatre across a range of artistic roles.  However the trend in Scotland was slow in comparison and there was evidence that women got more opportunities in the less well funded companies.
  • Governance—the boards of theatres are mainly male and are, it appears, reluctant to appoint women.
  • There is a need for mentoring/support/networking systems for women—and sharing in the success of women.
  • Non- white and women with disabilities struggle with the complexity of their identity and appear to suffer from multiple discrimination. The identity issue is further complicated in Scotland by a debate around the desirability –or otherwise—of having Scots leading key cultural institutions- however we define that.

There are other arguments which echo down the decades:

  • The bigger the budget the less likely you are to see women in positions of creative leadership: not one of Scotland’s national cultural institutions is led by a women- including orchestra, opera, ballet, theatre, the national museums and galleries, the national library of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival.[5]
  • And then there is the Shakespeare problem — a particular issue in England. In France perhaps it is the Molière problem- the issue of the ‘canon’- (le canon litteraire).   Shakespeare dominates theatre in England. An interesting fact – he created 981 characters of which 826 are male and only 155 female. This does imply fewer opportunities for women performers.  However it goes beyond that into the heart of programming. Neither Nick Hytner (outgoing director of the National Theatre in London) nor Gregory Doran (recently appointed director of RSC and previously associate director) has ever directed a play by a woman. Ever.  Both have worked extensively with classical or historical texts where women just don’t feature.
  • In Scotland we have a different issue.  Interestingly there is much less in the way of the established ‘canon’ of work and indeed in an analysis of repertoire over the decades we showed that new work is central to theatrical output in Scotland.  So if women playwrights are not getting their work produced then it is because they are being offered fewer opportunities. But, as I said already, there is a lack of data.
  • And let’s not forget—women make up the majority of audiences in performing arts.

What has to be done?

  • Information is power: I was shocked to discover lack of data in Scotland.  If an arts organisation is in receipt of public money, it must have a policy and this must be monitored.  Let’s also recognise the crucial importance of European wide research such as the work done by the FIA – Federation of Actors on Age, Gender and Performer Employment in Europe. This research in 2007/8 showed that there are fundamental issues facing women in the performing arts—shorter careers, less money and age and gender stereotypes when it comes to roles.
  • Raising the issue: When there is an injustice, often we look to our lawmakers to pass legislation to make it illegal. It is illegal of course to discriminate in terms of employment and access to services But it is hard to legislate in the cultural world where we rely less on employment contracts and more on artistic collaborations.  Your Minister of Culture is to be congratulated in taking the lead on tackling this in France with her announcement of  ‘une Saison de l’égalité’ which specifically challenges French performing arts organisations to tackle programming and access to production for women.  In the UK all public bodies now have to report on the impact of their policies on equal opportunities.  Creative Scotland has produced such a report although it contains little on gender. [4]  There is a commitment to start gathering data from now, which means we will have to wait a few years to build a picture.  All we can do is keep analysing the data and raising the issue. ‘Why have you not commissioned any female playwrights, composers, choreographers? Why are you excluding the talent of over 50% of the population?’ And in this, as I said above, we need to government data to be gathered and made available.
  • Using the tools: The difference today from 30 years go is that we have new campaign tools in Twitter and Facebook – these are also the tools we can use for networking and mentoring. We need to use these networks to highlight these issues.   (An example of this is the Twitter feed @wits_scot which a few of us set up for International Women’s Day).  And let’s not forget international solidarity and events such as this.  We are now able to work across borders much more easily and pan- European campaigning is now a reality.
  • Women taking the lead:  I am impressed by initiatives such as Agent 160 a writer-led theatre company that produces work from its female playwrights, based across the UK.  Prompted by the fact that 17 per cent of produced work in the UK is written by women, Agent 160 addresses the production and commissioning gender imbalance in practical ways by producing plays and blogging on issues.  Women need to take initiatives and perhaps stop being too accommodating.  Here’s an example. My grandmother worked as a shorthand typist in the early 20th century- she learnt shorthand (a form of coding), typing (high level keyboard skills) and filing (data management and retrieval).  That job was a woman’s job so why is it when the digital revolution happened it all came down to boys with toys?  Why, sisters, did we allow men to take over the keyboard, coding and database management? And why, therefore is it men who dominate in the new digital creative businesses?
  • And this brings me to my last point: re- visiting feminism.  I care about hearing diverse voices in the arts and culture, including those from minority ethnic communities and those who have a disability, or those, like me, who are gay.  And I support building common cause where there is a common goal.   It seems, however that somewhere along the line we stopped talking about feminism and re-framed the debate around ‘diversity’, ‘access’ and ‘equal opportunities’ in employment.   Women have become bracketed with ‘minorities’ which we are not; and been subject to initiatives which are concerned with ‘creating dialogue and understanding amongst diverse communities’.  Or ‘providing greater access to opportunities’.  The issue about women in the arts is not just about jobs or access to services it is about who we are and how we see ourselves.  Let’s not have the same debate in another ten years.

[1] I think (and so do others) that this is Liz Lochhead’s quote, but have not been able to confirm this.

[2] Translation- ‘Feminism is like housework: if you don’t get down to it regularly, you end up getting used to the dirt.’

[3] The Missing Culture: Labour’s Plans for Women in the Arts and the Media  (1988?) London:Labour Party.

[4] Equal Opportunities in the Arts, Sarah Coleman (1996) Edinburgh: The Scottish Arts Council.

[5] Christopher Hampson is Artistic Director of  Scottish Ballet, Scotland’s national dance company and leads he artistic team.  However the company’s Chief Executive and Executive Producer is a woman, Cindy Sughrue.

[6] http://www.creativescotland.co.uk/about/our-policies#equality- see link on page to Equality Outcomes.


Les acteurs français sont trop payes! (French actors are paid too much)

Thus ran the headline in the French daily newspaper Le Monde on 29 December above a photograph of Gerard Depardieu.

Yet this was not an article about the larger than life French actor, his drunken antics on a scooter, his move to a dreary village in Belgium to avoid the new 75% tax on earnings above €1m.  Nor was it about him in a fit of pique at the French government, tearing up his French passport and accepting President Putin’s invitation to settle in an inhospitable part of Russia (followed by his decision to fail to appear to answer the ‘drunk-in-charge- of-a-scooter’ charge which may result in him being detained in France on a criminal charge).  No, this piece was not about ‘pathetic’ film stars –the French PM’s description of Depardieu.   Instead the article suggested that French cinema is in crisis and it has little or nothing to do with Depardieu.

The author of the think-piece is Vincent Maraval, founder and director of Wild Bunch the successful film distribution company which counts The Artist (Oscar winner Best picture 2012) and Angel’s Share (Jury Prize, Cannes 2012) as two of its recent successes.   So a man who is a key part of the film industry in France and globally and who, when he speaks, is listened to.   Although he subsequently rejected the title given to his article by Le Monde’s sub-editors, his thesis is, nevertheless, that French movies cost too much and this can be put down to the level of fees paid to the ‘talent’.   He blames the financial structure of the film industry in France for the problem and has attacked the process of film finance which has underpinned not only a treasure of French culture but also an industry with lots of jobs.   This is of interest not only to France but also to those who look on the French film-funding model with envy.

First, his thesis.  Put simply, French films cost too much.  According to Maraval, the French movie costs on average €5.4 million.  Only US studios produce movies are more costly.  The average US independent movie costs €3 m.

The recent success of movies such as The Artist and Amour—reaching as they do a global audience- masks the fact that most French films have a limited market beyond France.  At home, French video sales are collapsing , TV  audiences for French films are in terminal decline in the face of reality TV, and cinema attendances stagnating.  There is, according to Maraval, a mismatch between reach of a movie and its cost. He cites the recent Asterix film (Astérix et Obélix : au service de Sa Majesté) which attracted a cinema audience of 4 million – perfectly respectable until he points out that it cost €60 million – equivalent to the cost of a Tim Burton US studio  movie.

Maraval’s argument is that the cost is down almost entirely to the fees paid to artists.  Again he makes comparisons: French actors appearing in American movies are paid a lot less for these movies than they are for appearing in French ones.   Well known names like Vincent Cassel, Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillad can command fees of between € 0.5-2m for a French film, but are happy with a fee of between €50-200K for an American one which has a global reach.

So why is this happening?  Maraval puts this problem down to the way in which French movies are financed and the availability of state funding.  This ’state funding’ comes via the CNC (Centre national du cinema) which in turn receives funding directly from government with its film investment coming principally from a level on ticket prices (10.7%) and also a levy on French broadcasters—both free to air and subscription channels.   Maraval’s point is that there is no link between the popularity or earning potential of a movie and its cost.

The reaction to this piece has been vociferous and in those news-lite days between Christmas and New Year, there were several headlines criticising Maraval’s attack on individuals and accusing him of putting the government support at risk at a time when Hollande’s presidency is struggling with economic problems and sinking poll ratings.  Effectively, it is argued, Maraval has given the politicians and excuse to cut funding to film.  Leaping to the defence of the film industry, however, is the Minister of Culture,  Aurélie Filippetti and there is talk of a ministerial summit on the funding of the French film industry later this month.

What relevance is all this beyond France? Since the original article was published, the French movie has yet again broken though the ‘foreign film’ barrier at the Oscars with Amour (co-pro with Austria) nominated for five Oscars. Whatever Maravel says, from where we sit, the French film sector continues to produce movies in French about French stories, with French talent and money a few of which become global hits, or are translated into globally recognised films—the rest being shown primarily in France and shaping French culture and ideas.  Is there a problem?  That’s for the French to decide.

In terms of the UK film industry  — and film-making in Scotland—the lesson from France is that commitment from the government and the industry does deliver cultural and economic rewards.  However intervention in the market place with public money does not always guarantee quality (assuming quality means movies which enjoy critical, audience or financial success) and supporting innovation and experimentation should be just that—support for the new and not the enhancing of fees for those who already enjoy great success.





Want to buy tickets for shows? Forget it!

I decided it is time to get New Year into gear and book some tickets for up and coming events.  Three different scales of shows; three different experiences. I have written about poor ticket selling practices in Scottish theatre before.  This time I am naming names.

Arches charges £1 booking fee plus £1 transaction fee plus 50p card fee – per ticket to book online.  NTS sells its tickets for Black Watch at SECC via Ticket Soup.com and not listed so assume sold out- but it took me three clicks to get there and I can’t be bothered trying to find out.  Seen the show before anyway, but friend wanted to go. Need to go back and say I have failed to find tickets.

For David Leddy’s site specific show Long Live the Little Knife in Govan, you are encouraged to book early as space limited and gives a phone number- but no box office opening times.  After some detective work discover box office is Tramway but sadly no opening times given on their website.

I think I will just buy some books online instead.

I wonder if anyone will ever realise how wonderful it all was


–      Robert David MacDonald, Chinchilla act 2.

I have resisted entering into the debate on Alasdair Gray’s essay partly because others have already said what I would have said and partly because the tone of the debate was getting a bit too unpleasant for my liking, but mainly because I wanted to read Gray’s piece before jumping to conclusions.  From reports, it seemed to me that perhaps there is a case to be made for encouraging a Scottish interest in cultural leadership posts.  I am with Vicky Featherstone when she suggested that sometimes boards ‘assume that a person from England knows better.’ Although I think there are further more complex reasons for the lack of Scottish appointments to Scottish posts.

Having said that, it did worry me that the essay contributed to a narrowing of the debate- rather than opening it up.

Gray’s theory, that there is a system of classification which describes non-Scots who run our cultural institutions, falls apart when examining what has happened in the last few weeks.  Vicky Featherstone has made a huge contribution to Scottish theatre whatever her background.  She has commented eloquently on her own relationship with Scotland and does not need me to add anything.

However, alongside more recent targets, Gray focussed his criticism on what went on in the arts in Scotland in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  I venture to suggest that in this central part of the essay, Gray is an unreliable witness.  No problem in his works of fiction but, for goodness sake, folk might believe him when he tells them that it was two Englishmen who ran 1990! (It was a Canadian and a Scotsman, by the way)[1].  The essay suggests that Scottish culture was marginalised and, unlike Ireland has failed to protect and promote its own.  By inference it also implies that we are the weaker for it.  I dispute both the evidence offered and the conclusions drawn.

I start with the assertions on theatre. Anyone wishing Scottish theatre could be like Irish theatre clearly has not being paying attention recently.  It is Scottish theatre writing which is ‘punching above its weight’ and for the evidence I point to the recent review of theatre and the work of the Scottish Society of Playwrights in providing the evidence of the international reach of Scottish writing ( see pp72-74).  Further, I argue this strength is as much because of the work in the 1970s and 1980s — not in spite of it.

I am sure we can all describe our great cultural memories.  A few of my theatre highlights of the last century include 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (written by John McGrath– self described as ‘born in England, evacuated to Wales and married to Scotland’).  I saw The Cheviot at the Citizens’ Theatre, following its Highland tour, programmed there by Giles Havergal, (born in Edinburgh to Scottish parents); Chinchilla, by Robert David MacDonald, born in Elgin, interpreter for the UN before coming with Giles and Philip Prowse to run the Citizens’ in Glasgow for over 30 years; The Slab Boys, written by John Byrne (Scottish artist) directed by David Hayman (Scottish actor who began his career at the Citzens’ and played Nijinsky in Chinchilla) produced by Chris Parr (non- Scot) at the Traverse Theatre.  Then there was Mary Queen of Scots Got her Had Chopped Off by Liz Lochhead, directed by Gerry Mulgrew for Communicado (this time by two great Scottish artists) and the revival of Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart first performed by Glasgow Unity Theatre in 1947 and memorably directed by Giles Havergal in a new production the early 80s as part of 7:84’s Clydebuilt season which also celebrated work by George Munro and Joe Corrie.

Maybe in this period I did suffer from not seeing a great production of Jamie the Saxt but I doubt it (I have seen a production, but not a great one).  I agree that the Citzens’ did not develop new Scottish writing- except work by Robert David McDonald — but I do not accept that Scottish theatre is less because of this. I would go as far to argue that the Citizens’ had a profound and lasting affect on a generations of young people who came in school parties to see the great classics of European drama presented as no other theatre in the UK dared.  In those school parties are the established Scottish writers, actors and theatre directors of today.

What then gave Scottish theatre an added outward looking confidence was the exposure to international work not only at the Edinburgh Festival but also as a result of Glasgow 1990, City Of Culture.  It is easy to pick up a book and read prose or poetry from other lands, less easy to be exposed to international influences in theatre.  For me a great moment in the run up to 1990 was a production of Stars in the Morning Sky by Lev Dodin performed by the Maly Theatre of Leningrad (sic) at Mayfest 1988, whose director was Di Robson, a New Zealander.  The effect of Wooster Group, Robert Lepage and Peter Brook et al on Scottish theatre artists during 1990, was partly an influence on their work but also the confidence to know they could do it too and that others, furth of Scotland, might be interested in what they had to say.  And it also gave them the venue to do it in- Tramway.  Of course Gray is right that a great deal of 1990 was about showcasing international work and making it accessible to Scottish audiences, but not all of it.

Maybe he missed the first theatrical event for 1990, Jock Tamson’s Bairns by Liz Lochhead and Communicado – an epic production on the nature of the Scots inspired by Burns and MacDiarmid, commissioned by Glasgow 1990 or The Ship by Bill Bryden at Harland and Woolf shed about, well, the building of a ship. It seems he also missed David Mach at Tramway and Steven Campbell’s first solo exhibition at the Third Eye Centre, and John Bellany at Compass Gallery and the major exhibition on Scottish art and design, Scotland Creates at the McLellan Galleries in the same year.

So what about support for visual arts?   It is here that I really take issue with Gray and his callous and casual dismissal of the role of Chris Carrell, Director of the Third Eye Centre in the 1980s.  Let’s just clarify the role of the man and the Centre.  Under Chris’s direction, we saw the celebration of the new Glasgow artists: Built in Scotland (1983), New Image Glasgow (1985) which featured the ‘new Glasgow boys’ and Scatter (1989).  This relationship with emerging artists, many of whom came from up the hill at Glasgow School of Art, has been central in creating Glasgow’s international reputation for art which is now the subject of a major research project.  However it was not only the new kids on the block which the Third Eye Centre supported.  Other artists exhibited included, for example, Bruce McLean, Bet Low, and Oscar Marzaroli and his brilliant photographic record of post war Glasgow. It was Chris Carrell who brought to prominence the work of the late and greatly loved George Wyllie. The Third Eye Centre re-positioned the ‘old’ as well as presenting the new.  Projectability grew out of an exhibition of work by artists with disabilities, long before any serious disability arts movement in the UK, and the Third Eye Centre– and Glasgow– became the home to The National Review of Live Art when its Director, Nikki Millican moved to direct performance at the Centre.

Let’s not forget the publishing wing of the Third Eye so close to Chris’s heart – and its imprint which saw the publication of artists’ catalogues to accompany the exhibitions and the work with Hamish Whyte from Glasgow Libraries.

Maybe it is false memory syndrome on my part but I seem to remember the great novelist Alasdair Gray being part of the group of writers and poets who found a convivial place in Sauchiehall Street to listen to readings and discuss work over a dram or two. But it is not my imagination that the Third Eye Centre in 1983 published the first anthology of Glasgow poems, edited by Hamish Whyte, under the title of Noise and Smoky Breath.  And it is certainly not my imagination as I sit looking at my copy, that Alasdair Gray’s own painting of Cowcaddens graces the front cover while the late Edwin Morgan is quoted on the back in fulsome praise of the anthology.

As with theatre, the Third Eye also took an international perspective – led by Chris.  The New Beginnings season of Soviet art at the end of the 1980, featuring the Rodchenko Family Workshop was an eye opener and gave us a new understanding of what was happening not only in art, but also in theatre music and artistic debate behind the iron curtain.   New Beginnings followed an earlier season on Hungarian art and both saw the collaboration across artistic and academic in the city—collaborations which played an important background role in securing the City of Culture title.

All who care about the development of Scottish culture share Gray’s obvious concern about its marginalisation — whether in cultural life or education.  However, sadly his thesis in this latest essay is built on some shaky evidence and an interpretation which does not stand up.  There is a debate to be had on this issue– especially now. Gray is welcome to his views and his memories, but let’s not confuse the work of the artist with the work of the historian and commentator and be a little more rigorous with our sources.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Cordelia Oliver, (1923- 2009) painter, critic, arts commentator and tireless champion for the arts in Scotland, whose hand I feel very heavily on my shoulder as I write this. 

Correction:  this blog was amended 30/12/202 to clarify the relationship between the Third Eye Centre and the National Review of Live Art.


[1] Bob Palmer who was the Director of 1990 is a Canadian who worked at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh and the Scottish Arts Council before taking up his post in Glasgow 1990.  He stayed on after 1990 and worked for the then Glasgow District Council.  He left under reorganisation and went on to run City of Culture Brussels 2000 and then the Council of Europe.  His deputy Neil Wallace, a Scot, also stayed on after 1990 to work for the Council and to establish Tramway.  He now lives and works in the Netherlands.