1 May 2004 in Dance & Drama
Listening to the People
RICHARD FINDLAY is the chairman of the new National Theatre of Scotland, and he is on a mission to hear your views on where the infant organisation needs to go. On the eve of the first of his open sessions in the Highlands and Islands, he tells KENNY MATHIESON why he is coming here.
KENNY MATHIESON: Richard, on a personal level was the decision to set up the National Theatre without either a building or a repertory company your own preferred way ahead?
RICHARD FINDLAY: Some years ago when I was chairman of the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh we discussed the possibility of a National Theatre and what shape it might take. In those discussions we concluded that the problem in Scotland was not so much available space as how to fill it, and how to maintain the buildings that we had, which were often a major drain on company resources. We concluded then that one of the things we should look at as a possible model was a non-building based National Theatre drawing on the talents, the expertise and the resources of the existing theatre companies. Now that didn’t go any further at the time, but when the Scottish Executive decided this time they would support that idea it didn’t surprise me, and rather attracted me.
KM: You are conducting a number of open public discussion sessions in the Highlands and elsewhere in Scotland in the next few weeks – what do you see as the purpose of these?
RF: One of the things I have been very conscious of is that many of these national initiatives tend to take root there if they are based in central Scotland. I am very keen that the National Theatre be seen as a truly national organisation operating throughout the whole of Scotland, and drawing on the talent that exists throughout the whole of Scotland. As a result one of the first things I decided to do was to take my ideas out beyond the central belt, and at the same time discover what people across Scotland were thinking – how might they contribute, and what kind of things did they think the National Theatre should be involved in.
KM: Was it important that these be public meetings rather than only consulting the professionals?
RF: I think it is absolutely key to the whole thing that we have a dialogue not only with the people currently actively involved in the arts, but that we try to reach that whole swathe of the population which does not get involved in the arts as yet. I’m very keen that we broaden the debate to try to encourage non-theatre goers to come to performances. If the National Theatre can help to encourage that, and help locally-based companies continue that momentum, I feel that would very worthwhile.
KM: Why do we need a National Theatre?
RF: I think we need a national focus in all kinds of areas of life and culture. We also need to draw together the talent and expertise that we have in all levels of theatre in Scotland, and make use of that expertise, and share it around. A nation such as Scotland needs a National Theatre to show the rest of the world that we are developing culturally as a nation, that we have a centre of excellence for drama, and can represent Scotland abroad, and let people see that there are lively and interesting artistic things going on here at a high level.
KM: How will an area like the Highlands and Islands benefit?
RF: That is one of the things I am going to have to try to find out in these sessions, and in my discussions with the existing theatre companies and so on. One of the things I am already conscious of is that there is feeling that smaller venues might not be getting full value from this, with scaled down productions or whatever. There is an element of practicality in that which we have to think about. I also want to find out at first hand what is already happening in the Highlands and Islands. I am constantly intrigued by the amount of activity that is going on, and not only in the higher profile companies. I want the National Theatre to look at whether we could take work that is going on locally and give it a bigger stage.
KM: So it would be a matter of productions coming out of the Highlands as well as going in?
RF: Absolutely – I’d be very disappointed if that wasn’t the case.
KM: There are a lot of people who are sceptical about the plans for a National Theatre – how are you addressing doubts on funding, for example?
RF: I think that was one of the principal sceptical views, the issue of whether or not the National Theatre would drain cash away from existing theatre provision, and that was both a real and a genuine concern. I certainly would not have taken on this position if I had thought that money would simply be moved around, and when it was first mooted a number of us interested in it argued very strongly that it had to be properly funded and with new money. Most companies I have spoken to now acknowledge that is the case, and if the National Theatre was not happening, the money made available to us by the Scottish Executive would not otherwise go into theatre.
KM: How about the viability of not being a building-based company?
RF: There has a been a question of how people might be able to relate to that, and I do acknowledge that is a challenge for us. Buildings can provide some kind of a focus for artistic endeavour, but on the other hand they can also be highly restrictive – you can’t take a building out and about, can you? There is also a tendency to do productions for that specific building that don’t always transfer well to other spaces. I think the notion of not having a building is liberating, but I do appreciate there are some sceptics we still have to win over in that respect.
KM: What is the timescale for appointment of an artistic director?
RF: In fact, we are advertising the post of Director this weekend (8-9 May 2004), and it will combine the roles of director, chief executive and artistic director. We have appointed a specialist head hunting firm, and are going to spread the net pretty widely. We want someone of clearly outstanding ability. Now it’s possible that person will not be working in Scotland at the moment, and then again they may very well be. I hope we will be in a position to make the appointment some weeks hence, but it could be a fairly lengthy process. This is a really top appointment in the theatre world, and we will pay rates that reflect that.
KM: When can we expect to see things happening under the National Theatre banner?
RF: Well, I have to be careful in pre-empting what a Director might do – there is nothing worse than a clod-hopping chairman jumping in and making impossible commitments! A new Director will need a period of planning and discussion, but on the assumption that we have someone in place in the late summer, I would hope that during the course of 2005 we will see tangible evidence of a National Theatre.
KM: Are you finding this job an exciting challenge?
RF: Absolutely, and very rewarding. The board of directors has gelled immediately, which is wonderful, and we have a good mix of people.
Richard Findlay is the Chairman of the National Theatre of Scotland. He will be speaking at the following venues in the Highlands:
- Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness, Tuesday 11 May 2004, 6pm
- Mill Theatre, Thurso, Monday 17 May 2004, 6pm
- Macphail Centre, Ullapool, Tuesday 8 June 2004, 6pm
- An Lanntair Arts Centre, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Tuesday 15 June 2004, 7pm
© Kenny Mathieson, 2004