Andy Arnold: time for theatre-makers to find alternative spaces

With Scottish theatre in crisis, creators need to invent other types of live spectacle in locations where performers and audiences can breathe freely, writes Andy Arnold
Andy ArnoldAndy Arnold
Andy Arnold

The crisis facing Scottish theatre in this pandemic cannot be underestimated. The view that 70 per cent of theatres could permanently close without significant financial intervention is a brutal reality rather than an overdramatic headline grabber, and Judi Dench’s recent comment that she doesn’t expect to see theatre again in her lifetime may sound extreme but is awfully possible – and Dame Judi is clearly in abundant good health.

The added problem is that things were already pretty dire in the theatre world before coronavirus. I don’t mean the funded theatres and our theatre buildings – most of which, like the Tron, had staff secure in their jobs and were playing to packed houses before we all turned overnight into ghost ships. What was dire was the extraordinary lack of opportunities amongst the freelance theatre community, ie. the people who make the work and put it on stage – the self-employed actors, writers, directors, musicians, designers and so on. The reasons were varied - cutbacks in funding over the years, the disappearance of some major touring theatre companies, large producing houses which once staged work involving dozens of actors now co-producing with other large theatres to make shows with small casts, and fewer shows being made full stop. The self-employed artists, that community of makers and storytellers, have always stood by voiceless in the decision-making process.Scotland-based actors seemed to be particularly hard hit and, given the increased and unrealistic number of courses available these days, there are now more and more graduate actors looking for work.

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In response to all this I had planned several months ago to make Spring 2021 an “actors only” season whereby, rather than the Tron presenting a play with the usual five or less performers on stage, we would cut out virtually all production costs just this once and spend every penny on as many actors as we could afford, performing in three plays suitable for an empty stage... and the Tron has a very atmospheric empty stage.

Despite the disastrous financial implications of the pandemic, it is still my desperate hope to make that season if we are able to. Hunkered in lockdown, I decided last month to invite self tapes of monologues from professional actors I didn’t know who I could consider for this project. To keep the numbers down I made conditions – only actors from the West of Scotland could apply, only those who had a page in the in-house directory Spotlight, and only ones I had never met, auditioned, or cast before. I received 420 self tapes.

Some hadn’t met me but had been busy performing in England, or for film and TV. The majority, however, had CVs which included little or no professional experience to speak of. There were a few who I could see would struggle but for the most part I was looking at tapes of talented performers who could act on any stage if they were given the opportunity. I had follow-up online meetings with many of them. Some could also write, some could direct, some were truly amazing.

Now, of course, the situation for these actors is far, far worse and, together with all the theatres now shut, the biggest employers of actors – the Edinburgh Fringe and all those Christmas pantos – have been struck off the 2020 calendar.

My problem, however, is that pessimism is not part of my DNA. I believe that within this dark scenario a light could shine. The first priority is to get our theatres open and working again as soon as we can. If a theatre is shut for too long the energy and vibrancy of that place can be mortally damaged. At the same time we must recognise that the restrictions of health measures and social distancing will require innovative ways of making theatre from now on. It will undoubtedly be a long wait before we can congregate again in packed auditoria to watch performers discoursing, dancing, sweating and singing in front of us. In the meantime, we need to invent other types of live spectacle – in the open air like medieval players, in promenade productions where individual audience members are taken on journeys to discover performances in unusual locations, in site-specific locations like empty warehouses, where audiences and performers can breathe more freely in a vast space. Just as all theatre-makers are desperate to create work, so I believe audiences will be desperate to return to collectively experiencing the magic of live theatre in whatever shape it presents itself – a type of magic which in my view can’t be replicated by any other art form.

Exploring new ways of making theatre may be beyond the comfort zone of some theatres but there will be freelance artists who would thrive on the challenge of such unconventional performance – artists on the outside who have until now only been looking in. Throughout my lifetime the most spectacular and groundbreaking theatre has rarely emerged from our established institutions but from collectives of hitherto unknown artists with challenging ideas who are prepared to take exciting risks. In England this has included the likes of Complicité, Footsbarn, Kneehigh, and Gecko, and in Scotland 7:84, Communicado, Suspect Culture and Vanishing Point – the list goes on... companies starting with no resources but with a common sense of theatrical invention which would go on to change how we make theatre and attract new audiences in large numbers.

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One of the most successful Tron productions ever has been a recent collaboration with a raw collective of Glasgow based artists, Blood of the Young. They had the mad idea of staging Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with five young actresses playing all the characters and with much of the narrative delivered through karaoke singing. We put it on the Tron stage and it has now gone on to receive standing ovations in major theatres throughout Britain - until it was abruptly brought to a halt like so much else that day in late March.

This pandemic has hit all sectors of the economy very hard, and theatre will be amongst the very last to return to where it was. Additional government funds will be needed. Theatre is key to Scotland’s cultural landscape, key to the health of the nation, and Scottish theatre has demonstrated time and again its ability to return any financial investment several times over. However, when we do reopen for business, some theatres will inevitably find themselves without the resources to put work on stage for quite a while. If that is the case they should find the means to commission freelance artist collectives who might have the wit to dream up amazing work and in such a way that could offer a response to the “new normal” that theatre, like everything else, must adapt to. I guarantee there are theatre artists out there we’ve not come across, and types of theatre we don’t know about, but soon the time will arrive to meet these artists and see what they have to offer. I have just received self tapes from 420 of them.

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Andy Arnold is artistic director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow,

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