The future of Scottish arts

 7 May 2014

Theatre practitioner Francis Stevenson shared his experience and ideas about the creative sector in Scotland.

"In my opinion, one of the reasons the arts are so starved in Scotland is that the culture is so strong."

As a theatre practitioner I work and have worked all over the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, but the majority of my formative professional experience was gained in England. Having since made a lifestyle decision to live in my native Scotland, I find that the structure of the arts is very different up here.

To begin with, there just aren't very many large venues. Once you get beyond the metropolitan sprawls of Edinburgh and Glasgow, professionally run spaces are few and far between.

Let's take my current home of Aberdeenshire as an example. It covers an area approximately a third of that of Wales, but only has one full-time arts venue, and even that is not ideal in many ways. (I'm not including Aberdeen city which does have the usual number one touring venue and a couple of small spaces.)

Scotland as a creative nation 

This is not meant to be seen as a hand-wringing exercise, rather an observation. In my opinion, one of the reasons the arts are so starved in Scotland is that the culture is so strong.

You only need to open a packet of crisps to find pipers, fiddlers and random dancers appear, irresistibly drawn by an urge to perform (or thrust into the limelight by friends and family). Good, bad or indifferent, their moment will be received with good humour and tolerance, and the truly exceptional will be applauded to the rafters.

You only need to open a packet of crisps to find pipers, fiddlers and random dancers will appear, irresistibly drawn by an urge to perform.

It's no coincidence that you can find someone who knows their way around a sound desk in every village. Unfortunately I can't say the same about my chosen discipline: lighting. But you can always have a ceilidh without fancy lights.

When so many buy into the cultural imperative and 'do their turn', it's small wonder that the arts establishment has tended to ignore the hinterland, concentrating their funding on prestige projects and the cities where most of them actually live.

Re-evaluating the arts

Nevertheless, small scale touring to local venues all over Scotland, with a huge variety of performances from the rather grand Scottish Opera down to the smallest puppet shows, is still attracting an audience. These are people who have to make a significant effort to get to a show because there just isn't any public transport in some areas.

Naturally, I'd like to see a massive increase in regional arts spending, but experience has taught me that it's usually the first to get cut when belts are being tightened. That's despite its proven value for money (an argument I shouldn't need to regurgitate here).

With Scotland on the verge of a historical decision, maybe this would be an appropriate time to re-evaluate the arts model for the country.

In my experience, the village hall is usually much more cherished and better cared for than any local authority-run venue. With a vibrant network of small-scale touring productions and a modicum of infrastructure improvement, Scotland could reinvent the whole idea of theatre for the people.

Scotland could reinvent the whole idea of theatre for the people.

Perhaps Creative Scotland should consider having a 'shed officer' to advance and promote the notion of small local venues. Maybe pulling some of the focus away from the cities wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Training on the job

A final thought: if my model was to be adopted, are the academies teaching the right things?

Are students being launched into the performance industry ready for massive high-tech productions when they would be better off learning how to do their best with very little?

Actors are trained to develop their craft without the benefit of technical support. Perhaps we should be encouraging my side of the industry to think more about the art and less about the latest app, or the newest piece of kit?

If you would like to shape the future of the arts in Scotland, the Future Leaders Programme is aimed at individuals looking to develop leadership and management skills. A two-day event will be held at the Stirling Management Centre on May 15th and 16th. For further information, please contact mandy.lothian @cckills.org.uk 


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