Facing a dramatic future

10th October 1997, 1:00am
Brian Hayward


Facing a dramatic future

What are the Scottish Arts Council's plans for theatre in education? Brian Hayward sorts the winners from the losers in the latest funding round

The Scottish Arts Council has re-shaped the way it funds touring theatre, and effectively laid out the landscape of small-scale theatre in Scotland until 2001. The dailies gave the headlines to the axing of Wildcat's grant, but elsewhere in the proposals are important implications for schools who use theatre-in-education and children's theatre companies.

The carrot dangled by the SAC was the guarantee of four years' funding, barely imaginable security to companies brought up on one-off project gains. The maximum on offer was Pounds 220,000, out of a pot of Pounds 900,000. Thirty-one unfunded companies were invited to apply in the first round, nine of them progressing to the second round, to compete with the "big five".

For school-centred theatre companies, there were mixed fortunes. Among the failures at the first hurdle was Hopscotch, ironically a double-winner in TES Scotland's 'Star turns'. Surprisingly, considering their huge popularity and very active profile, Hopscotch has never had SAC help, for development or for touring. "I just find it very strange," sponsorship manager Lindsay Mitchell admitted. In a sense, they are the Wildcat of children's theatre, and, like them, pay the price for what is deemed populism.

Another faller at this first fence was Visible Fictions, and for them the disappointment was all the greater because they had previously been encouraged by the SAC with three-year funding. Susan Gray, the company administrator, spelt out the extent of the injury: "Visible Fictions is particularly vulnerable to the loss of subsidy. Our concept of children's theatre often depends on commissioning playwrights to target precise age ranges of young children. This can never be a commercial operation, and is therefore totally dependent on subsidy for survival, let alone for achieving the all-important quality."

A company that had the consolation of at least getting into the second round was First Bite, the Edinburgh-based TIE company that specialises in highly theatrical, issue-based edu-cation work, sometimes of a very hard-hitting nature.

Rebecca Kilbey, its founder and administrator, is philosophical about not winning an award: "We couldn't hope to compete with the likes of TAG and Communicado, but at least the SAC knows a little more about what we do. Even so, I can't help thinking that TIE has been disadvantaged by these decisions. "

The one TIE winner was the (Edinburgh) Boilerhouse Theatre Company, which made its reputation with issue-based theatre dealing with drugs and alcohol, mostly on behalf of health boards. Its educational work, in the fashionable style of Forum Theatre involving audience participation, has been helped by lecturer Lynne Clark of Queen Mary College. One outlet for its new annual grant of Pounds 50,000 will be the funding of temporary education workers to develop schools liaison work on future Boilerhouse projects.

Among the original "big five" players, TAG and Borderline secured the "four-year" funding, although Borderline's grant of Pounds 130,000 is effectively a cut of Pounds 20,000. Borderline has been operating a broad and well-judged educational programme in Ayrshire, and manager Edward Jackson will defend this as long as he can. "We have rigorously stuck by our educational work at Borderline, whatever has happened. We've done a really good schools tour every year - we've never sacrificed that element. But we must adapt to the new situation. Obviously there are no glittering prizes for education work, but you throw away your seed corn at your peril."

TAG, on the other hand, has been consolidated in pole position in young people's theatre. With its annual grant raised by Pounds 32,000 to Pounds 200,000, company manager Jon Morgan hopes that the company can press ahead with its plans to extend its Glasgow base to a more national presence, with permanent outreach education workers in the remoter, rural areas to integrate TAG visits with local activity.

"We will be able to afford to 'think smaller'," he adds, "performing to smaller school audiences, and being more selective about age groups, and more conscious of the quality of the actorchild experience. We shall probably do fewer big shows. We want to do more work in the Highlands, and you can't do a big show north of Aberdeen."

For TAG the future is clear, but now several Scottish TIE companies are faced with four years in the wilderness, applying to the shrunken SAC project fund, and drumming up private sponsorship money to stay alive.

Money will be a problem, but so will be the feeling, as one of these administrators voiced it, that "TIE in Scotland is not being taken seriously". Very arguably, when you realise that the SAC panel taking these decisions was made up, apart from a London community theatre representative, entirely of mainstream theatre managers.

The SAC's drama director, David Taylor, does not agree: "The quality of educational work was always an important criterion. TAG has had a considerable uplift and Borderline's concern with education was a material factor in its continued funding."

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