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All the world's our stage

Scotland's first National Theatre hopes its debut in Schools of Amibition will change people's lives, reports Brian Hayward

The National Theatre of Scotland opens its doors next week. Ten doors, to be precise, from Shetland and Stornoway to East Lothian and Dumfries. The NTS isn't a building: its creators want it to be something so much more than that.

With an excitement and fervour they do not trouble to hide, and a pound;7.5 million budget for the first two years, they want the NTS to change people's lives and the ethos of the country.

There are plans to link communities through youth theatre, to bring eight overseas directors to pair up with Scottish counterparts, and for a workshop that will be the starting point for new theatre in Scotland. In the first year, the main thrust will be outreach and learning, for the benefit of children and teachers.

The first proof of this is the appropriately-named Transform project. Five Schools of Ambition in East and North Ayrshire, Fife, West Lothian and Moray are collaborating with a resident NTS theatre team, typically a drama worker, a musician, and a digitalvisual artist. The end product will be large-scale, multimedia performance-art installations on show in each locality.

It is typical of the NTS's ambitious and positive manifesto that, while these artists and young people are creating their installations, they will also "literally and metaphorically transform spaces, lives, attitudes, ambitions, aspirations and abilities in communities".

Gillian Gourlay (formerly of Creative Links, the Tron Theatre and Borderline Theatre) is the learning and outreach manager and is responsible for monitoring these teams. She is confident they will achieve their objectives.

"Feedback is really positive," she says. "Schools are being flexible to meet the needs of the project, and the children are excited by the dedicated arts workers. There are great learning opportunities for all."

She cites an example from the on-going Crucible project. This uses the Arthur Miller play to pioneer an annual, innovative approach to trusty warhorses, the set texts.

The NTS has put teams of 10 actors into four of the aforementioned Schools of Ambition. They will be the core performers in a full production that will use pupils and community groups for the minor roles and non-speaking parts. The finished article, in a co-production with the TAG Theatre company, will go on stage locally, in Livingston, Cumbernauld, the Byre, Irvine Harbour Arts and Findhorn.

However, Ms Gourlay emphasises that it is not only about the final performance .

"In preparing a play, there are opportunities for teachers' continuing professional development, helped by the resources on our website.

"Our favourite reaction so far has come from Andi Wilson, the head of drama at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, who told us that the pupil response to the NTS workshops had persuaded her to completely change the way she taught set texts in future, and restored her faith in practical drama to obtain good results in academic exams."

Much of this blue-sky thinking about the way in which the NTS will work with schools comes from Simon Sharkey, the assistant director of NTS with special responsibility for learning. It has been a remarkable year for him because, after years of excellent work with young people at Cumbernauld Theatre, he has found himself almost simultaneously at the helm in the NTS and completing a National Endowment for the Arts scholarship in cultural leadership at the new Alexandria Library in Egypt.

He says: "We want to introduce good practice into schools, not only at Schools of Ambition but also with ambitious schools, schools aiming to achieve in the future, and to broaden the concept of theatre, not only with multimedia, but also to include entrepreneurship and enterprise.

"Also, I think it is important to remind teachers of their value. I know the pressures teachers are working under and I would do nothing to add to them."

Mr Sharkey sees schools as anchors in the community, which is the other side of the NTS outreach coin. Four actors aged 18-26 will be appointed every year to work from the NTS base in Easterhouse. Their brief will be to present two productions a year, with four collaborations with local groups.

Importantly, he expects them to form "meaningful relationships" with secondary and primary schools.

But first the 10 doors open next Saturday, February 25, with Home, the theme given to the 10 directors working across Scotland. Only one of the directors is working with children: Gill Robertson, whose Catherine Wheels Theatre Company is at the forefront of young people's theatre in Britain.

"I was asked last August to become involved," she recalls. "I could do anything I wanted, wherever I wanted, for as many or as few people as I liked.

"That kind of artistic freedom is forbidding at first, and then exciting, liberating even.

"But I only had six months. This was a short timescale, as I would normally take three times as long to prepare something.

"I live in a courtyard, so I invited my neighbours to tea and asked them what 'home' made them think of. They came up with words like 'security', 'safety', but also the thought that the home could be a 'prison' or a 'trap' for a woman. Those were my clues.

"The audience will come to the Brunton Theatre and get on a bus for a secret destination. It is going to be exciting, enjoyable and mysterious!"

Later in the year, from September, another cutting edge production, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, is included in the ambitious NTS Unmissable programme of plays brought to a wider audience. It was written and directed by Anthony Neilson, who works on its co-production with The Tron in Glasgow and the Drum Theatre in Plymouth. The award-winning play was critically acclaimed as a new work at the 2004 Edinburgh International Festival, hence its status as an NTS "must see". Expect a challenge.

The scene is now set and this is surely a new beginning for theatre in Scotland, placing the country on the world's stage.

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