Centre stage, the queen of the arts

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Judy Mackie meets the unassuming Jacqueline McKay, the inspiration behind some of the most exciting arts education projects ever seen in Aberdeen

Jacqueline McKay is not your average drama queen. Quietly spoken, modest and quick to praise the achievements of others, she seems the least likely person to take centre stage. Yet this ever-smiling performing arts graduate from Glasgow is singly responsible for inspiring some of the most exciting arts education projects ever experienced in the Aberdeen area. Her leading role is much applauded by schools and community groups throughout the north-east.

Following in the footsteps of arts education co-ordinators already established in South Lanarkshire and North Ayrshire, Ms McKay was the third links officer to be appointed by a Scottish local authority. Three years on, her job, jointly-funded by the Scottish Arts Council and Aberdeen City Council, is now permanent and she co-ordinates a core team of eight administrators and artists, dedicated to developing the creativity of the city's young people across all the expressive arts.

"Aberdeen City Council and the Scottish Arts Council were looking for a broker for the arts - someone who could come up with projects, talk to teachers, artists, arts companies, and basically be an interface between arts, education and the community," she explains.

With her training at Glasgow University and Manchester Metropolitan University's Theatre School, together with her background in theatre and in working with children as head of education for Scottish Ballet, Ms McKay fitted the bill. She has worked tirelessly with her team to bring her wealth of ideas to fruition. This has required plenty of creativity to attract project funding but, happily for her, fund-raising is not something she has had to lose any sleep over.

"From very early on, we managed to come up with ideas that were innovative enough to secure funding and bring in the best artists we know of to work with young people. We've managed to raise more than pound;500,000 in National Lottery funding since 1998, and more than pound;2 million from the Scottish Executive's Excellence Fund for the Aberdeen City Music School (see page 14). A lot of partnership support has also come from the education authority and local and national sponsors for our year-round rolling programme of arts education.

"When you get MSPs, Arts Council representatives and business people coming along to events, the interaction with the children and the obvious enjoyment of all the participants, go a long way towards selling the development of arts education as something well worth supporting," she smiles.

Ms McKay achieved early success with a theatre summer school for 16 to 25-year-olds, an age band for whom there was previously little or no organised outlet for group self-expression. Having secured National Lottery funding, she brought in a range of leading artists, including painter Stephen Campbell, composer Eddie McGuire, theatre director Denis Agnew, writer and playwright Tom McGrath and dance artist and choreographer Andy Howitt, to work with the young people for a week to create a fully-fledged theatre production.

The event was so popular that it led to a raft of subsequent summer schools dedicated to specific art forms. It also prompted the development of an artist in residence programme which has regularly brought dance, drama, and music artists, sculptors, painters, video makers and animators, into Aberdeen schools.

Another innovative project has been Aberdeen's Enchanted Storytelling and Theatre Festival, which began as a one-off response to the Government's reading and literature initiative and is now an annual event, extending over six weeks during early spring. It involves children's storytellers, poets, writers and visual, drama and dance artists working with children, parents and teachers to inspire enthusiasm for the expressive arts among youngsters.

Celtic Voices also captured the imagination of young people interested in preserving the Celtic tradition. The project, launched last December and sponsored by Scotland's Year of the Artist initiative and partnership funding from Aberdeen's education department and the Scottish Executive Gaelic specific grant, brought together Gaelic-speaking pupils from Gilcomstoun School and Hazlehead Academy, the Aberdeen Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Aberdeen Adult Gaelic Choir, and culminated in a showcase celebration of traditional and modern music and dance at Aberdeen Beach Ballroom.

But perhaps the greatest feather in Ms McKay's cap so far has been the creation of the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Youth Theatres (AAYT) - a pound;200,000 Scottish Arts Council lottery initiative involving the two local authorities - which has the potential to become one of the largest youth theatre structures in Scotland. Launched in March this year, the AAYT is establishing a network of satellite youth theatre groups in the north-east and introducing young people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to the full spectrum of contemporary theatre practice, as well as to a range of leading UK artists who support their year-round weekly activities.

"It's a really exciting project. AAYT will boost young people's participation in the arts and provide them with a whole range of experiences and life skills that will be both fun and creatively challenging," Ms McKay says.

Projects on the cards include an even bigger and better Enchanted Storytelling and Theatre Festival for 2002, extending dance and music projects with nursery and primary schoolchildren, providing training opportunities for teachers, a host of after-school arts projects with New Opportunities Funding and - if a bid under the national cultural strategy pays off - there'll be a new cultural champion for the area's schools.

Despite all the planning, development and fund-raising aspects of her post, Ms McKay still finds time for the hands-on teaching she so much enjoys, and recently led a highly successful open-air AAYT summer school for eight-to 12-year-olds at Aberdeen's Tyrebagger Forest.

"I consider myself very lucky. I'm in a job I enjoy, plus there's the great motivator of getting a pat on the back from the children. There's a lot of payback in this type of work in terms of seeing how much it does for young people's confidence, self-esteem and creativity," she concludes.

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