Favourites hit by funding changes

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
The Scottish Arts Council's policy shift threatens the educational and outreach theatre work of TAG and Borderline, reports Brian Hayward

The type of drama available to Scottish schools is going to change. In a policy shift by the Scottish Arts Council, funding is to be concentrated on theatre companies which specialise in touring work for young people or who feature "inclusion" in their mission statements.

Inclusion has been a political mantra for some years now and the SAC, willingly or not, must go down that road. Promoting specialist youth theatre seems an obvious and commendable policy but, as with all such simple credos, the devil is in the detail.

In the act of espousing specialist young people's theatre, the SAC is having to withdraw support from companies who have a history of excellent work with young people but who happen to do other, adult work as well. With only a limited pot of money, it has to rob Peter to pay Paul, even though two of the versatile Peters in this case are the TAG and Borderline theatre companies.

The most surprising victim of this SAC policy shift has to be TAG. The company that styles itself as "Scotland's national theatre company for young people" and makes the point by touring from Shetland to the Scottish Borders will have its grant cut from April from pound;230,000 to pound;200,000 and thereafter to pound;129,000.

What's more, the SAC wants TAG to review its relationship with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, where it began 37 years ago.

To put TAG back in the box of a mainstream theatre would be to undo a company that has pioneered the cause of young people's theatre and in particular explored that subtle boundary between theatre and education in increasingly effective and exciting ways.

This has been most apparent over the past decade, under the leadership of Tony Graham, who has gone to the Unicorn Theatre for Children in London, and James Brining, who is now at the helm of the Dundee Rep. The recent appointment of Emily Gray (Mr Graham's former assistant at the Unicorn) was the best guarantee that the style and quality of TAG's work would continue seamlessly.

What is at stake is the future of what has been, for 30 years, the most serious of Scotland's young people's theatres, always conspicuous in the respect and understanding it gives to children.

Those who saw TAG's work in the post-devolution Making the Nation programme, in particular the commissioned work dealing with the Holocaust and children's rights, Dr Korczak's Example, will know theatre to be an arena to stir the mind and the emotions.

TAG, for its part, will hope that many teachers will agree with Mary Bovill, principal teacher of English at Musselburgh Grammar, who says: "TAG makes an outstanding contribution to Scottish education and provides invaluable school experiences."

By contrast, the Ayr-based Borderline Theatre Company is an avowedly regional theatre. Over 20 years, it has slowly consolidated its contribution to the three Ayrshire educational authorities to the point where now it delivers more than 1,600 workshops each year at nursery to secondary levels and beyond.

Although the school work is funded by the authorities, Borderline's marketing manager, Paul Brunton, admits: "It would be very unlikely to continue if the Scottish Arts Council's core funding for the company touring work were to cease."

At risk are such varied drama programmes as Generation Excellent, which follows the citizenship education guidelines for upper primary, DARE (Drug Awareness: Realities Explored) for P7s in East Ayrshire and the Jackpot interactive forum for young people with disabilities and East Ayrshire social services. In the pipeline is a problem-solving programme for North Ayrshire's social services department, using the Augusto Boal forum theatre technique.

This sort of work goes on in many parts of Scotland, the result of a flourishing symbiosis between arts companies and the curriculum guidelines, but Borderline does good work by stealth, so most of it goes unnoticed.

Mr Brunton points out: "Because much of the work may be largely hidden from the eyes of the public and the Scottish Arts Council, if the company was to cease to exist it would be the very young people that the SAC is trying to help that would suffer."

TAG Theatre Co, tel 0141 552 4949www.tag-theatre.co.ukBorderline Theatre, tel 01292 281010www.borderlinetheatre.co.uk

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