Theatre Without Walls, and Borders
The National Theatre of Scotland’s Home Away programme of “participatory arts” brings together community and professional artists from throughout Scotland and the world. By Mark Brown
When the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) began, as a “theatre without walls”, 10 years ago, it commissioned 10 productions in 10 locations throughout Scotland, each to take as its starting point the idea of “Home”. Now, in celebration of the NTS’s first decade of work, and as a reflection of the company’s international connections, it is presenting a performance programme entitled Home Away.
Curated by NTS associate director Simon Sharkey, and performed over five days at Glasgow’s international arts venue Tramway, the programme brings together community performers and theatre makers with established artists. The work comes from 10 Scottish and global locations, ranging from Dundee to Rio de Janeiro.
As Sharkey explains, when I meet him at the NTS headquarters in Glasgow, the purpose of the project is to ask what the word “community” means in our world of globalised communication. There is much more to community arts than the local amdram society, and Sharkey’s career is evidence of that.
Inspired by the community work of Scottish companies such as TAG (Theatre Around Glasgow) and Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, he joined the Washington Street Arts Centre in Glasgow as a teenager. At the age of 15 he was performing in an opera and touring Belgium.
“I’m a product of these enlightened people who say, ‘we can have a dialogue with Belgian artists in this age group'”, he explains.
Influenced by this kind of experience, the NTS Learn department, which Sharkey heads, wanted to bring community artists into the heart of its process of exploration.
The director gives as an example MEMORi, a transcontinental piece created by the Bangladesh Association of Glasgow (BAG) and theatrEX of Bangladesh. BAG was established in 1971, by Bangladeshi people who came to Glasgow seeking refuge from the war in what was then known as East Pakistan.
Sharkey, who is one of the writers on the project, remembers a key moment in the creation of the piece. He was sitting talking with the Scots-Bangladeshi artists at the moment when the terrible photograph of the drowned Kurdish-Syrian child Alan Kurdi first appeared on television.
“We all just stopped talking”, he recalls. “They [the Glasgow Bangladeshi performers] just opened up with this memory that they’ve never shared, about them as kids escaping the 1971 war. I was just blown away by it. I thought ‘this story has got to be told’.”
Sharkey wants audiences coming to the Tramway event to be aware that productions such as MEMORi will be very different in their theatrical form from the kind of work Scottish theatregoers are used to seeing. Bringing together community performers from BAG with professional theatre makers from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, the piece will reflect the tremendous geographical and cultural journey Glasgow’s Bangladeshi community has made over the last 45 years.
Fuaigh (which translates into English as “Interweaving”) from South Uist relates to a different journey. Looking back at the life of the Gaelic writer Dòmhnall Mac an t-Saoir (Donald MacIntyre), who was known as the “Paisley Bard”, it considers the consequences of losing language and aspects of one’s culture.
In 1962, as Sharkey explains, MacIntryre, who hailed from South Uist, but lived much of his life in Paisley, “was chucking all of the stories and poems that he’d brought with him from South Uist literally into the fire.
“He didn’t feel that he could integrate into this community. His daughter saved a lot of it, but the Gaels are still living with what happened.”
The piece, which, in the director’s words “brings together South Uist Gaels with urban Gaels”, seeks to explore that moment of crisis for MacIntyre, and what it meant, and continues to mean, to the Gaedhealtacht. Created by the Fuaigh Arts Collective, it brings together language, performance, music and stage visuals.
Sharkey is particularly pleased to be presenting Antes Que Tudo Acabe (Before Everything Ends) by the Nucleo de Artes Integradas of Rio de Janeiro. The almost apocalyptic title relates, perhaps, to the social crisis in Brazil, in which the luxurious lives of the rich contrast starkly with the grinding poverty that pertains in the sprawling slums known as favelas.
It is, says the director, a “spectacular” piece of performance art. “It opened with a three-week run in Rio”, he explains. “They’re saying in Brazil that they haven’t had this kind of work there for over 30 years.”
Before Everything Ends has a political edge, Sharkey continues, which gives it an added piquancy in the current political climate in Brazil. The recent impeachment of leftist former president Dilma Rousseff and the replacement of her administration with a government of the right has exacerbated the political divisions in a country with a history a right-wing military juntas.
The company is making a bold statement, says Sharkey. “They’re going, ‘hey Brazil! We’re being invited to Scotland to tell them what it’s like to be a Brazilian artist. This is what we’re going to tell them.”
Elsewhere in the programme there are shows such as The Hidden House, which involves projected visual artworks, storytelling, poetry and music from the isolated rural community of Tomintoul and Glenlivet in Morayshire. “Not many people know about Graeme Roger”, comments the director. “He’s a brilliant video artist, a graduate from Duncan of Jordanstone [College of Art and Design, in Dundee].
“Graeme’s making theatre up there that’s just stunning, because it comes from a visual art background.”
Home Away also offers a remarkable performance launching The Adam World Choir, a group of more than 100 transsexual and non-binary singers from around the world who have come together through an online forum. Their Glasgow show will mark their first performance together in the same place.
The Choir, says Sharkey, exemplifies the project, which seeks to offer, “a theatre of possibility and opportunity in which artists and audiences can gather together in a space and genuinely have a dialogue.” The 2016 programme is, he insists, “only the beginning.”
For details of the Home Away programme, visit: homeaway2016.com
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 2, 2016
© Mark Brown