The National Theatre of Scotland’s new artistic director launches her first programme this week with the aim of extending the company’s reach and development as a creative touchstone for all. Known as a skilled curator of talent, she tells Thom Dibdin a wide-ranging and liberating brief makes her role the ‘best arts job in the world’
Jackie Wylie’s office looks out over the beginnings of the canal system that once linked industrial Glasgow with the rest of Scotland. That artistic director’s view from Rockvilla – the purpose-built headquarters that the National Theatre of Scotland moved to a few months before Wylie joined this spring – feels appropriate.
NTS calls itself a “theatre without walls”; Rockvilla is a place where theatre is forged, not performed, and sent out around the country to be put on in Scotland’s existing theatres. It is an “engine room” for Scottish theatre, a base where theatremakers and performers can experiment and hone their skills.
Wylie took over a strong, if slightly static, organisation, with a reliance on its existing portfolio. Its profile was high outside Scotland, thanks to a six-month New York residency for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, and an Olivier award and commercial London run for Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. However, it played to a commendable 210,000 people in 2016-17 and Rockvilla is opening up new opportunities.
Founded in 2006 under the guidance of first artistic director Vicky Featherstone, the NTS quickly established its without-walls credentials. When Featherstone left to run London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2013, Laurie Sansom took over. He guided the company away from squatting in a succession of more-or-less suitable premises, bringing the idea of a permanent home to fruition with the building of Rockvilla.
Now the Edinburgh-born Wylie is charged with ensuring the next stage of the NTS’s development. Unlike her predecessors she does not direct herself, but has a vast knowledge of Scotland and Scottish theatre combined with experience in curating and running a creative team from her time at the Arches, the Glasgow arts centre that closed in 2015.
Wylie says becoming the third artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland – and its first Scottish head – was an “incredible opportunity”, adding, “I honestly think this is the best arts job in the world. It is a national theatre in the context of an infrastructure that is really supportive – and connected in the context of a nation that is self-reflective and progressive about its politics.” It is a national theatre that “can literally do anything,” she adds.
The NTS’s unique remit in Scotland as a theatre without walls brings additional responsibility. “You have to reach -everybody, but that is a magnificent responsibility to have,” Wylie says. “Every day I think about that, that it is my responsibility to make theatre for every single person. There is a kind of dynamism in that which is really compelling.”
There is a gleam in her eye as she describes the needs of the company, of balancing the innovative founding spirit of the NTS – exemplified in its small-scale productions that travel to the most remote parts of the country and around the world – with its ability and need to make large-scale work with a mass appeal.
“Taking on a national company is an exciting and exhilarating but also daunting prospect”, she says, adding that her work at the Arches – which mixed the commercial and the artistic – prepared her for the move to the NTS.
“The form and the remit is completely different, because I have an incredible responsibility to reach everyone in Scotland, which the Arches didn’t. But in terms of the day-to-day operational challenges, the Arches was a more challenging beast than the NTS.”
What was your first non-theatre job? Working at the Cameo Cinema. The independent arthouse cinema is a beautiful institution and there was a community of people who were dedicated to that art form of cinema. My journey into film and TV was inspired by the cinematic possibilities of being at the Cameo.
What was your first professional theatre job? Setting up a grassroots theatre company in which I was the performer. We called ourselves Faultline Theatre and I still have the posters that we made ourselves.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That it is okay to be yourself. That it is okay to be the version of leadership that is authentically yourself and you don’t have to try to be a different, more obvious version of what leadership is. I was appointed to the Arches when I was 28. I spent a lot of time going: “Am I entitled to run an organisation when I am 28?” If I could go back I would go: “Yes you are: you are the right person to be doing this.” Being a young woman, it is harder to have certainty about your entitlement to positions of responsibility. Now I look back and I think if you don’t put more women in positions of responsibility then there is something wrong.
Who or what was your biggest influence? This is sentimental, but I leaned a lot from Adrian Howells about how to be. He had this very generous saying – “it is all allowed” – and by that he meant that we should be empathetic and that the purpose of theatre is to understand other people’s position in the world.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself and don’t let anybody diminish your power.
If you hadn’t been an artistic director, what would you have been? Carried on trying to be a performer. The terror of when the programme you have put together meets an audience is more manageable than the terror of being on stage.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Celebrate success with your team as a ritual.
Born in Edinburgh in 1980, Wylie studied theatre, film and television at Glasgow University. She remembers the course as a formative experience: film and theatre were taught as being alive and present, revealing things about the world, about history and politics.
“There was almost a sociological angle to the way that course is taught,” she says. “You study theatre and film as text and what they reveal about the world. That experience is what gave me a kind of belief in art for art’s sake, the joy of culture enhancing our lives – but also the fact that cultural experiences allow us to ask challenging questions about the world or allow us to understand our place in the world and how we can positively impact on people’s lives.”
Her first paid job after university was as a locations scout for film and television. It allowed her to see Scotland in a way she never had before, and which has remained with her since.
Exploring her own country – taking her right up to the lunar landscapes of Sutherland – gave Wylie an understanding and pride in the complexities of the different regions and landscapes of Scotland. As she says, having a sense of national cultural identity is an emotional and complicated thing that builds over time.
However, it also taught her the hierarchical nature of film-making. While it was beautiful to go out to find locations, she found the reality of a film set very insulated. The creative element happened in a small space and not one that was collaborative. It marked a complete contrast with her other post-university activity.
She set up a theatre company called Faultline and won Glasgow University’s Alasdair Cameron Scholarship, making a theatre show with a friend. “It makes me cringe now, I can’t even remember what it was called,” she says. “It was a piece of radical feminist storytelling. All the audience were on the stage and it was very interactive and of its time.” Yet Andy Arnold, the artistic director and founder of the Arches, saw the show and invited them to perform at his venue. Wylie’s first association with the Arches, like most students in Glasgow in the late 1990s, had been through its dance floor but now she was returning as a theatremaker.
“I remember sharing my dressing room with the band Doves. Later on at the Arches, actors sharing dressing rooms with DJs would become an operational challenge and it was quite complicated. But at the time I remember thinking that was actually quite exciting.”
From there, Wylie performed in some of the Arches’ productions, from a solo one-on-one performance in Spend a Penny, set in the venue’s toilets, to playing the daughter Bridget in Harold Pinter’s Moonlight, with Arnold as the father.
“There are still people I talk to now who remember it. When I did Spend a Penny I played a girl who passed as a boy to go to gay male clubs to have sexual experiences with boys. This was Andy Arnold’s production; I had a cap on and was all strapped down. I really passed for a boy,” she says.
“I loved performing. It was only as time went on that I realised I was better placed to be enabling other people’s creativity,” she says, adding: “I realised that my energy was better spent leading organisations and curating and programming.
“It is an immense thing to do, to get on a stage and perform and maybe in my younger days I had the bravery of youth. Later I was much more comfortable curating and being an artistic leader rather than being on stage. But I also loved it – and it has given me an understanding of theatre in a particular way.”
• Make sure that, when you are bringing collaborators together, there are authentic creative reasons to do so.
• Everything has got to start with the quality of the artistic idea. You nurture that idea and then it will find its audience. Nurture artists to be the most ambitious they can be and to be the most risk-taking they can be, and know that the audience will meet you in that place. Don’t have one imaginary version of an audience.
• Make sure that you treat everybody in your team absolutely equally, with consistency, fairly and try to subvert hierarchies. Don’t think you have to have all the answers because some of the answers come from unexpected places.
So when a job on the Arches’ programming team came up, Wylie jumped at the chance. There is something beautiful, she says, in the inherently collaborative element of theatre that does not exist in other art forms, adding: “It is about working as a team, working together and I love that.”
When asked about the rewards for curating and producing a show, she responds that there are “two different versions” of leadership. “There is leading with a hierarchical position of power, or there is taking pride in having a team that is empowered,” she says.
“My role is to enable people’s ambition, to ask the question: ‘What does the NTS allow you to do that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise? What questions can I ask to open up doors in your practice, in your thinking, that allow you to step through into another space?’
“And a lot of that happens in the process, so seeing that work succeed and seeing artists succeed at all different career levels is the thing, isn’t it? Rather than being this version of an artistic director who is in charge.”
This is the passion that drives Wylie. It drove her to create the Behaviour Festival in 2009, the Arches’ annual celebration of live performance. It brought some of the most exciting international performance artists and put them on stage alongside their Scottish counterparts.
In some ways it was a rebranding of what had gone before, but the six-week event was a place where emerging artists could stretch their ideas, and established ones could experiment with something new. It allowed theatre to be more than plush seats and proscenium arches, even if graduates of the festival – performers and audiences alike – are now regular visitors to such venues.
Wylie was on maternity leave when the Arches closed, just after the 2015 edition of Behaviour. She missed it, but the last event was the Behaviour festival club night, a marriage of the two different elements of the venue – its clubs, that supported it financially, and its theatre, which drove it artistically.
The Arches’ demise came when the Glasgow City Council’s licensing board controversially altered the venue’s licence so it had to close at midnight, effectively withdrawing more than half its income. While the rest of the Scottish theatre community was grieving the loss of the Arches, Wylie refused to be drawn down the path of negativity and was busy with ensuring its legacy. Eighteen months later, she set up the first Take Me Somewhere Festival.
“Creative Scotland and Glasgow Life recognised the space that was left in the cultural ecology of Scotland by the closure of the Arches, so they funded a ‘conversation and dialogue’ with the sector about what we might do,” she says. “It was really clear in those conversations that we needed to set up a festival. Very quickly the Tramway came on board as a host for Take Me Somewhere.”
Wylie has described the closure as devastating for her as an artistic director as well as for the artists and audiences. She calls the sudden closure “heartbreaking”. Looking back now, she says, “It quickly shifted from being a very sad time to one of positivity and hope. We were only a very small team, the Tramway hosted us and quickly galvanised us into creating this festival that was kind of owned by the community of artists.”
Which is when she decided to apply for the NTS job. Although she was announced in the post when the company first moved into Rockvilla a year ago, she delayed taking it up to get the first Take Me Somewhere established last February. Festivals have not gone from her mind, however: “One of the things that we are thinking about here is about creating a festival,” she says. “How do you create the NTS as a constant, year-round nationwide festival?”
While she is working that one out, Wylie is clearly energised by working in a building that she describes as “constantly buzzing with life”. She talks with pride about the team around her, how they take on her ideas and develop them and how she is constantly meeting new people in the building, in the engine room that allows the Rockvilla activities to be open to the wider theatre community.
• We can talk about it in terms of abuses of power, but I also think we have to call it what it is, which is sexual harassment. We need to frame it as a movement of change as opposed to being about an issue. But I don’t think we have the language for that yet.
• What I did was bring the team here together to make it really, really clear that there is absolutely zero tolerance of any of this kind of behaviour. The responsibility is not about seeing what processes and procedures we have, which is necessary, but it is about creating a culture where that sort of behaviour is completely alien.
There is still a challenge there, though, as she says: “How do we make sure that a diversity of voices are at the table when decisions are being made? That challenges me because I am the curator. It is a genuinely authentic tussle at the moment: how do I relinquish artistic control to ensure that we are porous and anti-elitist while also recognising that it needs to have a very distinctive aesthetic which I am driving?”
How Wylie answers that particular question will be the key to her tenure at the helm of the NTS. At the moment, it feels vital, energetic and open. Her first season programme, which she announced earlier this week, contains some typically intriguing projects: Wils Wilson is to direct The 306 Dusk, the final part of Oliver Emanuel and composer Gareth Williams’ trilogy about the 306 men shot for cowardice during the First World War. It will bring music to the forefront of the piece using Wilson’s particular ability to merge this with onstage poetry.
The programme will include co-productions with Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and the Glasgow Citizens, while Gillian Robertson is creating Eddie and The Slumber Sisters, a new Catherine Wheels/NTS co-production for children about the death of grandparents. Wylie’s fingerprints are clear, and the announcement includes a festival in Aberdeen looking at climate change. It will allow the company to help develop talent in the city, rather than just flying in existing work.
The NTS has had an effective few years since Rockvilla was created. From Wylie’s office, looking out over the canals which once fed the industry of Scotland, you can almost hear the sound of the engines firing up to feed the country’s theatres.
Born: 1980, Edinburgh
Training: Glasgow University, theatre, film and television
Landmark productions: Behaviour Festival (2009-2015), Bullet Catch, the Arches, Glasgow and international tour (2009), Nic Green’s Trilogy, the Arches (2009), Take Me Somewhere Festival (2016)
Visit nationaltheatrescotland.com for full details of its programme