The artistic director of the Glasgow’s Take Me Somewhere performing arts festival tells David Pollock about presenting the best of Scottish artists, cutting her teeth at the Arches and searching for new forms of work
LJ Findlay-Walsh is reminiscing over the city’s long-gone Arches venue, where she cut her teeth in theatre. “As a young person, that heady mix of fearless arts practice and clubbing culture was absolutely intoxicating,” says the artistic director of Glasgow’s Take Me Somewhere festival. “I don’t think there was anywhere like it in the UK, certainly not in Scotland.”
She joined the Arches in 2006. “The fact it was housing live art practice was particularly interesting to me,” she says, “but also that it was somewhere for artists, and all those things were obvious even when I was just a visitor to the building. It felt very alive with conversation, there were always artists in the bar and restaurant taking time out from rehearsal. A true creative place.”
When the Arches was closed down in 2015 due to licensing issues surrounding the venue’s late-night club, there were many dissenting voices who expressed their dismay at the effect upon the city’s live music scene. What may have been lost in the noise, however, was the seismic effect the closure had upon the Scottish theatrical landscape.
Since its opening under its founder and first artistic director Andy Arnold (now at the Tron Theatre) in 1991, the publicly-funded venue had championed diverse and non-conformist works of experimental theatre and performance, giving a start to many established names in the field; Kieran Hurley, Rob Drummond, Nic Green and the late Adrian Howells were just some of those associated with the venue.
Upon the Arches’ closure, Jackie Wylie – the venue’s artistic director at the time – immediately set about transplanting its performance practice to a new, annual multi-venue festival named Take Me Somewhere. She launched it in spring 2017, just as she was named the new artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.
Findlay-Walsh was subsequently appointed Wylie’s successor as Take Me Somewhere’s artistic director for 2018 and this year’s editions. She previously replaced her as programmer at the Arches when Arnold left and Wylie was promoted (for the two years before that, Findlay-Walsh was arts administrator at the venue).
“I suppose it seems strange,” Findlay-Walsh says of her and Wylie’s apparently symbiotic careers, “but we’re both committed to the same thing, the support of Glasgow’s arts practice, and have been working towards it together for a long time. Take Me Somewhere is just an extension of that same passionate drive.”
Findlay-Walsh (the initials stand for Louisa-Jane) grew up in the town of Linlithgow, midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. She went to school in the former city and university in the latter, where she studied history of art. “I was more interested in art that encouraged some kind of behaviour from the audience, like Vito Acconci standing behind people as they watched things in the gallery,” she says. “So movement and performance was what I ended up exploring more.”
After this, Findlay-Walsh travelled the world for two years, and when she returned she attended the National Review of Live Art at the Arches. “I never managed to see the Franko B show, but I did see the aftermath, it was really haunting… There was a pool of blood on the floor, a chair. I was bewitched by the whole NRLA experience, at that moment I knew what I wanted to do – to be involved in or to get as close to all this as possible.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in an Indian takeaway at 16 and was made up to get free peshwari naan.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Arts administrator at the Arches, Glasgow.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Everyone is making it up as they go along.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Many amazing women in the industry older than me, and National Review of Live Art.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Embrace risk and trust your instincts.
If you hadn’t gone into theatre, what would you have been?
Working in galleries. I would have loved to be a dancer, but have zero talent.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
She contacted Arnold and asked for a job. There were none going, but an internship scheme was in the planning, so she applied for it and was successful. Over the next decade she and Wylie worked on many critical successes, as well as facilitating the Behaviour festival of international live performance. After a decade at the venue she had decided to leave to take up a role as executive producer with street theatre company Mischief La-Bas, but events overtook her as the Arches was shuttered two days before her leaving date.
Findlay-Walsh describes Take Me Somewhere as “a very Glasgow-centric festival”, but only insofar as the international range of work presented is all part and parcel of developing those artists working within the city. “Glasgow has a great history of being in dialogue with European arts practice,” she says, “and I think without a festival like Take Me Somewhere, that might be lacking within the city. So, we’re here to present the best of Scottish artists, but also create a more global dialogue; I’ve not flown in from another country to provide my version of a festival.”
Currently ongoing, Take Me Somewhere features work in traditional Glasgow venues like the Tramway (where Findlay-Walsh is also senior performance curator), the CCA, the Tron and Platform, as well as eclectic performances like Simone Kenyon’s Into the Mountain in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, and Brian Lobel’s ‘interactive installation’ Binge, in a disused post office in Paisley.
“As much as we’re dealing with innovative arts practice, I don’t like the idea of it being siloed as only for the initiated,” says Findlay-Walsh. “We’re committed to putting work in spaces that the public can come across it – previously we’ve used venues like the Botanic Gardens and the Mackintosh Church – because that’s a really important part of what we do. The festival is for the city.”
The festival is growing year on year, but Findlay-Walsh isn’t a fan of ‘infinite growth’. Will its success lead to her following in Wylie’s footsteps once more? “No, I don’t think so,” she laughs. “Jackie is wonderful at her job (with NTS), but my interest is with experimental arts.”
How would she define the work she loves? “It takes us somewhere new in terms of form and politics,” she says. “It’s work that shakes the foundations and makes you sit up and think, ‘my goodness, I’ve never seen it done like that before.’ That’s what’s really exciting to me.”
Training: M.A. History of Art, Glasgow University
Landmark productions involved in:
• Apollon, Take Me Somewhere festival (2018)
• The Ballad of the Apathetic Son and his Narcissistic Mother, Take Me Somewhere festival (2017)
• Hate Radio, Arches (2017)
• Bullet Catch, Arches (2012)
• Haircuts by Children, Arches (2012)
• Beats, Arches/Take Me Somewhere festival (2012)
• The Pleasure of Being: Washing/Feeding/Holding, Adrian Howells, Arches (2011)
• Trilogy, Nic Green, Arches (2010)
• Taylor Mac, Arches (2010)
ISPA Fellowship, 2018