Maintaining the National Theatre of Scotland’s ethos as a ‘theatre without walls’ is a complex challenge but, for its technical director, it is also the best thing about her job. She tells David Pollock about the process of constantly having to find unusual spaces to stage shows and her journey from the office to backstage
For the National Theatre of Scotland’s technical director Gemma Swallow, the organisation’s ethos as a ‘theatre without walls’ is its biggest challenge. For a company without its own space, the next work could be anywhere in Scotland in a traditional theatre or somewhere that has never had performance in it before. “That’s also the biggest buzz and the best thing about the job,” she says, “and probably why we’re all here. I’ve worked in touring theatre all my life and there’s a reason for that, because I get bored in the one space – I get bored doing the same stuff on the same stage over and over.”
Today is a case in point. We meet at City Park, deep in the East End of Glasgow. The building is a high-rise office block filled with corporate clients, but the empty floor that the NTS has commandeered has been turned into a dark and sterile rehearsal laboratory for Interference (which has since ended its run), a site-specific trio of plays about the effects of technology upon women in the future, directed by the award-winning Cora Bissett.
As we wait for the cast and crew to break for lunch, Swallow talks in a low voice about her role in proceedings here – most importantly, she found the location. And scouting venues is a tricky gig when your employer is a national company that makes a virtue of discovering unusual, non-theatrical locations.
She discusses the process of sourcing the space, which involves striking up a rapport with the facilities manager and hoping that no one comes in and gazumps the production with full corporate rent. When rehearsals have broken, she shows me some of the detail of the set, including small lights recessed into the square panels of the low roof, so as to be almost invisible.
Even this has been a complex but crucial negotiation; in open-plan offices like these, the lights are automatic, so the building supervisor must be talked into isolating them and shutting them down. “In this case [Bissett] really wanted a white, clean, corporate-type space, and we went through a few iterations of whether it should be a warehouse we go and build stuff in,” says Swallow, “but top of the list was one of these modern, quite soulless office spaces, so I had to start looking.”
Next up, she has to find a stately home for a show. Swallow’s job doesn’t end after she has found the unusual places. “I’m responsible for all the technical aspects of every National Theatre of Scotland show,” she says. “I oversee the technical department. We have eight members of staff – head of stage, head of sound, head of lighting, etc – and we’re an umbrella bunch who make sure all these shows are staffed, have the right equipment, and so on.
“Every person who works on the shows – every single person working here – is a freelance. We, as a department, are the full-time people who come in and problem-solve if we have to. We have a large amount of equipment back at Rockvilla [the NTS’ canal-side technical and administrative complex in Glasgow city centre] that we can use if we need it.”
Swallow is the epitome of who you would want in this clearly complex and often high-pressure job; warm and thoughtful in her answers, but with an undertone of considered professional precision that suggests she’s probably the first and last person anyone at NTS goes to in a technical crisis.
She has been in post at the NTS for five years, although before that she was a freelance production manager for roughly two decades, and has been involved with the NTS since its formation in 2006. “Weirdly enough, when it started Vicky [Featherstone, founding artistic director] employed me to buy the office tables and chairs, and to put in the computer and phone system,” says Swallow.
What was your first non-theatre job?
A newspaper run when I was a kid.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Box office assistant at Belfast Festival, 1979.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Get another skill so you can make some money.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Jo Beddoe, whom I worked with at 7:84. She had a huge theatre background, a lot of experience and wisdom, and she gave me a preparation for what was to come and how to deal with it all.
If you hadn’t gone into the theatre, what would you have been?
I wanted to be a doctor, because my dad was a doctor.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
When the company launched soon after, she was production-managing the ambitious launch event, Home – 10 site-specific works across Scotland held over the same weekend. Before she came on board full-time, she was also one in a series of production managers who handled the NTS’ huge hit Black Watch amid its lengthy international run.
Born in London, Swallow moved to Belfast aged three when her father’s job as a doctor took them there – she stayed until she was 21, though the accent doesn’t appear to have stuck. “It was a very musical house,” she remembers. “We had a lot of people passing through and staying with us, who had very close connections to the Belfast Festival.”
She got a box-office job there, then moved over to marketing, and it was then that she experienced “that moment when you know you really want to work in theatre” – watching the Liverpool Everyman’s touring version of Trafford Tanzi. When her boss moved to Wildcat Theatre in Glasgow, Swallow was convinced to follow. “I didn’t know much about Scotland, but I realised that Glasgow was very similar to Belfast in feeling and in friendliness, so it felt quite natural to move,” she says. “The socialist agitprop of Wildcat was a brilliant way to start out, with the ambidextrousness of everybody who worked on that, and the talent of the performers and staff.”
This was 1982, and very soon Swallow swapped the office for backstage, taking a job as an assistant stage manager. Within a few years, she made the jump to production manager on the low-key first version of Tony Roper’s The Steamie, which later became a big hit of Scottish stage and screen. In 1989, she moved over to the equally political 7:84, where she met her mentor, the late Jo Beddoe.
Her experience on Jim Cartwright’s Road, directed by David Hayman and starring Gerard Kelly, was also a big influence. “The set was wood, but it was made to look like steel girders,” she says. “I remember touring this, the one-day fit-ups, putting this massive structure in a village hall. It was the first time I’d felt that power of transforming a space, of making it into something different. You came into the space and thought: ‘Wow, what is that?’”
In 1992, she was employed by Complicite’s The Street of Crocodiles as it left the National Theatre in London and headed to Sydney on tour, and she left Glasgow, also working for a year on tour with Stomp. “I didn’t think I would ever do ‘London time’,” says Swallow now, “but I did… only eight or nine years and that was enough. I came back in 2000 for the peace and quiet of Glasgow.” It’s a journey she sees many others making now, and she worries that perhaps the wages or opportunities aren’t good enough in Scotland – but then she also sees older technicians coming back with new experience that can be put to good use. Otherwise, she says, it’s important in her job to be smart with declining budgets, and to think about the environment.
“It’s one of the biggest problems, actually,” she says. “I’m our green champion and I’m thinking a lot about carbon footprint, it’s going to become a big thing [in terms of legislation]. We’re about to do a production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, which I’m trying to make as carbon-neutral as possible. We’ve built the set completely out of old sets, there are bits of [past NTS shows] Black Watch, Dunsinane, In Time o’ Strife and A Christmas Carol in there.”
I’m slightly addicted to the stress of the job, but the constant changing scenery is the buzz
Lunch is nearly over, and Swallow just has time to think of the perks of her job. “I’m slightly addicted to the stress of it, but the constant changing scenery is the buzz,” she says, looking around her. “I love this – when it’s coming together and you walk into a space that’s half-built and you can see how beautiful it’s going to be. You can see a bit of magic beginning to happen.”
Born: 1961, London
• The Steamie, Wildcat Theatre Company (1987)
• Road, 7:84 (1989)
• The Street of Crocodiles, Complicite and National Theatre, touring (1992)
• Home, National Theatre of Scotland (2006)
• Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland, touring (2010)
• Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, National Theatre of Scotland (2015)
The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil tours from May 16-June 22. Details at: nationaltheatrescotland.com