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National Theatre of Scotland’s Jackie Wylie: Our European cultural identity has made us a nation of creative ground-breakers

Highlights from Dear Europe, clockwise from top left: Second Citizen by Angus Farquhar, Louise Ahl and Ruairí Ó’Donnabháin in A Good Start Is Half the Work; Cadaver Police in Quest for Aquatraz Exit; Tam Dean Burn and Rachel Newton in Aquaculture Flagshipwreck. Photos: Drew Farrell
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As voters head to the polls, the National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director Jackie Wylie celebrates European and Scottish theatre’s shared history and argues we need to fight for continued cultural collaboration

In March, the National Theatre of Scotland hosted a one-off event designed to reflect the issues thrown up by our then anticipated departure from the European Union. Nearly two months on, we are still members of the EU, we are being invited to vote in the European elections on May 23 and Brexit has been delayed until October 31.

At NTS, we commissioned a group of adventurous theatre-makers to create six cross-art form pieces exploring their individual relationships with Europe, as well as responding to the current political situation we are facing.

The National Theatre of Scotland is a theatre without walls; rather than having a theatre building of our own we take our work to wherever audiences are to be found. As a result, everything we do is inherently collaborative, and we are free to define theatre however we want.

There is no doubt that current events have strengthened our pride in, and given new meaning to, our without-walls model. As the building of new walls, real and symbolic, feels like an increasing feature of political life we strive to break down and reach across barriers in all that we do.

It allowed us to respond to Brexit in a uniquely creative way through our Dear Europe event, which was hosted in SWG3, an industrial event and club space in Glasgow.

Our itinerant status and potential to pop up in non-traditional spaces lends itself to this kind of playful and provocative presentation. The event was driven by artists, which allowed for multiple perspectives and ideas. There was both a sense of urgency and solidarity to the evening that felt unique to a company like the National Theatre of Scotland.

But why did it feel so important for us to tackle such a complicated and impassioned area? As a national theatre we must never take one political position. Our founding principle is to be a ‘theatre for everyone’, and to take one position would inevitability exclude those who don’t share these beliefs. But we also have a responsibility to instigate debate, igniting civic discussion through the artistic voices that we enable and encourage. We generate discussion on a national level through the artists that we support, and the boldness of the questions they might ask.

Scotland has long-standing cultural ties with Europe, and celebrates its outward-facing relationship to the rest of the world. The relationship between theatre in Scotland, Europe and beyond has two watershed moments: the creation of the Edinburgh International Festival in a post-war climate, the same climate in which the EU itself was created, and Glasgow’s transformative status as European Capital of Culture in 1990.

Glasgow 1990 catalysed the idea of ourselves as European. The exposure to international artists like Peter Brook and Robert Lepage shaped subsequent generations of Scottish artists, and transformed audience expectations of what theatre could offer.

National Theatre of Scotland associate director Stewart Laing says: “I’ve always been influenced by European theatre – going to the Citizens Theatre and the EIF as a teenager I would go so far as to say that I had an idea of what European theatre was before I encountered Scottish theatre or English theatre.”

Telegraph and Sunday Herald critic Mark Brown argues in his recently published book Modern and Scottish Theatre: A Revolution on Stage that since the 1960s, Scottish theatre has been profoundly influenced and transformed by its relationship to its European counterparts.

Since joining the National Theatre of Scotland, I have spent a great deal of time contemplating exactly what a Scottish cultural identity might be. I realise where I am most comfortable is in what we have given to the rest of the world: Scotland is a nation of innovators and inventors, from historical breakthroughs in technology and industry to the current emerging trends in the digital and gaming industry. We are a nation of ground-breakers.

I wonder if this approach – radical risk-taking leading to further progress – also ties into our European cultural identity? You can see this in the children’s theatre Scotland produces: the Imaginate Festival, for example, presents incredible work from all over Europe. But at the same time it develops Scottish work that challenges the form and our expectation of what children’s theatre can and should be, and tours it globally to huge acclaim.

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At the National Theatre of Scotland, we continually explore the meaning and responsibility within the ‘national’ part of our name. Our primary commitment will always be to support, celebrate and amplify the voices of home-grown Scottish talent. We also have a responsibility to celebrate our diversity. There is not one fixed national identity that our work must uncover and promote, but rather there are multiple Scottish identities.

Our Scottishness is of course made up of the many European communities who have chosen to live and work here. At Dear Europe, the number of European voices made it so special.

Nima Séne and Daniel Hughes’ three-screen film, Moving Through Shadows, juxtaposed the everyday experience of people of colour in Poland with the Polish community in Scotland. There was a community chorus of women and non-binary European migrants, and a remarkable appearance by Nigerian-Polish singer Ifi Ude.

The night also featured A Good Start Is Half the Work, a collaboration between Nic Green and Ireland’s Ruairí Ó’Donnabháin that focused on Ireland’s ‘special relationship’ with the UK, and the role the contested UK/Ireland Border has played in the current Brexit debate.

The form of theatre within Dear Europe also contributed to the sense of internationalism. The works borrowed from live art practice, visual theatre and immersive experiences, playing fast and loose with the meshing of art forms.

Thanks to the diversity of the artists involved, the event blended a kind of European experimentalism with elements of Scottish variety and vaudeville, transforming it into a fascinating dialogue about our collective Europeanness.

In the vast majority of cases, exposure to other international influences can only have a positive impact on artists and broader home cultures. We define ourselves – our identities, an accumulation of transformative cultural experiences – as individuals, then rippling outwards as communities, and outwards further still to our sense of national cultural identity. If these experiences include exposure to new global perspectives, then the result is more complex versions of ourselves and of our nations.

Dear Europe ultimately provided a positive vision for the future – one where we are shaped by our cultural connections to the rest of the world. There is an enduring urgency in our need for collisions between the local and international, the local and the universal. We need to fight for the expansive thinking that comes from the global exchange of ideas and concepts.

Jackie Wylie is artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Details: nationaltheatrescotland.com

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