Interview: Jackie Wylie – 'Scottish theatre is in a confident position to make bold artistic choices'
National Theatre of Scotland's new Artistic Director on the Arches, exploring news forms of theatre, and love for Scottish culture over national identity
When Jackie Wylie was announced as the new Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland earlier this week, the reaction appeared to be an outpouring of surprise and relief from Scotland's theatre community. Surprise, because Wylie, the role's third incumbent since the NTS' founding a decade ago, was a departure from her predecessors Vicky Featherstone and Laurie Sansom; neither a stage director nor an appointment sourced from a theatre production house elsewhere in the UK. A relief, because the former Artistic Director of the Arches in Glasgow is very much a known, respected and much-liked quantity in these parts.
Wylie had known for barely a week that the job was hers when it was announced. It's obviously far, far too early to talk about the specifics of what she intends to do, but it's easy to see how she convinced the board to select her over a longlist which apparently stretched to ten very strong candidates from across the UK, comprising rehearsal directors and fellow creative producers alike. She has a vision, and it's one which is both perfectly familiar with and in tune with that of the National Theatre of Scotland, and very much her own. 'I suppose my function as a creative producer is more curating the work, in collaboration with the directors I bring into the organisation,' she says. 'It's the same principle to the previous Artistic Directors, but a different way of delivering it.'
'The National Theatre of Scotland is there to empower the rest of the Scottish theatre community,' she continues. 'It's really important to remember its founding principle was to be a 'building without walls' (a company with no permanent onstage home), which was really a ground-breaking proposition. It could reach the broadest possible scope of the population of Scotland and the work wasn't concentrated in any one area, but it could also represent Scotland on a world stage. I've watched it grow and develop into a really world class organisation, and my ambitions are to continue that level of work while finding new forms of theatre, new voices, new ways of connecting with audiences – to look at new definitions of what theatre might be in the future.'
For clues as to Wylie's own take on these new definitions, you have to look at what she achieved at the Arches between taking over from its founding director Andy Arnold (now at the Tron) in 2008 and its untimely closure in 2015. Through initiatives like the Scratch night and the Arches Brick Award, it's fair to say she oversaw the most productive conveyor belt for new stage talent in Scotland during her Arches tenure; crucially, one which explored new and experimental forms of performance over the traditional play. Rob Drummond, Kieran Hurley, Nic Green, Gary McNair and the late Adrian Howells were among the artists discovered by or strongly associated with her time there, and many 'graduated' to work with the National Theatre of Scotland.
'The National Theatre of Scotland is a much broader canvas than the Arches ever was,' says Wylie. 'There are some core values around an energy to make theatre particularly exciting and relevant, especially to young audiences, but the National Theatre serves the entire population of Scotland. To do that I have to work in traditional theatre, in text-based work, in a whole range of different definitions of theatre, which is a completely different remit from the Arches. So I want to continue the brilliant work the National Theatre has done, but on top of that bring in some of the energy of the work that I've presented in the past. Hopefully it's a 'best of both worlds' situation.'
The way the Arches ended – a bitter and high-profile club licensing dispute which closed the building and cut short Wylie's work through no fault of her own – is, of course, another reason to will her on. It's also pleasing to note that even before the NTS news arrived, she has managed to resurrect some of the Arches' spirit with the Take Me Somewhere festival, debuting at Glasgow's Tramway earlier next year; she takes up her post at the NTS next spring, when Take Me Somewhere is finished.
'There's an amazing team in place at Take Me Somewhere which includes programming and producing expertise from the Arches,' she says, 'so I would hope they can find ways of continuing that work (once she's joined the NTS). Of course, I'd also hope that the National Theatre of Scotland can find ways of supporting it as well, but I need to get my feet under the table and work out how to create the broadest canvas possible, before making any commitments on how any particular sector of artists has its place. There's still a sense of loss around the Arches and I hope those artists still have opportunities to continue to make work, though.'
It feels self-consciously beside-the-point even bringing it up, but there's also the fact that Wylie is the first Scottish director of the National Theatre of Scotland. In the heated years prior to the 2014 Independence Referendum, some commentators raised the issue of why more Scots weren't in charge of the country's cultural institutions; it was a far more nuanced discussion than both sides might have allowed, but there's no doubt that Featherstone – unfairly, given her huge success in helping found the NTS and the seemingly universal love afforded her by all who worked in it – found her name embroiled in that discussion.
'Well, I would hope I was appointed because I'm the best person for the job,' says Wylie firmly. 'I have amazing connections to the Scottish theatre community, but I also have connections to the UK-wide theatre community and globally. For me that's just as important as national identity. I don't think focusing on the fact I'm a Scot is the biggest part of the National Theatre of Scotland's next journey; having a love for Scottish theatre and the successes of Scottish culture is the most important element of being Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Both of the previous directors absolutely had that in their DNA. It doesn't matter what your national identity is, what matters is how much you care about the people you're serving.'
It's not like she needs to justify herself, but she does it in emphatically confident terms. Dame Seona Reid, chair of the National Theatre of Scotland board, affirms the point. 'We were looking for the best person for the job, and we found it in Jackie. The energy and passion she brings is absolutely infectious, and we thought that could be enormously beneficial in a cultural leader, not just to theatre in Scotland but to the whole of the cultural sector. She has a very generous vision for collaborative working and working in partnership, particularly with visiting partners, and for bringing in people outwith the theatre or even the cultural sector. So we were looking at a breadth of things, and she brought them all together in a way which was utterly compelling. We thought she was the person to take the National Theatre forward into its next decade.'
At a time when public funding of the arts is a depressing subject to broach, it's reassuring to look across Scotland's theatre landscape and see, frankly, the right people getting the right jobs; people with a proven track record for outstanding creative vision and knowledge of the territory leading the big production houses. Dominic Hill is an old hand, with five years at the Citizens in Glasgow; David Greig is a hugely exciting recent appointment at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum; Andrew Panton takes up post at Dundee Rep in 2017; and now Wylie.
'It's a really, really exciting time,' says Wylie. 'Scottish theatre is in a confident position to make bold artistic choices, and to really explore what the future definitions of theatre can be. It's been incredible to see the levels of support and enthusiasm for the appointment, in a way I hadn't anticipated. People have been so thrilled. I went in to meet the team just before the announcement, I'd worked with some of them before and others are new faces, but actually to see that incredibly impressive team brought home what an opportunity it is to work with these people who have done so much already, and to take that on and try and push it up to the next level. I'm really excited about it.'