The first book published in our ‘Lost Institutions’ series, it focuses on the early years of the legendary Glasgow theatre in the words of the actors who made it happen, collected and introduced by Raymond Burke. It was part of a thrilling scene says Folosa Melville in review.
The 90s were a heyday in Scottish Theatre. It’s a bit before my time but the burgeoning spirit of young homegrown actors and independent groups – Raindog, Wiseguys, Stellar Quines, Tangerine, Annex etc – is legendary. It was evidently a thrilling scene to behold, and leaves a legacy marbled through all levels of performing arts at home and abroad until this day. As with all sudden irruptions of creative activity, the precise sources, causes and enablers of that flourishing are complicated and difficult to pin down. Among the many factors that counted must be considered: the mass unemployment of the late 80s and thus relatively easy possibility for creatives to claim benefits while they worked on projects; the opening up of many arts and cultural centres with drama programmes, most notably the Glasgow Arts Centre on Washington Street; the success and growth of theatre festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe and Mayfest; and the springing up of many new alternative theatre spaces -and stages – for performance (and where homegrown acts were encouraged) like Cottiers, The Tron, The Tramway, the studio spaces in the Traverse and the Citizens, the Theatre Workshop, the Third Eye, the Gilded Balloon and so on. By the late nineties, however, funding and benefits were a lot more difficult to obtain, and theatres seemed to be reverting to less grassroots-nourishing and more professionalised models: hosting big touring companies from elsewhere in their spaces and relying on corporate sponsorship and marketing for success.
Grassroots culture and history is often forgotten or ignored or buried over by the powerful mainstream culture whose very foundations it may have helped to build. That’s why this new book, edited by Raymond Burke is a vital tool in understanding the role played by homegrown, independent talent and institutions. It allows us to pose really important questions about the role of grassroots operations in their relation to the mainstream. Where does the independent activity end and the mainstream take over, organise and dominate? Do they ever, in fact, meet, and what are the modes of their engagement, collaboration, mutual benefit, communications? How and why, and with what success (whatever that may mean…) do some individual players and groups negotiate the passage from one to the other (e.g. Tony Curran, Bobby Carlyle, Caroline Paterson), and how does their experience of grassroots affect the mainstream into which they move? What does it mean that others choose to stay on in the homegrown, grassroots environment and shun the brighter lights (and bigger wage packets) of the professionalised mainstream?
The Arches as a building (in the undercroft of Central Station) and as a theatre space and group was evidently one of the most exciting, central and vibrant and at the same time off-the-wall and unpredictable players in the Bakhtinian carnival that was the 90s scene. Converted to a dark windowless exhibition space as part of the 1990 Glasgow: European City of Culture festival (another very important festival in this grassroots explosion) , it was taken over after the festival by the actors and the go-ahead, maverick director Andy Arnold (now director of the Tron Theatre).
The rambling, anecdotal, open style of this book may, in some ways, reproduce the anarchic atmosphere of those heady days of Scottish Theatre in the 90s, and the retailing of actors’ adventures has a definite ‘feel the love’ tone, at times verging on the ecstatic. Yet, there is, as they say, method in the madness. For if there are two basic types of historiographic styles – the chronicle and the archeological – then this punchy little volume employs them both to vital effect. The main part of the book is taken up with the chronicle from the panto horse’s mouth, as it were. The actors tell their own stories, anecdotes and jokes about their involvement in the Arches; the personalities, the plays, the back and front staging of it all. Meanwhile Burke has also done an enormous amount of archeological work in terms of researching, sourcing and seeking out artefacts – posters, tickets, bills, reviews and newspaper articles – while also engaging the help and collaboration of those involved in official photography and documentation.
In many ways, this book stands as a necessary complement to Brickwork the story of the nightclub The Arches, that was reviewed in The Drouth by Neil Cooper. The relation between the club (which started up in the venue after the theatre was born) and the theatre itself, is not so much contested, as a sort of energised and creative rivalry. Burke’s book brings us a picture of the origins and initial creative impulses of the whole institution, where Brickwork perhaps shows us more of the further, later development, and alas, its tragic end.
Particularly important in making that missing history palpable is that work from the wonderful archives of photographers Alan Wylie, and Melanie Sims are included in Burke’s volume. This book is also distinguished by its highlighting of the particular characters of so many of the people who worked to make The Arches a special place. It acknowledges, for example, the immensely talented Grant Smeaton, who not only appeared in countless Arches shows over the years, but also chose and directed many plays for the company. His presence and artistic direction were mainstays of the Arches style in its early days. The book is a warts ’n’ all tale of the good and bad sides of starting a theatre. It is nostalgic, proud, critical and entertaining. It begins with the theatre’s beginnings surrounded by the failing Glasgow’s Glasgow exhibition and follows the punk adventure of refitting the dilapidated space to what would eventually become an internationally recognised arts venue. And it is all told by the actors who worked tirelessly for years, performing and pilfering to keep the place going. Despite the fact that the actors don’t hold back when it comes to telling their stories, it all ends on a very positive note with the contributors paying homage and thanks to the Arches impresario, Andy Arnold.
The first two photographs here are by Alan Wylie, the following two photographs are by Melanie Sims