21 May 2006 Scotland on Sunday

Cast of thousands aim to transform lives

Interview with Simon Sharkey

HERE'S AN experiment. Imagine you took four areas in Scotland - say East Lothian, Fife, North Ayrshire and East Ayrshire - and you gave local people the chance to put on a show. The starting point would be the same: they'd be given professional support, they'd be expected to produce a piece of outdoor theatre with up to 400 participants and it'd be known as Transform because of the effect it would have on actors and audiences. Beyond that, the subject matter and style would be up to them.

Wouldn't it be interesting to see how their responses varied and how differently the shows turned out? It would indeed and the proof's already here. Transform is a real project initiated by the National Theatre of Scotland and amounting to arguably the biggest event of its kind ever seen in Scotland, if not the UK: a total of 1000 participants and the involvement of 20 schools and four local authorities.

The four site-specific productions, taking place over the next month and all free, couldn't be more different. In Fife, 300 people are looking at the region's black-and-white history of coal and salt production in a spectacular performance in Methil Dock No 3 that features puppetry, a pipe band, singers, drummers, BMX biking, mineshafts, mazes and a firework display, all infused with the poetic spirit of James Bridie.

In Ardrossan, the people of North Ayrshire are gathering to present a multimedia performance, featuring skateboarders, video installation and graffiti art in a marquee on the site of the Three Towns Motor Project, an ex-bus depot that's now a training centre for young mechanics.

In neighbouring East Ayrshire, they're harking back to the wave of migration to New Zealand for a cross-cultural performance that draws on the power of the Maori's kapa haka dance traditions. They promise the unlikely juxtaposition of a Maori face-off and the Dalmellington Brass Band.

Completing this remarkable collage, the people of East Lothian are blending myth and reality by referring back to local heroes Black Agnes and John Muir and taking the audience on a trip that involves installations in shop windows, a virtual tour through the depths of Dunbar Vaults, live music, dance and a battle.

Sitting in the NTS offices in central Glasgow, associate director Simon Sharkey is delighted by a level of imagination that's already exceeded his expectations. "They're really big ambitious projects that are genuinely from their responses," he says.

Sharkey, formerly artistic director of Cumbernauld Theatre, is responsible for NTS Learn, the division of the new company dedicated to "opening up great theatre experiences" to as many people as possible. His motto is that "you can't be creative without learning and that you can't learn without being creative", a philosophy that makes him a central pillar of the organisation and not just the man in charge of some peripheral community wing.

"There's always a danger that you can be ticking boxes and saying, yes, this is about social inclusion, employability, self-esteem," he says. "It is all of these things, but it is also some of the most cutting-edge theatre that I've ever been involved in, because when audiences and participants aren't that well versed in how you're supposed to behave, their reactions are much more honest, exciting, vibrant and urgent."

Linking in with the Scottish Executive's Schools of Ambition programme, Sharkey has focused each production on one school fed by a cluster of primary schools and a couple of community groups. "Out of that we'd create what in old-fashioned terms you'd call a community play," he says. "But this is totally 21st century because it also incorporates exhibitions, web media, DVDs - all built around a shared experience. All of that is celebrated in a big event which transforms the environment, the school ethos and people's perceptions of each other."

As someone who started off as community participant at the old Glasgow Arts Centre, taking parts alongside the unknown Robert Carlyle and Caroline Paterson, Sharkey knows first hand about the transformative power of community theatre. His commitment to the job is not theoretical, but borne of experience and he loves to watch other people go through a similar process. He saw it most recently when the NTS collaborated with TAG theatre company on a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible in which nine professional actors were joined by a different cast of amateurs in each of five theatres.

"The community casts feel so much ownership," he says. "It's a phenomenon. Towards the end of the run, all the casts came down to Irvine to support the last community cast. It was brilliant."

It does take some readjustment, however, to accept that a national theatre has any business putting non-professionals on a stage. Audiences have quickly accepted the idea that the NTS has no building or company of its own and that its work is as likely to crop up on a ferry boat in Lerwick as in a grand theatre in Edinburgh. But it takes a further shift in expectations to allow the idea that not only do some NTS shows have no red carpet, no chandeliers and no ex-pat Hollywood star in the lead, but also they might feature a cast made up entirely of people like you and your neighbours.

For at least one actor I spoke to recently, this is a policy that defeats the idea of the NTS as something to which a professional should aspire. It's as daft, he said, as getting your favourite aunt to sing for Scottish Opera just because she could hold a tune.

Of course, many NTS productions have no amateur involvement and you have only to look at the organisation's eleven nominations for the forthcoming Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland to see that standards have been high from the start.

But, as Sharkey argues, we're missing the mark when we make high art/low art, professional/amateur distinctions. All we have is a range of theatrical experiences, some of them good, some of them not, and as long as we're sensitive to the context, we can get just as much from watching amateurs on Dunbar High Street as we can professionals in a plush Victorian theatre.

"I don't make the distinction because of the range of experiences you can have in a theatre," he says. "Even the same production can be guff one night and brilliant the next. It all depends on the atmosphere and the context. The National Theatre is putting such a big investment into learning and outreach not to tick boxes, but genuinely to find out what people's creative impulse is and to give them the forums to participate as equal partners - artists and audiences - in what a genuine national theatre should be. Otherwise you're excluding a huge swathe of the population.

"Our job is to ensure that the participants are aspiring to something and exceeding it - and that audiences are having their expectations exceeded as well. Where there's ambition, we empower people to raise their aspirations. Where there's a lack of resources, we can bring innovation. The great thing already is that people are gathering around these ideas and becoming self-sustaining. I'm hoping people are going to see the top-notch work that's being done by the NTS and feel they're part of it."

The Three Towns Motor Project, Central Avenue, Ardrossan, North Ayrshire, May 22, 5pm and 7pm; Methil Dock No 3, Fife, May 26 and May 27, 9pm; Doon Valley, East Ayrshire, June 22 (time tbc); Dunbar, High Street, East Lothian, June 24, 3pm

© Mark Fisher 2006

This is a sample caption