When Theater Hits the Road

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
By Ivelisse Estrada

Three workers, cameras mounted atop helmets, rappelled on the side of an 18-story Scottish housing complex, filming in various windows. But rather than having them arrested for peeping, a thousand people looked on from a grassy amphitheater, watching the action inside each apartment projected on the side of a giant truck.

This was Home Glasgow, directed by John Tiffany and one of 10 site-specific productions that marked the launch of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) five years ago. In February, Tiffany—the 2010–2011 Radcliffe Institute Fellow and associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland—delivered the Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in Art and the Humanities. In his talk, titled “Can We Keep Up? Theater’s Incredible Ability to Evolve,” he took the audience on a tour of his “theater without walls.”

The NTS is, quite literally, a theater without walls—and was conceived as such. Rather than spend millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art theater facility, the Scottish parliament, with input from citizens, established a touring company. “There’s something wonderfully democratic about a theater company that takes its work to the nation,” said Tiffany. In a delightfully inventive example of upcycling, many NTS productions are held in unconventional—and often disused—venues.

For a production called Hunter, 150 high school students and townspeople worked alongside company members to make the entire seaside town of Caithness their stage. Of all his productions, Tiffany said he’s most proud of this one: a treasure hunt in which the prize was the narrative. The level of audience engagement, he said, “made the performance feel not just live, but alive.”

In only five years, this band of “artistic travelers” (as Elizabeth Dyrud Lyman, assistant professor of English at Harvard and a former Radcliffe Institute fellow, described them in her introduction) have developed 135 new pieces of theater—some of which have traveled far beyond Scottish national borders.

In fact, more than half a million people on three continents have experienced an NTS production. This year alone, the production Black Watch has traveled to a dozen cities in the United Kingdom and the United States. And where Black Watch goes, critical acclaim follows. The play, based on interviews of soldiers serving in Iraq with the legendary Scottish regiment also known as the Black Watch, has won more than 20 awards and been called “one of the most richly human works of art to have emerged from this long-lived war” by the New York Times.

Part of the reason this production has been so successful since it premiered in 2006 is its nontraditional nature:
 it incorporates pageantry, song, and choreography, although it is not a musical. Tiffany believes that many different art forms push theater forward, so divisions between them should be dissolved. His vision of the theater of the future is interdisciplinary, dynamic, diverse, culture-driven, and, above all, fun.

Answering his own question about whether theater can keep up with our rapidly changing world, Tiffany said, “Abso-bloody-lutely. But can you keep up with us?” A fair question—and if his track record is any indication, keeping up with him and his national theater could be a formidable task.

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