Saturday, 31 December 2011

Strathclyde Theatre Group - Surviving The Ramshorn

When the University of Strathclyde made swingeing budget cuts earlier
this year, as is too often the case, it was the arts that suffered.
While the university faculty set its sights on becoming a technology
and innovation centre on a par with some American institutions, both
the Collins Gallery and the Ramshorn Theatre have been forced to close
their doors once the plug was unceremoniously pulled. This despite the
fact that both venues arguably had the biggest public profile of any
centres within the university.

As home to Strathclyde Theatre Group for the last twenty years, The
Ramshorn in particular connected with a world way beyond academe. Yet,
while a separate operation to the Ramshorn under the long term care of
artistic director and head of the drama department Susan S Triesman and
equally hands-on administrator Sylvia Jamieson, STG looked to have
reached its own end following the Ramshorn's closure.

With Jamieson and Triesman now retired, rather than shut up shop, STG
decreed at an emergency annual general meeting for things to be run by
an elected board. A forthcoming meeting in January, however, should see
further developments. As has already been made clear, STG have not only
survived the Ramshorn's culling, but are in the thick of reinventing
themselves amidst a swathe of activity that looks set to leave the
semi-professional company busier than ever.

Reinventing themselves as a touring company, STG have recently finished
their first post-Ramshorn production, a sell-out two-week run of Arthur
Miller's The Crucible, which played to seventeen-hundred people at the
Cottier Theatre in Glasgow's West End. As programming of this modern
classic and school syllabus favourite was a canny calling card for a
company both seeking to fund-raise and to increase its profile.

STG too have also made it to the finals of Stagestruck, a TV talent
show for Sky Arts intent on finding the best amateur theatre group in
the UK. This was a competition requiring online entry, for which STG
filmed a scene from Hamlet. Having made it to the final stages, the
company are currently being mentored by leading actress Harriet Walter,
who has been putting the company through their paces before the
programme is broadcast in 2012. Having come this far, hopes are high
for STG's success.

STG have also been involved in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Open
Stages project, whereby the RSC re-discovers their own amateur roots by
taking a look at current work in the none-professional sector. STG's
ambitious response to this is a forthcoming production of Coriolanus,
which hasn't received a home-grown production in Scotland for forty
years.

“It's all happening now,” observes Sara Harrison, the current Vice
Chair of STG, which, without a permanent home, now constitutes itself
as a roving operation with recently acquired charity status. “We
literally had to start from scratch, and it's taken a lot of time and
will from members, including having to put membership fees up, because
prior to the Ramshorn closing, the only money we got came from the
university. So we knew The Crucible wouldn't be a financial risk, and
would probably be something of a cash cow.

“STG has always prided itself on being a semi-professional company.
What we mean by that is that a lot of the members – not all – already
work in the arts, and are passionate about putting on plays. We don't
like using the word amateur, and we've always prided ourselves on
putting on work that is maybe more experimental than that. We've done
Sarah Kane's Blasted, and would rather do that sort of work than just
old plays that are out of copyright, but we do need to raise money as
well. That's been quite a strain on our resources since the Ramshorn
closure, and now we need to regroup.”

Harrison has been a member of STG for four years. Others have been with
the company since the beginning, and can recall it previously being a
touring company after being founded in 1971 as a student-based group.
Originally based in the old Drama Centre on the same street on the edge
of Merchant City as the Ramshorn, STG alumni include Siobhan Redmond,
Lost star Henry Ian Cusick and playwright and creator of River City,
Stephen Greenhorn. All of which makes for a history that Triesman,
still a member of STG's Future Productions Committee, is keen to
preserve.

“It's incredibly hard to lose your home,” she says, “let alone one like
the Ramshorn, in which a very large family who cared about theatre and
music came through. It was a place where people felt they could just
drop in to, and that often resulted in life-changing events. But what's
happened since we lost the Ramshorn is incredible. After all those
years of being in our own building and having me and Sylvia managing
things, people have taken that on board themselves.”

Triesman notes dryly that STG's original home in the old Drama Centre
is now the site of a Tesco Express, but hopes that, rather than be sold
off or redeveloped, the Ramshorn, “can become an arts centre again one
day.”

In the meantime, there is the production of Coriolanus to be getting on
with, not to mention the Stagestruck finals. A new production of
Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is also pending, while further
clout has just been added to the STG cause with the announcement of
Henry Ian Cusick and Harriet Walter as company patrons.

For the time being, at least, STG's relationship with the University of
Strathclyde looks set to continue beyond the Ramshorn debacle in terms
of provision of what would usually be hugely expensive rehearsal and
storage space. The powers that be, however, have intimated that STG
should connect more directly with the university's immediate
constituency in their existing drama club. As ever, Harrison puts a
positive spin on all of this.

“It says so much about how much talent there is in the company,”
Harrison enthuses. “We don't really like to talk about the negative
side of it anymore, because we've been through all that with the big
fight we had on our hands to keep the Ramshorn open. STG and the
Ramshorn have always been separate entities, but now we've made that
physical separation, which in some ways has been a positive thing, in
terms of reaching new audiences in new venues, but it was a struggle to
get there. The Crucible was a huge learning curve in terms of having to
deal with a new venue and everything that throws at you, but now we'd
like to see the closure of the Ramshorn as an opportunity for STG.

“It would have been easy to walk away from STG and call it quits after
the Ramshorn closed, but that's not easy. It's our heart and our love,
and we'd hate it if it had to close. The quality of the work we do is
of such a high standard, and we're like a big family, so we're not
going to let that go, no matter what.”

http://www.strathclydetheatregroup.co.uk/

The Herald, December 27th 2011

ends

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