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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Monday, April 13, 2009

John Cairns interview about theatre touring

John Cairns: reviving the touring circuit

IT DOESN'T SEEM so long ago that promoters in the Highlands and Islands could pick and choose the theatre productions they programmed. Scotland had a wealth of companies dedicated to small-scale touring, allowing village halls and rural theatres to book what suited them. In recent years, however, many of those companies, such as 7:84 and Wildcat, have disappeared, while others have found their budgets no longer stretch to the extensive tours of old.

The result is that promoters are crying out for shows. Fortunately, one man has spotted the gap in the market and has come up with a way to fill it. Producer John Cairns, a mainstay of Thurso's Grey Coast, is in the process of launching Open Book, a "virtual theatre company" that will offer promoters a portfolio of productions, many of them originating from the lunchtime theatre series A Play, a Pie and a Pint at Glasgow's Oran Mor, which he hopes will bring a once vibrant circuit back to life.

He dipped his toe in the water last year with short tours of Iain Heggie's The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer and Dave Anderson's Mobile, and is convinced he can revive the touring circuit not only in the Highlands and islands, but also in the Borders and perhaps even in England and the Republic of Ireland.

Having recently organised a week-long tour for a new Heggie show, Wide Asleep, he is now bringing Djupid (The Deep) by Icelandic writer Jon Atli Jonasson to Halkirk, Skerray, Durness and Rosehall.

"Everything we've done so far people have said, 'Why can't we get more?'" he says. "Five or ten years ago people were knocking stuff back and now everybody is saying there's nothing coming."

Talking to agencies such as North Highland Connections, Shetland Arts and North East Arts Touring, as well as David MacLennan, the producer of A Play, a Pie and a Pint, Cairns is identifying suitable shows and building up a package to offer promoters.

That package, subject to negotiation, is likely to include the two shows by Heggie, The Price of a Fish Supper by Catherine Czerkawska, The Bones Boys by Colin MacDonald, Poem in October by Robert Forrest, The Waltz of the Cold Wind by Paddy Cunneen and Metrosexual by writer and comedian Sandy Nelson, who recently moved to Unst.

"We would be able to say to promoters, 'You pick, you know your audience best,'" he says. "They have that right to choose. I'm not trying to influence that choice at all; I'm just trying to get them to be able to see as much as they can."

Having identified a similar dearth in touring provision in the Borders and Ireland, Cairns is hoping to pave the way for reciprocal visits from theatre companies in those places. "The conversations have started," he says, adding that the more bookings each show gets, the more affordable it becomes.

"Everybody has said that, for example, they would like to see shows coming into the Borders, but they would also like to see stuff coming out. Ireland is exactly the same. We would love to do it because the more people see, the more they influence each other and we're not just relying on a small pool."

He does not believe he should limit the range of plays on offer to those with Highland themes ("People want to see the same things as people want to see anywhere"), but when one comes along, such as The Deep, he is excited about the connections that can be made.

"Jon Atli Jonasson is concerned about the state of Iceland and what's been going on in the banks – and he was saying those things before the credit crunch happened," he says.

"People always go on about the historic similarities and the Nordic links in Caithness, but the modern truth is that the experience of the arts in the far north of Scotland is much more similar to the way Iceland is now. There are many more links between these countries than is acknowledged. Iceland is very like Caithness in a lot of ways. There is a common cultural experience that would be very interesting to explore."

The Deep tours to Ross Institute, Halkirk, 20 April; Village Hall, Skerray, 21 April; Village Hall, Durness, 22 April; Village Hall, Rosehall, 23 April. Contact info@open-book.org.uk

© Mark Fisher, 2009

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