. Scottish playwright Tom McGrath has just taken on a new, broader role in Scottish playwriting. He talked to Sarah Hemming.

These days you’ll find playwright Tom McGrath buried in a tiny

7 velvet-curtained room in the depths : of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre (‘I

move to a bigger room soon. . . !’) in

a position he must have adopted a thousand times: back to the world,

hunched pensiver over a typewriter. McGrath is well-known and well-loved, both in Scotland and further afield, for his writing (including The Hard Man, The Innocent, Animaland recently Kora), but in this case, the piles of scripts around him are not his own, and the words on which he’s working have to do not with promoting his own work, but that of other writers. With his appointment as Associate Literary Director at the Lyceum

McGrath has taken on a role 1 something akin to guardian angel of


playwriting in general throughout Scotland. It is a year’s post (building on the initial six months worked by his predecessor Sean McCarthy), with a double-pronged responsibility to the Scottish Arts Council and the Lyceum,(funded mostly by the former), and behind the dry title lies a web of possibilities and projects that McGrath himself is at pains to unravel:

‘It’s a difficult job to describe it

carries so many aspects. Associate

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Tom McGrath

Literary Director means I‘m associated with the Lyceum I deal with all the scripts that come here and all the other various back-up things I can do in relation to their programming. It’s like the traditional job in the theatre in Europe and America that’s called a dramaturg. But on the other side of it, the Arts Council side. I’ve a general remit for the whole of Scotland in relation to playwriting particularly writing for the stage, but not excluding radio and television. And there’s various sides to that. One ofthem is responding to writers, so that to every writer who submits a play I’m obliged to give a response, which ensures that all scripts are given a fair reading. IfI see any positive merit in the script, we’ll follow it up in some way.’

McGrath’s affable features curve into admirable relish at the prospect of the scale of the operation before him. His buoyancy is characteristic - and impressive but he does point out, rightly, that he is by no means working in a vacuum. Writing for the theatre in Scotland is at present at an immensely promising, and correspondingly precarious, stage. Vital, talented young writers have emerged recently to join more established figures, both supported


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by the enthusiasm and encouragement of artistic directors.

In Edinburgh and Glasgow alone, commitment to new writing is significantly evident: the Lyceum itself has recently mounted plays by Liz Lochhead and Stuart Paterson and continues the trend this autumn with a new play by Andrew Dallmeyer; the Citizens’, Glasgow has its unique dramaturg. Robert David MacDonald; the Tron’s Michael Boyd has given us new plays by Alasdair Gray, Marcella Evaristi and Peter Arnott and is pursuing a policy ofcombining visiting companies with home-grown work, while the Traverse in Edinburgh, traditional forcing-house for new playwrights, has recently produced dazzling seasons of innovative work, Jenny Killick now continuing to introduce foreign work alongside plays by young Scottish writers who are marking out new territory in British writing as a whole.

These days, however, the basic starting point for any artistic director putting on new work must be to ask what the role ofcontemporary theatre is. The fundamental question why write for theatre is one that the Traverse’s Jenny Killick avowedly puts to all potential playwrights, believing that ifthe decision to write specifically for theatre is a positive one. then the plays that follow will have the life and purpose needed to secure the future of theatre in a world of flickering screens. It is a double-sided issue concerning public and writer alike, and McGrath sees addressing the public image of playwriting as one of his aims:

‘One aspect of my job is making people more aware ofwhat the dramatist is and what his role is in society, creating a more positive view of playwrights and contemporary playwriting.

‘I don’t think it’s a good idea to construct a view which says that the world owes a playwright a living,but it is a good thing to construct a view that shows what the role and value of a playwright is to a society. And to encourage people to see the work, and appreciate the fact that it’s enjoyable, and it’s stimulating, and it’s got meaning you know?’

So where do you begin on a task of that size? Partly with the past. McGrath hopes to come to grips with the rather patchwork image of Scottish playwriting in the past: ‘I’m very concerned to get people more aware of what has been achieved in Scottish playwriting and Scottish theatre in the last twenty years. A lot of research has been done into writing from the 305 and 405, but I want to try and construct a picture of the last twenty years. I haven’t got the funding for this yet, but I’m hoping to produce a directory of Scottish playwrights just to show the amount of drama that’s been done here. Because we tend to lose a lot, and theatre being such an ephemeral form, a play can come up and just a couple of years later be forgotten about. You come to the end of the Edinburgh Festival and you watch all the bubbles fragment.’

Getting playwrights, past and

present, into print is an ambition following on from this. McGrath points out that in Jim Haynes’ day Penguin books published collected Traverse plays, but that many other plays have sunk without trace: ‘It means that Scottish playwriting, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, has been a hit and miss thing. Some ofus have been translated and produced in other countries, but there’s no concerted effort to project Scottish playwriting as a whole to the rest of the world.

‘Our tradition hasn’t visibly been orientated towards drama. Such tradition as we have has been in poetry and, to an extent. the novel. We‘ve got Bridie and Barrie in the past and the Citizens‘. In the recent past we have the history ofthe Traverse and the Lyceum, especially in the days when Bill Bryden and Richard Eyre were here. We have the plays from that time, and the Cecil Taylor and Stanley Eveling plays from the early days of the Traverse. We have Hector MacMillan, Tom Gallagher, myself, John Byrne and others like Marcella Evaristi from another stage in the Traverse’s history, and now, more recently, we‘ve got writers like Chris Hannan and John Clifford and others coming through. But what we don’t have is an Abbey Theatre. We don’t have a tradition of O’Casey, Synge, Beckett and Yeats to look back on. We don’t have independence as a nation as Southern Ireland does. We’ve always had a very difficult cultural identity problem to cope with. But if you put it all together, you do begin to get a picture ofsomething. And it’s time we put it all together,’

Lucy’s Play by John Clifford, Traverse.

McGrath himself is, of course, part ofthe picture, and he attributes success with his own plays to a determination to take on social issues. Most recently, Kora at the Traverse, a funny, gentle, yet angry play about life and survival on a depressing housing scheme, was an example of the unique sort of ‘journalism’ that drama can undertake, vividly recreating individuals’ lives: ‘I think the theatre should reflect society, and ifit does reflect a society, members of that society will come and see it.

‘At the moment I’m looking for plays about education in the last two or three years. Anybody who wants to can hit me with a play about education. I’d love to read it.’

He is adamant, however, about the