From the traditional to the controversial, Shakespeare to pantomime, Glasgow has a rich history of theatre and countless theatrical connections. With Edinburgh and its festivals just a short trip away, an envious collection of theatrical venues and theatre companies within its bounds, and uniquely Glaswegian audiences, this really is a city of and for theatre lovers.
Some of Glasgow’s most prestigious and magnificently designed theatres have been in operation for more than a century. The Theatre Royal Glasgow, Scotland’s oldest and longest-running theatre, opened its doors in 1867. Though it has played host to all manner of performance, from plays to pantomimes, it is currently performance home to Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet. In 1904, the Pavilion Theatre, famed for its annual panto, opened its doors on Renfield Street and the King’s Theatre was established on Bath Street.
As well as the old guard of theatrical institutions, Glasgow is also home to some relative newcomers and even a few troublemakers. The Tron Theatre was established in 1981, though the building is a former church built in the sixteenth century. Having survived brushes with fire (more on this later) and periods of disuse, today the Tron is a renowned producing and receiving house for new writing with a buzzing bar.
The wild child of Glasgow theatre, at least for a time, the Citizens Theatre was founded by James Bridie in 1943. In many ways a founding father of Glasgow theatre, Bridie also founded the Glasgow College of Dramatic Art, the first Drama department of what would become the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In the 1970s the Citz frequently courted controversy while delivering boundary-pushing theatre in the heart of the Gorbals, causing particular outrage with a production of Hamlet starring RCS alum David Hayman. As well as Hayman, the starry list of actors who have trod the board at the Citz ranges from Pierce Brosnan to Alan Rickman.
But Glasgow’s theatre culture is not simply composed of illustrious history and imposing architecture, it is contemporary, vibrant and above all, composed of extraordinary individuals – as proven by the city’s vast web of theatre companies and producers active today.
The National Theatre of Scotland has its home at Rockvilla in Glasgow’s post-industrial north but has no dedicated performance venue. The self-styled “theatre without walls” has instead toured its productions – such as Gregory Burke’s Iraq war drama Black Watch which has, over several iterations, starred RCS alumni including Jack Lowden and Emun Elliott. True to this credo, amid the pandemic, NTS presented Hannah Lavery’s reflection on racism in Scotland, Lament for Sheku Bayoh via livestream.
Operating out of the West End’s Òran Mór, A Play, a Pie and a Pint has “changed the landscape of Scottish theatre”, according to The Guardian, by staging 35 new plays a year – more than any other UK theatre – and throwing in lunch and a refreshment with the price of the ticket.
The Scottish Youth Theatre, Scotland’s national youth theatre company since 1976, provides young people from ages 3-25 with training and performance opportunities in theatre. Many of its patrons and alumni have also passed through the RCS, such as Tony Curran, Colin McCredie and Billy Boyd.
It can’t be denied that Glaswegians love to laugh, and particularly at ourselves. Glasgow-set comedies have achieved broad success, providing big laughs while also delving into the psyche of the city.
Perhaps best-known is Tony Roper’s The Steamie, in which a group of Glasgow women wash their clothes in a 1950s washhouse (the titular “steamie”) while discussing their lives. The play, one of Glasgow’s most beloved, was first performed by a cast including RCS alumna Elaine C. Smith in the 1980s. The nostalgic and often poignant portrait of post-war Glasgow was revived in 2019 with RCS alumni Mary McCusker and Harry Ward.
Glasgow’s slightly more genteel, east coast sister city Edinburgh becomes a global stage every August in the phenomenon known broadly as “the Festival” or “the Fringe”. This explosion of cultural activity is in fact made up of a complex eco-system of separate organisations running simultaneous arts festivals. If this all sounds just a little bit complicated, luckily for the author of this piece, theatre is largely presented at the two major festivals: the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
RCS’s theatrical talent is well represented across the Edinburgh Festivals. With both current students and alumni presenting work, there are so many RCS performers that we need a whole other website to keep up with what they are doing. And often, what they are doing is succeeding wildly – in 2019, CPP graduate Leyla Josephine won the Summerhall Autopsy Award with her Fringe show Daddy Drag.
For over a decade, our Musical Theatre department has presented work, both new and established, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Last year, the department delivered three shows. Based on the feel-good movie, Legally Blonde the Musical brought big laughs and an empowering message, deservedly earning rave reviews – “What, like it’s hard?” However, the students also delivered two accomplished pieces of new work, Limbo: City of Dreams and Limbo: The Twelve, in partnership with the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University, Illinois.
Recently, we delved into some of our favourite RCS productions at the Edinburgh Festivals.
Did you know?
- The Citizens Theatre is widely believed to be haunted, with patrons and employees alike reporting sightings of ghosts including a monk and a strawberry seller girl. Before the iconic Gorbals building closed for refurbishment in 2018, paranormal enthusiasts even had the opportunity to take a ghost tour of the building.
- In 1793, the Tron Theatre’s building and spire, then home to a church, were nearly destroyed by the Hellfire Club, a debauched and secretive drinking club for men of high society.
- The majestic King’s Theatre was designed by famed architect Frank Matcham who specialised in theatres and designed, among others, the Hackney Empire, the London Palladium and the Victoria Palace.
- In the early days of the Pavilion Theatre, it was host to music hall artists and performers including the then-unknown Charlie Chaplin. However, in 1911 it was the theatre’s failure to attract Sarah Bernhardt that made history, as they offered her an eye-watering fee equivalent to $50,000 a week in today’s money – a world record for a star of any gender at the time.
Featured image © KK Dundas, RCS