Terry Grimley hears how a wee theatre company is reflecting Scotland's new self-confidence.


Ian Johnstone, co-founder of Scottish theatre company Wee Stories, is co-author and co-director of its latest show.

He also wrote the music for it and plays the title role of a cruel and vain laird ruling over a mythical Scottish island.

So when I called him at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh to talk about The Emperor's New Kilt, a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's famous cautionary tale and the first co-production between Wee Stories and the National Theatre of Scotland, Icould be pretty confident that I was addressing the organ-grinder.

"It's funny, that," he says, when I refer to his conspicuous versatility. "When you're a kid you're encouraged to do all these things and nobody finds that aproblem. And then when you start a career people want to categorise you and put you in a box. But I've been doing this for 25 years and I've reached the point where people realise you can do all that stuff."

Wee Stories, which Iain founded and runs in partnership with Andy Cannon, have become familiar visitors to Warwick Arts Centre, where The Emperor's New Kilt runs from June 4-7, over the last few years.

Their success, he points out, owes something to the fact that the Scottish Arts Council has been investing heavily in work for children over the last 20 years.

"People who came with their kids to the company eight years ago are still in the audience, but now they come without the kids. We're not stuck in a ghetto of kids' theatre."

But as everyone who specialises in working for children will testify, Johnstone says that it is a demanding audience which keeps you on your toes.

"You are kept honest by the audience, because you can't assume that people are go-ing to look at a stage and find it interesting. Kids vote with their feet on toilet visits, and it means you're very responsive to what audiences tell you.

"Andy and I, because we're writing the work, keep changing it. If something happens with an audience we don't have to get a writer or director to change it. There was a thing that Peter Brook used to do in Paris: there was a local primary school where he used to try out the work, and he used to sit there and watch the kids watching the show."

Wee Stories' blend of storytelling, comedy and music suddenly seems part of a remarkable Scottish theatre renaissance - particularly with its new link-up with the National Thea-tre of Scotland, which in a mere two years of existence has made an extraordinary impact. Its international hit Black Watch, which has played as far afield as New York, Los Angeles, New Zealand and Australia since its debut at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival in 2006, had its English premiere at Warwick Arts Centre last month.

"I think there's a taste in Scotland for non-fourth-wall theatre," Johnstone suggests. "That comes through the roots of variety and music hall and pantomime.

"It's probably significant that our national bard was a poet, not a playwright. There isn't a long tradition of theatre in Scotland, so it's very much an evolving thing. For years we did a pale imitation of English theatre, but in the last few years we've been trying to work out what makes theatre in Scotland different. One of the things is that audiences like actors turning round and speaking to them."

The new self-confidence in theatre seems to reflect a new political self-confidence since devolution.

"I have a mate who came back after 15 years and he said Edinburgh now feels like the capital of a small European country. The political agenda is different, I suppose the culture is changing. I think we were very insular for a number of years "It's also that Vicky [Featherstone] is a brilliant director of the National Theatre. It's never mattered that she's not Scottish. It means you can look at things anew and not have the usual suspects doing endless history shows about James I and Robert the Bruce, which is what we all feared the National Theatre would be."

On the other hand, Johnstone argues that the English should see it as a good thing that devolution is forcing them to define themselves more closely.

"I think it's a really positive thing that English are having to think about their identity. England is a fantastic multicultural society - one of the most successfully integrated countries you will get anywhere in the world. Scotland doesn't have anything like that. My wife is black, and I can tell you, if you're black and you go to the Scottish Highlands you will get looked at."

The great attraction of working with the National Theatre of Scotland is that it opens up possibilities that would otherwise lie beyond the reach of a small company, he says.

"We need that kind of backing to do a large-scale tour. We're an Edinburgh company but the administration of the National Theatre is based in Glasgow. There's no theatre base, no large institution, so the money is spent on making the work you see on stage.

"We're doing another project with the National Theatre in the autumn, and we're previewing that in Shetland."

Our conversation had moved quickly from a wee story to big themes of national identity, so I asked him to run past me again why The Emperor's New Kilt was worth turning out for.

"It's very funny, it's a fantastic night out, and it's also a show that's about something. It's about people making up their own minds.

"That's where Hans Christian Andersen is very clear. It's about something without being preachy or a polemic. It's that thing which is hard to see - a great night out for everybody."

* Wee Stories present The Emperor's New Kilt at Warwick Arts Centre from June 3-7 (Box office: 024 7652 4524).