"I AM hoping the whole event will give a boost to the general feeling in the area – a lively cultural scene is something which is really good for people in a lot of different ways.”

Matthew Zajac (below) is the artistic director of Dogstar Theatre Company and one of the people behind SPARK, the Highlands’ new play festival. Running from Thursday until Sunday, Dogstar, in partnership with Eden Court Theatre in Inverness and Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, the new event will boast 14 local playwrights, eight directors and more than 20 actors in curated ceilidhs, scripted and scratch sessions.

I caught up with Zajac to understand how it all came about. He said: “It is a culmination of Covid and a notable presence of young people who are trying to make some kind of career in theatre in Inverness.

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“That is mainly because of a theatre and production course at the University of the Highlands and Islands. The pandemic attracted more people to live in the Highlands, among them some arts professionals, as the vast majority of auditioning takes place through self-tape auditions.

“Actors are asked to video on their phones a scene or a couple of scenes and then send them off and that makes it less vital to be based in the metropolitan centres.”

Of the university course, Zajac said: “There was nothing like that when I was a student. When I was that age there was no professional theatre or professional theatre produced in the Highlands except when Eden Court opened in 1976, It had a theatre in education company which only lasted three years.”

Zajac’s own company, Dogstar has lasted much longer, which is surprising “because if you tour professional theatre around the Highlands and Islands it is not a commercial proposition, so it has to have a degree of subsidy.

“Dogstar is probably one of the longest surviving. Funding, as I was to discover, has always been a challenge.”

Zajac also spoke about how the festival is likely to support locally based creatives, saying: “We have never tried to solicit scripts, although the company is committed to commissioning, producing and touring new plays. I still receive unsolicited scripts and have a little cache of these. There is never a shortage of ideas, just a shortage of resources to realise them.

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“Eden Court now has a senior producer, Susannah Armitage, to work with the local artistic and the wider theatre communities. We both had a little collection of plays and have collated the play-reading sessions from those. Scratch sessions had an open call. The response was much bigger than I expected. We are working with eight writers for the scratch sessions.”

There has not been room for every submission, as Zajac explained: “There were quite a few submissions we would like to have included. We just didn’t have the capacity.

“It’s good that there are all these people trying to write plays in the region. I hope it acts as a spark to generate more theatre production. I had been reluctant to put on an event like this because we are really lacking resources to put on shows, produce plays, tour productions. The fact is that arts funding in the UK is proportionally lower than with our European counterparts. Scandinavia, Belgium, France, Ireland have substantially more arts funding than the nations in the UK. We are talking about tiny amounts of public expenditure.

“I was delighted when Humza Yousaf pledged to double Creative Scotland’s funding within five years. That will make an enormous difference, going up from 0.5% [of public expenditure] to around 1%.

"In most European countries it is well over 1%. We are getting a bit closer.”

Zajac likes debates and has organised in the festival at least one ceilidh in which to host it. “The ceilidhs are more in the original form where people are coming round to your house, having a few tunes, telling a few stories, having a bit of a craic. We are having two.

“One is Gaelic and Scots orientated, and the other is a celebration of the Market Bar in Inverness on Saturday night. A tiny bar in the Victorian marketplace in Inverness built for British government soldiers after the ‘45 rebellion, it has had live music in it for more than 50 years.”

And the debate may be fierce. “People are very scared to have discussions about what is good art and bad art whereas I don’t really care! Maybe that is one of the reasons why I am a fairly marginalised figure,” Zajac said.

He went on: “The [Creative Scotland] touring fund has a huge amount of competition and we are a company with a very strong track record. Prior to 2019 you would struggle to find a company that did as much touring both in and out of Scotland as Dogstar.

“That has had no effect on the touring fund and the first six rounds of their deliberations, because we got turned down for every single one of those. Only in the last few weeks have we succeeded in getting a grant from that fund. Hopefully things will change.”

And as for change, by the end of their intense weekend, Zajac is hopeful that he can “take on some of these projects and get some productions out of them”. He said: “I have applied for some money for an 18-month programme based on what comes out of this festival for script development, but that does not involve any production at all.”

With such a range of events on offer – much of it BSL interpreted and livestreamed free of charge – this new cultural fixture seems to be doing far more than just ticking a box: well worthy of anyone’s 1%.

For details of the programme visit eden-court.co.uk/spark-festival