Tag Archives: Edinburgh Fringe

Heaven Blogs #??: Into the Unknown

We started our main tranche of rehearsals today. It’s been a long day, or rather the latest in a series of long days, and the words in my head refuse to arrange themselves in an orderly fashion and be typed out. We launched straight in with a very complex scene, the actors pulled out all sorts of interesting and exciting things, and I’m champing at the bit to get back into the room tomorrow and shape the material we found.

But first, emails and showers and sleep. Let’s pretend this isn’t a non-post for the sake of maintaining the blog, shall we? Look, media content! Check out this gorgeous photo of Marion Geoffray as Isobel, taken by the wonderful Chris Scott. It’s not the one I’ve been posting everywhere else, this is a blog-exclusive (not in any way a consequence of me forgetting to vary the pictures):

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Heaven Blogs #4: A post that got away from me somewhat

I’ve just spent three incredible days in the depths of the Roxy, watching characters who have existed in my head for three years starting to take shape.

I can’t pretend that I have even the least amount of chill about this. The process of making theatre blows my mind every single time, and this is the first time I’ve had the chance to work this way on one of my own scripts. I’ve watched other people direct my text, I’ve directed other people’s texts, but I’ve never been both writer and director on anything but development pieces.

Over the past few days I’ve found myself saying repeatedly that I know almost nothing about this play. That might sound like an odd thing for the writer to say, but… it’s true. Yes, I poured my research and craft and love and labour into the script. I thought I knew the characters and their motivations inside and out. Then I actually got into the room with the actors and realised how utterly wrong I was.

Letting go of the script is always nerve-wracking. I’m used to that. But when I hand it over to another director, it’s out of my hands. This time I am the director, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to assume a position of complete authority – to say “this is my text, my word on it is final, the actors’ job is to serve my vision”.

The fact that it would be easy is precisely why I don’t do it. It’s far more difficult for me to relinquish control and just trust the actors to use their instincts and intelligence… so that’s what I have to do, because I know how much I love the results this process can yield. Besides, it would do an injustice to this play if directing it were not a leap of (or into) faith.

On Monday I handed the cast over to Flav again. We’ve had a change of lineup, losing our original Isobel, which meant welcoming a new member to the team – the excellent Marion Geoffray of Theatre Sans Accents. Fortunately Marion is a veteran of the Domingues D’Avila experience, having participated in Flavia’s PhD workshops earlier this year, so she fitted right in and it has been thrilling to watch her bring her own unique qualities into the room.

I wish there was a way to describe what happens in the rehearsal room without sounding utterly wanky. Either it sounds boringly hippyish, all about grounding and breathing and repeating the same phrases over and over again, or it’s fanciful to the point of being alienating. I could write about the strange alchemy that takes place when you get the right combination of people and words and energy and music, but… does that mean anything to people who weren’t there? It’s a live performance medium. Everything that has happened these past three days is unrepeatable. It can only exist in the moment, you can’t experience it through my retelling. Even if you come and see it in performance, that will be something different. There’s no way to pin down that feeling when you see something that’s just right for the very first time, and that’s probably for the best since the act of pinning it down would kill it. We aim to create those moments in every performance, of course, but that’s still a very different thing to watching it happen in the rehearsal room – and inevitably, a different thing to seeing it through my eyes. The one thing no audience member will ever bring to this show is the years of living with Heaven Burns in their head beforehand. That’s just me.

Experiences that are impossible to capture precisely in words are infinitely frustrating. It bothers me that I can only tell you that these three days have been amazing and ask you to take my word for it. I want to make everyone who reads this understand that I’m so incredibly excited about this show, and that this script has occupied a special place in my heart for reasons that even I don’t fully understand, and that I feel tantalisingly close to making it into the thing I’ve always thought it could be. I want you to understand that these past few mornings I’ve woken up with my heart pounding with excitement at the day’s work ahead of me, and I’ve never felt that way about a show before despite having worked on many things that I’ve loved. Watching the cast making discoveries and taking me into parts of this fictional world that I hadn’t realised existed is something new and intoxicating, and I’m grateful that I have the chance to do this.

This was not how this post was going to go. The plan was to write something insightful about process and music and being in the moment. But fuck it. This is what I’ve got. I suck at marketing but I occasionally surprise myself with my capacity for candour. Come and see the show and maybe more of this will make sense, I don’t know. Come and see it because that’s how being part of the weird wanky alchemy of theatre works.

Melted

That’s me dying of warm weather on the pavement outside the Roxy on Monday, but it’s also a pretty accurate representation of how I feel right now. Knackered and collapsed but so, so happy.


Heaven Blogs #3: Domingues D’Avila’d

Time to introduce the Heaven Burns team…

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There they are! From left to right, Kirsty Eila McIntyre (Isobel), Susanna Macdonald-Mulvihill (Christian), Flavia D’Avila (movement director), Daniel Hird (understudy) and Andrew Findlater (John).

 

I’m so happy that these guys could all be involved. Kirsty, Susanna and Andrew were in the rehearsed reading back in 2015 and they were always going to have first refusal on their roles if the opportunity to stage the play ever arose. Dan is stepping in to cover a performance before he heads off to drama school. And Flavia…

 

If you know my work, chances are you’re also familiar with Flav. Artistic Director of Fronteiras Theatre Lab, director of the beautiful and award-winning show La Nina Barro, We met during our undergrad at QMU, the hell in whose flames our bond was forged, and we’ve been working together in various capacities ever since. She always encourages me to up my game and hold my nerve, and if I could work with her on every damn thing I ever do, I would.

 

This particular iteration of our working relationship, with me directing and Flavia as movement director, is new to us. At first glance, Heaven Burns probably doesn’t look like the kind of play that requires a movement director – but that’s exactly why I want one. It’s a dense, texty script that could easily slip into inert staging, so Flav’s job is to help me keep it alive and in the actors’ bodies as well as their brains. She’ll also be helping me to solve the problem of the play’s violent moments, finding a way to make them read effectively in a small space.

 

Last Monday I handed the cast over to Flavia for a workshop to introduce them to her way of working. We only had four hours together so it was a short, intensive spurt of activity, and I loved watching it. Although Flav and I ostensibly take very different approaches to our work – I’m all about the text, she’s all about the body – we share a lot of fundamental values. We both spend a lot of time at the beginning of our respective processes building up trust and rapport, encouraging actors to work on instinct and bond as a group, and we both find that this speeds up the later stages of the rehearsal process exponentially.

 

Like me, Flavia makes extensive use of music in her work. Having been in her rehearsal rooms on a few occasions, I’m always intrigued by the pieces she selects for her playlists as she guides the actors through various emotional states. They’re seldom the same songs I would have chosen, they’re often very different in tone and feel, but I can always see where she’s coming from and it’s a constant reminder of how different our cultural influences have been.

 

The actors had each been asked to bring in an object that they felt represented their character in some way. I love this exercise. It seems to make people so nervous because they know their choice makes a clear statement about how they view the character, and that’s a nerve-wracking thing to do at the beginning of the process – particularly when you’ve got the writer in the room and you’re worried that you might reveal that you’ve completely misread things. But honestly, I’ve yet to see anyone get it “wrong” – for me as a writer, what’s interesting is to find out how the actor sees the character, where and to what they connect, and to be reminded that I’m no longer the exclusive holder of knowledge about these fictional people. By the time we do this exercise, the characters are out and living in other people’s heads, being reshaped by someone else’s life experience, they’re not solely or wholly mine any more. It’s a useful exercise in humility at the best of times, but particularly when I’m directing my own writing.

 

I won’t share exactly who brought what and why, since I didn’t ask the cast if I could and I would jeopardise their trust if they thought that anything they say in the rehearsal room might end up here. What I will say is that they all made intelligent, insightful choices, and gave themselves over freely to the exercises they did with their own objects and each other’s.

 

Much of the workshop was spent exploring and responding to objects and the actors’ bodies, creating and recreating sequences of actions and finding ways to link them together and make them correspond. It’s so simple and beautiful. Nothing is choreographed, everything is generated by the actors – yet due to the combination of their instincts, the music and their prior knowledge of the text, I started catching glimpses of the characters and the dynamics between them. It’s exciting, that moment. That’s when it all starts to feel very real, and when I begin to feel certain that the show’s physical language can be found, not imposed.

 

And that, when it comes down to it, is why Flav and I work so well together. Whatever the differences in our approaches, we both believe in the actor as an artist in their own right, a contributor to the creative process rather than just a tool by which a director’s vision can be realised. We care about the process being collaborative and exploratory, rather than hierarchical. I’m excited about the work we’ll do over the next two workshops and what we’ll find during rehearsals in July. Finding the right collaborators makes the task of theatremaking far, far more rewarding and enjoyable.


Heaven Blogs #2: Prima la musica, poi le parole

Music is vitally important to my writing. The first thing I do when I start work on a new play is figure out the soundtrack – not music that will make it into the script directly (usually), but the sounds that feel like the world of the play. It’s one of my favourite parts of the process, not just because it’s useful to me creatively but because the hours that I spend searching for the right pieces always yield a ton of excellent new discoveries.

 

I start by going to YouTube and if I have a piece in mind, I look it up and start wandering through the recommended videos. If I don’t have any specific starting point in mind, I just start typing words related to the world and characters until I find something. Even when I do know which track to start with, it’s often quite abstract. I just go by intuition.

 

In the case of Heaven Burns, my starting point was a song I had heard in a café and Shazam’d – CW Stoneking’s Don’t Go Dancing Down the Darktown Strutters’ Ball. Why that piece? Not a clue. That song didn’t end up on the soundtrack, it just led me to other things that did. The first was another CW Stoneking track, The Love Me or Die, which quickly established itself as Christian Caddell’s anthem.

 

After that I began following links and refining search terms until I somehow found my way to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Luzifer’s Abschied. It’s… weird. Not the most musical of music, and every single character in Heaven Burns would be horrified at how Catholic it is, but it was exactly what I needed to get me into the right place to write some of the more emotionally gruelling scenes.

 

Beyond the YouTube playlist, however, there was another musical influence on the script. I wrote most of the text during August 2015, while I was operating for Lucid Arts & Music’s production of The Secretary Turned CEO. It was a reimagining of Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, blending the original baroque intermezzo with Danyal Dhondy’s original music – all of it beautiful and sparkly, all of it a downright bizarre influence on a dark, moody tale of 17th century witch panics. But somehow it brought out aspects that I hadn’t realised the story and characters would have, particularly where the character of Isobel was concerned. Her story became more romantic and her intelligence got sharper, and both of these things I attribute to the strange juxtaposition of music and subject matter.

 

At the moment I’m supposed to be making decisions about what kind of music, if any, will feature in the show this August. I know what I’d like to do, though time will tell whether I have the resources to make it work. I know that my ideas might completely change in response to the workshop we’ll be doing next week, when I hand the cast over to Flavia for their first movement direction session. I’m fairly certain that none of the pieces I’ve mentioned here will appear in the final show… but you never know.


Heaven Blogs #1: The Origin Story

I’ve picked up a lot of new followers recently, which I imagine has something to do with the EdFringe entry for Heaven Burns going live… which probably means it’s about time I wrote something about the show!

 

The short introduction to Heaven Burns is this: I’ve been fascinated by the Scottish witch hunts since my teens, so when I started writing plays it was only a matter of time before I wrote one on the subject. That play was Heaven Burns, which I wrote in 2015. There was a rehearsed reading at Previously… Scotland’s History Festival that year, followed by two years of looking for a home for the script. After a lot of rejections I was on the point of shelving it, but then the Assembly Roxy Theatre Award came up and I decided to give it one last shot… and I won! Heaven Burns will run for three weeks at Assembly Roxy during #edfringe2018.

 

As we get into workshops and rehearsals I’ll be sharing bits of the preparation process here. Until then my plan is to talk a bit about where the play comes from and the process of creating it, starting today with the very earliest point in its journey – my interest in all things witch-related.

 

I can’t pin down the origin of my interest with any certainty. I was a spooky child and anything with a supernatural element was right up my street. From Babette Cole’s The Trouble with Mum and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch to Bewitched and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, if there was a witch involved, I was sold. The concept of magic made sense to me, possibly because I experienced a lot of powerful hallucinations in childhood and the possibility of growing up to command an army of museum exhibits didn’t seem like a stretch.

 

As I grew up it became increasingly clear that the world didn’t work the way I thought it had. Like all 90s teenagers I dabbled with the kind of magic that has to be spelled with extra letters, but all it did was bring me to the realisation that things like Wicca aren’t for me. I was looking for something that doesn’t appear to be available within reality. Not to mention that styling yourself a witch was just so bloody popular in the late 90s, and I was an angsty pretentious teenager who wanted nothing to do with things that were popular, so I had to find a way of satisfying my interest while still feeling different.

 

God, being in my teens was exhausting…

 

The answer, I decided, was to look to history. By this point I’d started working as a ghost tour guide, because if you work in the arts in Edinburgh it’s pretty much mandatory that you do your time telling scary stories to tourists. I’d developed a bit of an obsession with the bubonic plague, particularly the epidemic during the 17th century, and had started reading more widely about the period in order to flesh out my mental picture of the society it affected. That led me on to reading more about the witch panics, which fuelled my interest in learning much more about them than we covered on the tours.

 

At this point, being a young and undisciplined reader, my ability to evaluate sources was limited. It took me a while to get the hang of reading critically, but as I got better at it I began to realise how little I understood. Next thing I knew I was down the research rabbit hole, trying to wrap my head around the complex factors that contributed to the witch hunts – Scotland’s shift to Calvinism, folk belief and its overlaps with Catholicism, James VI and all his emotional baggage and subsequent paranoia, the ravages of the plague, family dynamics… even the weather causing crop failure and lost fishing boats. The more I read, the more interested I became in what it must have been like to live one’s everyday life in that society, and that’s what started finding its way into my plays.

 

My first Fringe play, Creepie Stool, contained a sneaky reference to the North Berwick witches. Old Bones, which opens in Prague later this month, engages more explicitly with the events leading up to the North Berwick trials – I’ll be writing a separate post about that in a few weeks. Heaven Burns, the first of my plays to focus solely on the witch hunts, is set a bit later and deals with the brief heyday of the witchprickers, and particularly with one named John Dixon, who turned out to be a disguised woman named Christian Caddell.

 

Spoilers for the play? Not really. Between the blurb and the opening scene, those of you who see it won’t be in any doubt as to the situation. I first heard Christian Caddell’s story from Susan Morrison of Previously… Scotland’s History Festival. She had encountered this little-known figure, unearthed by Dr Louise Yeoman while working on a BBC Scotland documentary, and thought it was such a powerful story that she actually had it printed on the back of her business cards. I’ve still got that card somewhere, and it’s to Susan that I owe the initial spark of the idea for the play.

 

As I searched for what little information there is on Christian, I noticed that she was operating in Morayshire at around the same time as Isobel Gowdie, whose story I had learned in my earlier studies. Isobel is a very unusual case, since she presented herself to the parish authorities and freely accused herself of witchcraft, apparently without being under any kind of duress. She confessed at length and in great detail, telling about her coven’s activities and contradicting prevailing opinions about the Devil’s proficiency as a lover. Her eventual fate is lost to history, but the records of her confessions remain. Christian Caddell, or rather John Dixon, doesn’t seem to have been involved with her trial – but John Innes of Spynie, who hired the disguised Christian to prick witches near Elgin in 1661, was the Notary Public who recorded Isobel’s confession, so they at least have some common acquaintance.

 

This was enough to set my imagination to work. Did the two women ever meet? What would have happened if they had? What kind of fervour spurred Christian on to hunt witches? What makes someone accuse herself of witchcraft when it carries the death penalty?

 

I don’t claim that the play answers these questions, but it does explore one possibility – and I’ll be talking more about how I chose to treat the historical subject matter and how I see its contemporary relevance in future posts. For the moment, I’ll leave things here and not risk turning this into the mega-post where I attempt to explain every thought I’ve ever had relating to Heaven Burns. If you’ve got any questions that you’d like me to answer in future posts, comment away and let me know!

 

And get your tickets for the show, I’d love to see you there. Cast announcement coming soon!


A theatremaker’s plea: do shut up

I know better than to waste my time arguing with lazy clickbait articles. I do. It’s just… sometimes I can’t resist.

The piece of lazy clickbait in question is this article in The Telegraph, courtesy of Douglas McPherson. He is a theatre critic. In the theatre he toils not, neither does he spin, as someone once said. Yet he has a great deal to say about funding – specifically, that it should not come from the state.

He does not advocate an American-style system where the arts are dependent on philanthropy, you understand. He thinks that letting artists keep more of the money they make through tax breaks is the answer. Which is a lovely idea, except he doesn’t address the question of where the earnings of which they are to keep more should come from. Presumably they are supposed to come from the infallible commercial model, which McPherson believes is the key to producing great work.

In twenty years of reviewing, McPherson cannot recall a single subsidised show that he considered good. Not one. I thought I might have a look through his old reviews and find out whether this assertion was reflected in his critiques of subsidised and commercial productions. Unfortunately, for someone who boasts two decades of regular contributions to The Stage, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, his reviews are remarkably hard to find. I’ve turned up his circus blog, several circus-related articles (mostly arguing in favour of live animals in circus acts), his romance writing alter ego… but in terms of reviews, I can only find references to the ones he wrote for What’s On, which aren’t archived online, and a couple of music reviews for The Telegraph. So I suppose we’ll just have to trust him on this one. Not a single good subsidised show in all that time. How hard that must have been for him, considering how much subsidised work a critic sees.

Commercial theatre, on the other hand, has filled McPherson’s days with joy. Commercial work is “new, vibrant, exciting and creative” – and entirely divorced from state subsidy. What utter nonsense this is. Subsidised and commercial theatre are not two discrete entities. They overlap. What happens in one influences the other.

Let’s have an example. David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers’ production of Calendar Girls was a massive financial success. (Let’s not argue about whether it was an artistic success or simply a way to cash in on the film’s success – let’s just assume for the moment that McPherson is correct and that it was, like other commercial work, new, vibrant, exciting and creative.) It toured from 2009 – 2012, with advance ticket sales of more than £1.7 million. It became the UK’s most successful touring play and grossed over £35 million. Amateur performance rights are now available so the play continues to generate income even when there isn’t a production on tour.

A triumph for commercial theatre, right? But of course, the story of that wildly successful tour doesn’t begin with Pugh and Rogers. The writer, Tim Firth, cut his teeth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a subsidised house. His first major success, Neville’s Island, was commissioned by the SJT. More than half of the women featured in the original cast spent their early years honing their craft in subsidised rep, national companies and the RSC. The theatre at which Calendar Girls first opened was Chichester Festival Theatre, also a subsidised house. Can it really be argued that this commercial success existed “without any need for government help”?

McPherson’s argument that subsidised theatre does not concentrate on “producing work the public might actually want to see” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has The Woman in Black, which originated at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, run for quarter of a century because no-one wanted to see it? Or The Mousetrap, now 63 years old, which came to the West End after opening at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham? Do more recent shows like War Horse (National Theatre) and Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland) tour the world without any demand for tickets? Or would McPherson suggest that people are somehow being coerced into purchasing tickets, then turning up out of politeness when really they would rather be anywhere else?

It’s all very well to say that if these shows are so successful, they should be self-sustaining. But that misunderstands the nature of theatre. Yes, some shows can become successful enough to meet the immense costs involved in putting them on. But it’s unrealistic to expect that every show will achieve this. There has to be some middle ground between the smash hits and the complete flops, because that’s where development happens.

The artists who created Black Watch and War Horse had full careers behind them. Those shows are the results of years spent developing craft and technique in subsidised theatres. Would they ever have existed, let alone become the massive hits that they were, without John Tiffany and Marianne Elliott being nurtured by venues like the Traverse or the Royal Exchange? Theatremakers don’t approach each show in isolation. Every new project benefits from all your previous experience. All the things you’ve learned on previous shows, every success and failure you’ve ever had – they all inform the work you do. The failures are as important a part of a theatremaker’s development as the successes, and it is subsidised theatre, not commercial, that offers greater freedom to fail. This is not a question of “subsidising the mediocre” – which I would agree we ought not to do – but of allowing artistic risks to be taken. I don’t know which commercial work he’s been seeing, but it’s not generally known for its risk-taking.

Of course McPherson has thought of this, and he has an ingenious solution – “Companies can create new or experimental work in fringe venues on a profit-share basis without funding.” I would have hoped that someone claiming twenty years’ experience of writing about theatre would be more knowledgeable about the many, many problems that plague this model. Alas, it appears he is not.

Profit-share is a euphemism for “unpaid”. We all know this – well, at least those of us who actually make theatre know it. Very, very occasionally you’ll get something out of it, but the most likely outcome is that your fringe show will make no profit. This is because fringe venues cost money, and rehearsal venues cost money, and set, props and costumes cost money, and hiring a tech costs money, and hiring in extra lights to supplement the venue’s extremely basic rig costs money, and PR costs money, and insurance costs money, and PRS licenses cost money.

All of these costs add up. You’re looking at thousands of pounds to stage your show, even without paying people. Even if you rehearse in someone’s living room and have no set and source all your costumes from your own wardrobe, even if you can get a technician to give you a freebie, even if you reduce your costs to nothing but the venue, it’s still expensive. You are still unlikely to recoup your costs from ticket sales alone, because the chances are that your completely unheard-of show won’t play to packed houses from the very start. The chances are that you won’t play to packed houses at all, unless you get well-timed stellar reviews and/or exceptionally good word of mouth.

Getting good reviews on the fringe isn’t simply a matter of doing a good play, of course. Several London publications won’t review fringe shows unless they do a three week run, so if you can only afford, say, a week’s try-out run at the White Bear then tough luck. If you’re in an outlying venue there will be critics who just won’t travel. I’ve seen several excellent shows at the Rosemary Branch, for example, but trying to drag reviewers to a venue that doesn’t have a tube station within 10 minutes’ walk can be blood from a stone. Aim for a more central/better connected venue and you might find it easier to attract critics, but you’ll also pay more, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get reviewed early enough in your run for a five star rating to bring in enough punters to cover your costs – let alone make that fabled profit that you were going to share.

So if profit-share means unpaid, who can afford to do it? For a little while, it’s possible to work unpaid while supporting yourself with one or more day jobs and, usually, a growing mountain of debt. It’s a fast route to burn-out, but it can be done for a bit. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive spouse or family or trust fund, you can do it indefinitely. Perhaps Douglas McPherson doesn’t consider it a problem that unpaid work turns fringe theatre into the playground of the affluent. I, on the other hand, do. Theatre benefits from a diverse range of influences, and that’s much easier to achieve if it’s possible for people from all walks of life to make it their career rather than leaving it to be a hobby for the wealthy.

Quite apart from practical considerations about whether it’s even possible to pay people making theatre on the fringe, there’s the question of why we ought to. Theatre is beneficial to the UK’s economy, bringing in an estimated £2 for every £1 of subsidy. That’s not all direct income through ticket sales – people having a night at the theatre also buy dinner, buy drinks, take buses and trains and taxis, pay to park their cars nearby, pay for hotel rooms if they’ve travelled for the sake of seeing the show. There’s so much more to it than just tickets. But if we treat early career and experimental work as mere dilettantism, the standard of the work made will plummet and the public’s willingness to pay to see theatre will follow.

However, the economic argument for theatre is not the only one, nor is it the most important. We ought to value theatre because, quite simply, culture is important. Culture enhances our lives, gives us the capacity and tools for self-reflection as individuals and as a society, encourages empathy, stretches us intellectually, educates us emotionally, challenges us, baffles us and entertains us. It’s how we make more of ourselves. This isn’t just about the people who practice professionally – subsidising the arts is about recognising the importance of culture. It’s about making it available to those who are able to engage with it directly, and letting its influence spread through commercial work with a wider reach so that it affects those who can’t or won’t engage with it directly. To think only in terms of direct engagement is reductive and simplistic.

It’s true that there are flaws in the way that arts funding is dealt with across the UK. There are plenty. But what Douglas McPherson suggests is not the answer. It’s the prating of an armchair artist, and ought to be treated as such.


A response to Desire Lines from a grassroots theatremaker. Looooong.

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and decide how best to write about Desire Lines.

 

For those of you who, by dint of not being attentive Edinburgh arts folk, have not heard of Desire Lines, it is this: http://www.desirelines.scot. It’s a project started by a handful of people working in the arts in Edinburgh to provide a way for artists to communicate with the Council and with each other. The first meeting took place on Monday 8 December at Summerhall.

 

First things first: It was a remarkably positive event. Like many people, I was concerned that we might spend the evening unproductively bashing the Council, or that it would be a tedious few hours of listening to people from large organisations droning about key stakeholders and service provision and so on. These things did not happen. While there were plenty of people with a great deal to say about licensing issues and the Council’s apparent preference for focusing on the Festivals rather than Edinburgh’s year-round cultural life, the artists expressing their views did it vehemently, not aggressively.

 

I was a bit disappointed that we never directly got to grips with the event’s title question, “What makes Edinburgh a culturally successful city?” or the implied sub-question – is Edinburgh a culturally successful city? How do we define cultural success? Is the city successful because it has lots of Festivals? Because Edinburgh started the trend for Fringe Festivals, or attracts high-profile international companies to the International Festival? Or is Edinburgh successful because the arts form an important part of the lives of ordinary people (by which I mean non-tourists and non-artists) living here?

 

The latter question seemed to be on the minds of the people in the room. Unsurprisingly, artists want to share their work, and not just because it’s financially beneficial. When you make something and you care about it deeply, you want other people to care about it too. You want to touch people’s lives, brighten their day, get them to think or whatever else your work sets out to achieve. And you don’t want to be limited to August or to the specific audience that goes to the Festivals.

 

Or at least, that’s the case for me. Judging by the voices in the room, I’m not alone. The perception that the arts in Edinburgh are only for some rarefied crowd of champagne-sippers (not that all Festival-goers fall into that category, of course, but I’m using the prevailing stereotype) is inaccurate, and there are plenty of the city’s artists who would be happy to break it down.

 

With that in mind, it was great to see grassroots figures being invited to speak. Morvern Cunningham, Caitlin Skinner and Olaf Furniss all work wonders to keep the city alive with music, theatre, visual art and film all year round, and often outwith the city centre. It’s a pity that they didn’t get to speak until the end, by which time the event was overrunning (which was inevitable considering the massive scope of the conversation) and the representatives from Edinburgh Council had long since gone home. I would suggest that at future Desire Lines events, it would be worth letting the artists speak early on. Responding to what the people with the money say is what we do all the time – this could be one of the exceptions.

 

It might also be nice to see Desire Lines challenging the format of their own events. The setup was pretty standard – a raised platform for the chair and speakers, with everyone else in attendance sitting in the audience, waiting for the roving mic if they wanted to speak. Having worked in the Dissection Room I know that it’s a tricky space, especially when you have such a large number of people to accommodate, but I can’t help feeling that there must be a way to set things up less formally. Something like an Open Space format might be interesting, making things feel more laid-back and perhaps more equal. That’s not to say that the current structure didn’t work well – but I’m always keen to see people experiment and find egalitarian ways of doing things.

 

 

Ever since the event I’ve been thinking about the state of grassroots theatre in Edinburgh. I mean, I do that all the time, of course – but I’ve been trying to work out how to explain the particular challenges facing the grassroots scene in Edinburgh just now and how that impacts on less experimental work.

 

The main challenge that we face is a lack of infrastructure. How many small theatres can you think of in Edinburgh? Less than 100 seats? There’s the Netherbow with 99. There’s Discover 21 with 35. There are some spaces in Summerhall. Traverse 2 can be a 99-seater depending on its configuration, but it’s been a long time since the Trav was a little experimental theatre rather than a major player in the British theatre scene.

 

There are other spaces that can be theatres if you’re willing to equip them. If you’re willing to bring in lights, sound equipment, possibly seats and drapes, and get the place licensed, anywhere can be a theatre! We learned that from August, right?

 

But that’s the trouble. If you’re a small company making experimental theatre on tiny budgets, the cost of hiring all your equipment, transporting it and paying for the extra time you need in a venue to set everything up can be prohibitive. Grassroots companies are often self-funding, supported by the artists’ day jobs. Every extra cost incurred takes us a step further away from breaking even, let alone making a profit or actually getting paid for our work.

 

That was one of the main reasons for setting up D21. Edinburgh seemed to need a small space with seats, lights and licenses in place, where all a company has to do is turn up and concentrate on its work, and where the costs are clear and as low as we can make them.

 

Over the past year we’ve found that several groups and individuals have made work in D21 that they might not have made if they had been faced with the expense and inconvenience of creating a working performance space. We’ve launched Collider, a project designed to introduce theatremakers to potential collaborators through mini-productions, and 21@21, a residency offering three weeks of free studio time to experimental theatremakers. Creating our own permanent (or at least semi-permanent, thanks to licensing and short leases) space has been expensive, but considerably less expensive than building a temporary space for every project.

 

So why aren’t more people doing this? First, it is expensive, and exhausting. Dave (my co-founder) and I work bloody hard to cover the theatre’s costs, as well as to run the theatre itself. That’s essentially two full-time jobs each. It doesn’t allow for a lot of free time or spare cash. It means cheap groceries and holidays not taken. It meant that I kept the cost of my entire wedding well below what most brides pay for the dress alone. It means that I try hard not to think about the things I could have and could be doing with that money. It’s not a sacrifice that everyone is prepared to make, and I completely understand why. But to pursue funding just now would mean clarifying and quantifying what we’re doing in a way that would not be beneficial at this point. For now, at least, we need the freedom that comes with self-funding. That will eventually change – but D21 can’t become the thing it needs to be without going through this early, free-flowing experimental stage, so for the present we grit our teeth and accept the lack of time and money.

 

Second, it’s terrifying. I wake up anxious most mornings, worried that there will be costs we won’t be able to meet or that we’ll do something wrong and get into trouble. I dread that we’ll make a mistake with licensing or the lease, that someone will have an accident in the space and my risk assessment will be found wanting and my Public Liability Insurance won’t pay out. Getting things wrong in any of those areas could result in fines or damages totalling tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pounds. And guess what? I don’t have tens of thousands of pounds. Thanks to my dead parents I do have a flat, but I really don’t want to find myself in a position where I have to sell my flat and destroy what security my husband and I have – just because I wanted to do some experimental theatre and facilitate other people doing it too. Life was certainly a lot easier and less risky when I first started out and just did monthly rehearsed readings requiring nothing but a room with some chairs in it.

 

Dragging this post back to Desire Lines, is there anything Edinburgh City Council could do to make this situation easier? Well, yes. Licensing could be a lot less restrictive and less expensive. There could be another category of theatre license, one that applies to groups that aren’t amateur or charities, but which aren’t commercial or subsidised professional work – specifically for grassroots work.

 

Year-round licenses could be cheaper, or a discount could be offered to small companies making work in Edinburgh year-round if the Council still wants to be able to charge incomes through the nose for the Festivals.

 

Empty spaces (of which there are many in the city centre) could be made available at peppercorn rents for use as rehearsal and workshop spaces, in exchange for a certain amount of maintenance. This has worked in other cities, as Rachel McCrum mentioned at Desire Lines.

 

The Council could also settle once and for all the matter of Public Entertainment Licenses, which they have chosen not to enforce for the present but which could be brought into force at any time. Nobody wants to be the first artists to be caught out by these and hit with a £20k (if I recall correctly) fine.

 

Basically, anything that allows Edinburgh’s local theatremakers a little of the freedom usually granted during August would help. But why should the Council do these things?

 

Well, assuming Edinburgh wants to be a culturally successful city, mainstream arts need to be influenced by a steady stream of new and exciting ideas. The more freedom you give the grassroots, the more potential there is for interesting and avant-garde work. You won’t find the avant-garde at the Lyceum, for instance – nor should you. That’s not what it’s for. What you see at the Lyceum is work that is influenced by the avant-garde of previous generations. New ideas, whether new writing, new ways of staging, new relationships with audiences, what have you, filter gradually through to the mainstream and prevent theatre as a whole from stagnating. You don’t support the grassroots for the benefit of mainstream theatre in five years’ time, but in twenty or fifty years’ time. A hundred years’ time, maybe. It’s long-term thinking.

 

Of course, this doesn’t have to be done on a local basis. Edinburgh’s mainstream theatre could just draw on the influence of Glasgow and London instead. They’ve both got strong grassroots scenes, right? But if Edinburgh is simply an importer of new ideas, if Edinburgh does not generate and export them, then can it really justify claiming to be a culturally successful city?

 

The healthier Edinburgh’s grassroots theatre scene is, the healthier its mainstream theatre will be, the healthier the art forms that share borders with theatre will be, and the healthier the city as a whole will be, economically and artistically. Why wouldn’t we want to be known as a city that produces exciting, innovative theatre in more than just a couple of venues? Why wouldn’t we want visitors to be attracted to Edinburgh by its theatre scene all year round – not in the same numbers that we see during August, but a fraction of that, bringing with them a commensurate fraction of the money Edinburgh makes in August? Why wouldn’t we want interesting experimental artists to stay here rather than move away, or even to choose to move to Edinburgh as a city that will welcome and support them? Why wouldn’t we want to nurture a diverse, vibrant grassroots that attracts theatremakers from different cultures, political beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

 

It wouldn’t take much for the Council to make Edinburgh a far more welcoming place for grassroots theatre artists. A little loosening of the licensing, a little more focus on the year-round scene rather than just August.

 

Hopefully it will come. It looks like the charge is being led by the live music scene, fighting for the survival of small and mid-size venues. Events like Desire Lines give those of us in grassroots theatre a chance to add our voices to theirs, since our interests align in many ways. Anything that brings the Council and Edinburgh’s artists together in discussion has the potential to be massively beneficial to the city as a whole.

 

I’m excited to see where future Desire Lines events will take us…