Mar 8, 2008

The Little Venue that Could.

For eleven months of the year Edinburgh is a quiet place to live – for a capital city its almost suspiciously tranquil (as long as you avoid the half a mile of hen nights and gell-haired, liquored up Ben Shermanators that shuffle and stumble along the Cowgate into the Grassmaket, braying loudly and urinating at will, much as their bovine predecessors did before them). Even in the summer I remember only long days spent lying on the meadows and easy strolls along the bracingly beautiful crags, gazing out over a mess of roof tops, the castle floating off in the distance.

Come August however, things change. Quiet student union rooms accustomed only to well-organised fantasy wargaming and the occasional illicit sex act are suddenly bristling with chairs and wires and staff in gaudy matching t-shirts hastily taping everything to the floor. Churches that are almost conspicuously empty for the rest of the year suddenly find themselves plastered with sponsorship signs and MDF black boards. The royal mile wakes up one morning to find a series of grotesque plastic columns have been grafted to its cobbles, already being bandaged with brightly coloured posters by early-bird students filled with hope and a blind belief in the power of traditional advertising. Birds fly south, Scots fly north. The Festival has begun.

Every year the BBC and the national newspapers, in between shots of the same relentlessly irritating gold-covered man holding his bloody stupid bicycle, trip over each to point out the obvious misnomer in the title Edinburgh Fringe Festival – that 61 years and several thousand productions of John Godber’s Bouncers after it first strutted scruffily into the city there is very little that is fringe about this festival. It is, it grandly declares, the Largest Arts Festival in the world.

However, no one as yet however seems to have demonstrated that this is a good thing, and it feels to me at least that every year the emphasis falls more on the ‘festival’ and less on the ‘arts’.

Walking through the streets of the city during August, you can’t help but wonder if Edinburgh (the city, its festival) has lost its soul – or at least has misplaced it and rather rashly replaced it with a giant upside-down purple cow filled with C-list celebrities and gymnastic routines. And its all just so, well, relentless – a miniature Las Vegas, a month long New Year’s Eve party, a panic-eyed, half-exhausted reveller rasping out into the night ‘everybody, EV’RYBODY! Can’t you see how mega this is? CAN’T YOU SEE HOW MUCH FUN WE’RE HAVING!?!1!’

You just want to sit the whole thing down and give it a blanket and a hot drink.

And almost inevitably such an environment only benefits certain kinds of shows. As Chris Goode has remarked – the shows of his that have proved most successful at Edinburgh have been those that offer some form of immediate clossure – or at least who’s challenge to the audience is to some degree finalised by the time they leave the sweaty little room they’ve just been sharing for an hour. Open-ended, inconclusive, awkward, subtle and delicate rarely do well at the festival – they can be difficult to get excited about at the best of times and Edinburgh is all about people getting excited.

In Edinburgh an hour is all you get – once they’ve stepped blinking into the streets of Edinburgh you’ve lost them; emotionally and physically the audience is on to the next thing. It’s the theatre equivalent of speed dating – breathless and thrilling but littered with awkward pauses, faces already forgotten, opportunities missed and conversations left incomplete.

All too frequently wonderful theatre can and does drown in this turbulent sea, while other more superficially interesting shows are carried along on a wave of hyperbole and spat out like Jonah safely at the other end – tours booked, careers made.

And drowning in Edinburgh can be expensive business. Edinburgh is sustained on the backs of broken artists paying extortionate amounts for everything from accommodation, to transport, to food, to having their meagre 30 words printed in the Biblically huge Fringe Programme. Meanwhile their supermarket venues, with all the morals and integrity of PT Barnum, blackmail them for space in their own brochures, screw them for every minute they spend in their poorly equipped studio space, ignore them for a month and then virtually disappear off the face of the planet when it comes to paying up. Virtually no one I know hasn’t at some stage been burnt by the festival, and many have sworn they would never go back.

And yet, and yet…

There is something there. Just in the almost tangible presence of that much hope and excitement and unashamed enthusiasm – it hangs in the air, chokes the city like a sugary, intoxicating fog. Bars spill over with people talking about shows, about theatre, unselfconsciously and drunkenly talking about what they believe in. The place is full of people genuinely open to experimentation – people positively thrilling at the opportunity to try something new, something different. I love the fact that you can’t walk five metres without finding someone who really wants to tell you all about their show – someone who fiercely, wonderfully believes in what they are doing. I love that the entire city feels like some kind of carnivalesque playground – bracing itself gamely (and with just enough of an undercurrent of cynicism) for anything that might come along.

I love what Edinburgh can do for a good idea. I love that Ian Shuttleworth and Lyn Gardner and a raft of over-excited promoters will just up and see something solely on the basis that it sounds quite good, because why the hell not its just 3 minutes away and I’ve got a break now before 4.48 Psychosis and who actually needs dinner anyway? I know how much this has meant for my fledgling career and I'm sure plenty of others. A few years ago Stewart Lee wrote a wonderful little column on a show he’d happened to see by a guy no one had heard of called Will Adamsdale that was only supposed to be on for 10 days and it ended up winning the Perrier. There’s still something to Edinburgh, something worth treasuring, something worth fighting for.

All of which was already swilling around somewhere in my head when a friend of mine, a playwright called Deborah Pearson, asked me to co-programme the Forest Fringe with her. And for the reasons described above I absolutely leapt at the chance.

The Forest Fringe is an offshoot of a place called The Forest Café, a volunteer-run not-for-profit haven near Bristo Square. The Forest is a scribbly, messy, wonderfully original space, filled with bizarre drawings and earnest flyers, always full of people just relaxing and reading a good book; the whole place smells of organic humus and second hand sofas. It is, frankly, lovely.

Alongside a small stage in the café it has a gallery and upstairs a beautiful old church hall, all old wood and optimism. Last year Deborah was asked to programme this upstairs space during the festival; not as part of it, or even as an official venue as they had no theatre licence, but just to provide a place that was, philosophically and theatrically, an alternative to the Underbelly and the rest. Brilliantly she chose not to charge anyone to perform at the venue but just simply asked them to give some time to help staff for other shows. It was undoubtedly a huge success – Lyn Gardner described it as ‘a magnet for young artists wanting to try things out’ – I had the chance to do Exposures there for all of £40 spent on disposable cameras and brown envelopes – it got me two commissions and a lovely write up on the Guardian website. Now we’re back, with a theatre licence this time, new black out curtains, a full head of steam and renewed confidence that we’re not the only ones seeking somewhere with a slightly different mentality.

To me the place is an incredible chance to create a new model for how an Edinburgh venue can function. One that embraces the things I believe are really good about the festival and tries to avoid those elements that make it faintly unbearable.

We’re not going to be part of the official fringe. We’re not going to charge artists anything to perform. All shows are going to be ‘pay what you can’. We’re going to have to a wonderful mix of established fringe veterans and younger artists who’ve never performed at the venue before. No one is going to have more than a couple of performances. Everyone is going to have ample rehearsal time. Everyone is going to be asked to give some of their time back to the place, either by staffing the bar or Front of House or by mentoring a younger artist – just spending a couple of hours watching their show and then talking to them about it.

We want to create a venue that cherishes the idea that you can go up to Edinburgh with barely more than a good idea. A place that doesn’t bleed you dry; that doesn’t demand three weeks of performances on the off chance that the Guardian will like your show. A place that genuinely encourages risk and play and experimentation. A place surrounded by about the most open, excited and enormous prospective audience you’ll ever have, by national critics and venue directors; a place that realises this and says, if you come up with something good they will come – so why the hell not.

We want to foster a different kind of Edinburgh experience, for audience and performers. The best thing about the Forest is that it’s there all year round, staffed by the same people, still smelling of humus and sofa. The place is like a quiet bubble of calm. We want it to become an island, a retreat from the crowds; a place of reflection and community. We want you to go and see a show upstairs and then come and sit in the café and have a bit of a think. We want to see artists sitting down and talking with each other. We want interested people with nowhere else to go to come and hang out for a bit, for faces to become familiar – for an audience to become a community.

We have a church hall, a café, some black-out curtains and a couple of lanterns and we’re going to change the world. And if you’ve actually managed to make it this far through this post and have agreed with more than about 55% then I want you to join us.

At the moment we’re beginning to confirm our line-up and I want to hear from anyone who might be interested – in performing or just in helping out. If you’re already doing a show at another venue and fancy the chance to try something else out. If you have a beautiful little show and absolutely no money. Anything really.

Let me know.

Just leave a comment or drop me an email to andy (dot) t (dot) field (at) gmail (dot) com. And please do spread the word.

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