Not Brigadoon, definitely Manchester, some clear blue sky
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
As I write the Edinburgh Fringe is entering its fourth week. I am running the Bruford at Summerhall venue – an invitation from the visionary Rose Bruford College which allows me to be in the city for a month, to support the sixteen shows here and to help think about the future of the space and programme. The college runs the Upper Church space year-round and its European theatre MA programme is based there. With 10m x 10m of flat, wooden floor it is one the best spaces in Summerhall. But with four flights of stairs up to it and no infrastructure for a lift, it is its least accessible. Future programming therefore presents some ethical as well as creative challenges.
This year’s programme is an eclectic mix of UK and international work alongside two Bruford student shows devised with professional directors. There are companies from Canada, the USA, Ireland and France. In week one Eva O’ Connor won a prestigious Fringe First for her show Mustard and we had to add a performance. Reviews and awards remain absolutely essential to Edinburgh Fringe success and the whole venture is an enormous gamble for the artists and producers who bring work here. We have one or two superb shows that have struggled for audiences even with 4* reviews, though as word of mouth (social media) spreads, numbers are growing. There is much debate on the sustainability of the Fringe given rising costs, changes in legislation affecting the availability – and therefore cost – of accommodation and the reality that the financial risk rests with the economically disadvantaged creatives who need this platform. I remain in absolute admiration of them, their bravery and their vision. And for this reason, too, I am not talking or tweeting about work I haven’t liked. I’ve been keeping my critical voice on mute.
I first came to the Fringe in 1981 with the now long-gone Cycles Dance Company. I was 18 and it was my first dancing job. We drove up in a van from Leamington Spa and played for two weeks in a little community centre not far from what is now Summerhall. The venue was run by the eternally innovative Paines Plough and all the participating companies did shifts on box office and front of house. The only paid staff ran the café. Assembly was only a year old then – and only at the Assembly Rooms on George Street – and there was no
Pleasance, no Underbelly and no Summerhall. By wonderful coincidence, Paine’s Plough’s lovely Roundabout venue in Edinburgh is now right next to the Bruford space at Summerhall.
In 1984 I brought my own, newly-launched, company to a dance-only season at the Belford Church and we were packed out everyday without, as I recall, even having printed any flyers to hand out. Everyone was paid £50 for the week (a generous donor friend) and we slept four to a room.
Then in 1997 I was part of the team that mounted the first British Council Edinburgh Showcase. This week 200 international presenters will descend on the city for its 12th edition and I look forward to reconnecting with old friends and colleagues as they dash across the Summerhall courtyard. As they all will at some point as the venue has become a Fringe destination and the main ‘industry’ gathering place. This is the first time I will have spent the entire month at the Fringe. It has been really great to (literally) roll up my sleeves again and be closer to the artists and producers making the work and the people coming to see it. In the last two weeks of being here - listening, watching, noticing and trying to be helpful (making some connections for our artists – some strategic invites to influential folk) - I have recovered my joy.
You are here
The ‘not Brigadoon’ reference in the title relates to a Twitter exchange I had with the Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan in April, after the British Council’s theatre and dance team, producers of the showcase, had tweeted ‘only four months until Edinburgh’. Joyce,quite rightly and with characteristic wit, pointed out that Edinburgh exists all year ‘round and does not, like the fictional village of Brigadoon, appear, magically, over the horizon every August. It was an error of internal shorthand, which we corrected, but an important reminder
that the city and country has a vibrant, internationally connected cultural scene and that the summer festivals are a part, and not all, of this impressive landscape.
Prominent on this landscape is the Edinburgh International Festival and I have been privileged to be part of its talented family this year, seeing almost all of the theatre and dance programme and attending many events. Highlights (so far) have been Milo Rau’s La Reprise, Kiinalik from Canada’s Buddies in Bad Times, Tim Crouch’s Total Immediate Collective Imminent Salvation and 1927’s Roots These shows are all part of the new You Are Here strand, curated by Fuel’s Kate McGrath and supported by new funding, including from British Council, a partnership I am very proud to have played a part in establishing. Departure Lounge is an integral part of this strand and attending these fascinating events I saw a rehearsed reading of Hannah Lavery’s excellent Lament for Sheyku Bayoh and the quite remarkable Summit by Andy Smith. You Are Here concludes this week with the Cross Currents programme – a series of events bringing together international and Scotland-based artists which I am really looking forward to.
A touch of Glass
Festivals have been a theme this last month. I had a generous invitation from the team at Manchester International Festival (MIF) to be part of their arts weekend – three elegantly organised days of performances, events and social gatherings bringing together international presenters with each other and with creatives local to the city and region. At MIF I discovered the extraordinary Trajal Harrell (a bit late to this particular party, I know) flew to the moon with Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang and saw a preview of Phelim
McDermott’s Tao of Glass. Phelim is quite special to me as my first overseas trip when I (first) joined British Council in 1997 was to the Cairo Theatre Festival to see Improbable Theatre’s magical 70 Hill Lane. He lent me his jacket to go to an event at which gentlemen were required to wear jackets. (On a more recent trip to Cairo I asked my colleague Cathy Costain if it was acceptable to wear shorts to a restaurant. ‘Gregory’, she replied, ‘nobody here cares what men wear’). Tao of Glass is 70 Hill Lane 28 years on and plays (mostly) with McDermott’s teenage love of Philip Glass’s music, muses on the science of creativity and recounts a failed attempt to collaborate with Glass on a Maurice Sendak adaptation. It’s bewitching, and clever, and this would be enough were it not for the appearance at the end (of the performance I saw) of Glass himself, shuffling in, surveying the space and then wandering over to the upright piano and playing from his 1982 Glassworks with the three young musicians in the play. An incredible experience for them. Unforgettable for me.
In Manchester I had unplanned but welcome encounters with two very different people I love and admire and whose wisdom I value greatly. I came away from those long and wonderful conversations with lots to think about and a sustained belief that I have done the right thing in taking this sabbatical. One of them made a professional invitation which I found irresistible, but more on that story later.
Entering the third month of my sabbatical I seem to be maintaining the balance of interesting new work and the space to think and explore that I had hoped for. I’m doing quite a bit of work with Rose Bruford College, including the development of a programme for creative producers working in socially engaged environments and co-leading the MA in collaborative theatre-making from October. Dipping my toes into academia I’ve discovered the practice of heutagogy, which is not to be confused with pedagogy or, indeed, andragogy
(which, apparently, it sometimes is).
In July I took a holiday in Greece. I read, I swam, I got a tan. I have started sleeping properly again.
I’m also maintaining the balance between work conversations and ‘unframed’ ones and these have been as varied as a coffee with a young civil servant from a (non-arts) government office who really wants to be a dramaturg, an established choreographer/curator working up a professional development plan, a major festival with a line of enquiry that’s right up my street, and a glass of wine with two commercial producers who have come into possession of some unusual IP. On the latter, I really didn’t think I could be of any help. But
a conversation with a trusted colleague from a major north-west venue in Edinburgh this week has led me to think that, quite possibly, I can and that my help might make a difference.
And that’s a great feeling to be having.