[First published in the Stage]
I like learning how to use a space. Growing to understand its contours and its dimensions. What it feels like to occupy that space, or be occupied in it.
For four years now I’ve been co-curating Forest Fringe in Edinburgh. Our old church hall is all shabby grandeur, wooden floors and high shadowy ceilings. It has an occasional leak and an acoustic all of its own. In the time we’ve worked in and with that space we’ve come to know it incredibly well. Through successes and failures we’ve learnt how that space colours the performances that happen in it. We’ve learnt to appreciate its little peculiarities.
Most importantly we’ve learnt what kind of show will resonate in that space and what won’t. Most often those the shows that will really glow in that church hall are those that acknowledge its noisy presence. Shows that don’t try to disguise that space or render it invisible through darkness, but begin by acknowledging where it is that we’re all gathered and why. Indeed, this peculiar necessity has for me become one of the most interesting and important things about Forest Fringe. It is a place that people come to gather. A place that celebrates and interrogates how it is that we all choose to gather together to tell stories and think about our relationship to each other and the world.
The act of gathering together, as much as the stories we are told when we are there, has become the most important thing about Forest Fringe and the most successful shows we have had have been those that understand this; that thrive on it. Shows that want us to think about what it means that we are all here in this particular place at this particular time. As such, it would be fair to say that the clumsy architecture of an unconverted church hall and the poor quality of our black out curtains have actually been an absolutely vital part of shaping what Forest Fringe is, what kind of artists it supports and the type of radical and unconventional work that happens there. From the beginning the space has been shaping our politics, in ways that we realised and ways that we didn’t. The best thing that my co-director Debbie and I probably did was allow that to happen.
I always find myself excited by this awkward process of exploration and discovery. I wish it happened more often. We make it too easy on ourselves with purpose built black boxes designed to similar specifications up and down the country. We should demand more awkwardness, I think we’d learn a lot more about the work we make and what’s important about it.
The space that has had me fascinated most recently is actually not a space at all but a context. That of the big rural music or mixed-arts festival. The last two years I, like many others, have been at Latitude presenting new work. I think right at the moment Latitude is one of the most exciting contexts that anyone could be making work in. A delirious in-between space between the city and the country populated by people of all ages with a furious desire to see something really strange. It’s space and its rhythms are so peculiar and fascinating. We could be creating work at Latitude that responds to that environment in radical and imaginative ways. Shows that by the requirement to conform to the awkward dimensions of that festival could teach us something thrilling and important about what it is we do. Yet the majority of theatre at the festival still happens in the one tent that is actually designed to accommodate it – the theatre tent. Part of me really thinks it would be more exciting if we didn’t have that option; if we had to learn the contours of the festival like we’ve learnt the contours of the theatre.