Feeling The Momentum in Edinburgh

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. F.I.N.D. 2015, Amazon Beaming: Work in Progress, Complicite, inspiriert von dem Roman »Amazon Beaming« von Petru Popescu, Performance und Regie: Simon McBurney.

Simon McBurney in Complicite’s  The Encounter (photo from work in progress)

At some point about three-quarters of the way through Complicité’s The Encounter, I became unstuck in time. I knew that I was in a theater in Edinburgh watching and listening to a single man (Simon McBurney) onstage recount an extraordinary story, yet I was simultaneously deep in the Amazonian jungle. I also seemed to be contained in a precarious liminal pocket of space-time occupying a position between quotidian, linear time and vast expanses of unimaginable infinitude. I spiraled out into the multiverse while miraculously remaining fixed in a precise location – my seat, this day, this time – and was subsumed by an overwhelming feeling of the interconnectedness of all things. This is the inimitable power of the best live theater, this is the apex of what one might encounter in Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947 by the opera impresario Rudolf Bing who had fled Nazi Germany to settle in London. He conceived of the festival as a way to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” and enrich the cultural life of UK and Europe after the devastation of World War II. He shopped the idea around finding no takers until he came to Edinburgh and fell in love with the city. When the program was announced, a handful of companies asked to be included but were told the program was closed. Anticipating a captive audience they set up shop and performed anyway, launching the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Nearly 70 years later a network of arts festivals has bloomed around the world and the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe have become global attractions that double the population of Edinburgh every August.

In fact, Edinburgh is now home to twelve major festivals throughout the year, a group who comprise the membership of Festivals Edinburgh: a multi-partner collaboration to increase capacity and impact, individually and of the sector as a whole. Under the leadership of the dynamic Faith Liddell, Festivals Edinburgh has worked with a constellation of partners from the City of Edinburgh, Creative Scotland, the British Council and many more to establish Edinburgh as a Festival City, an ongoing laboratory to explore and innovate “festival as platform” for artistic expression, civic engagement, international diplomacy, cultural tourism and economic development.

As impressive as that is unto itself, even more significant is the commitment of Festivals Edinburgh to knowledge-sharing and capacity building internationally. I had the great good fortune to be invited to participate in Momentum 2015, an annual program of seminars and networking events they organize for cultural professionals from around the world.

Over the course of six days I met with the Festivals Edinburgh team to learn about the organization’s origin, ongoing work and accomplishments; I met with leadership from Edinburgh’s twelve festivals, stakeholders from the City of Edinburgh, Creative Scotland and the British Council, and had the opportunity to network with programmers, producers and policy makers from Brazil, India, South Africa and a host of other countries. And of course I got to see lots of new work in both the Fringe and International festivals, meet with artists from Scotland and around the world and revel in the festival atmosphere of Edinburgh in August.

I first visited Edinburgh in August of 1989 while still a student at university. Having just finished the British American Drama Academy’s summer program, a group of us headed up to the festival for a week. It pretty much blew my mind. Barcelona’s Els Comediants transformed Edinburgh Castle with Dimonis – demons scuttering down the side of the building on ropes, running amok through the crowd spraying water and throwing vegetables, ululating and scampering and carrying a huge demon statue that spewed fire and sparks from its enormous phallus. Steven Berkoff offered an excruciatingly slow, methodical and artful rendition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome; I was terrified and captivated by Johann Kresnik‘s and Gottfried Helnwein‘s Macbeth, performed by the Bremer Theater from Bremen. David Glass and Peta Lily performed a stunning a two-hander of Moby-Dick called Whale, I was one of two members in the audience of a Glaswegian theater’s production of Lorca’s Yerma. Looking through my scrapbooks I still recall the excitement, energy and inspiration of being surrounded by so much theater, of so many kinds, from so many countries, all at once.

I didn’t return again until 2005 when I was working at Performance Space 122. The festival had evolved and, of course, I was sixteen years older, no longer an aspiring actor but a producer of experimental performance. This was the year that, under Vallejo Gantner’s tutelage, I began to learn about the structure of the Festivals.

The International Festival is a rigorously curated High Art platform, a prestige engine that serves both the global connoisseur class and general audiences at once. The Fringe is actually a vastly complex ecology of venues, artists, producers and institutions that has only grown in scope and scale over the past decade. It is an extraordinary environment where amateurs and professionals coexist, where lowest common denominator standup comedy sits alongside – sometime in the same venues – as high concept performance from the UK, the EU and around the globe. Parsing the landscape is an art unto itself, no small part of which is mastering the jujitsu of serendipity and happenstance, of embracing fortuitous encounters with novelty, surprise and wonder, of following instincts and listening closely to the conversations around you. And of course it helps to know a bit about how the sausage is made.

Prestige venues such as the Traverse Theatre are highly curated, leveraging their existing reputation as purveyors of quality new playwriting and innovative theater to present work that is likely to be quite good. Producer Wolfgang Hoffmann ran Aurora Nova as a venue for a number of years – it was there that I saw some of my favorite shows ever, like rotozaza’s doublethink and Jo Strømgren’s The  Hospital and The Convent – and now presents work at multiple venues throughout the city, most notably Summerhall, which has become the “it” venue for cutting edge contemporary work. Since 2007 discerning audiences have flocked to Forest Fringe, an independently produced program of cutting edge contemporary work. If you are looking for contemporary dance and performance, for instance, Dancebase, Edinburgh’s National Centre for Dance, is a good bet.

As much as the Fringe – and to some extent the International – is a public facing festival, it is also a marketplace. This couldn’t be more explicit than in the programs at the Gilded Balloon and Underbelly that skew heavily towards comedy and where careers can be made for comedians, musicians and entertainers who get some heat and buzz. Venues like The Assembly Rooms will often host a mixture of comedy, theater, music, and other innumerable variants of live performance and can generate enormous amounts of energy and excitement. Over the past decade the producers of these venues have grown their enterprises, now running multiple spaces under the same brand. From a production perspective the transformation of the city in the three weeks prior to the festival is extraordinary as every square inch of available space – indoors and out – is converted into a performance venue.

Alongside the commercial marketplace is the non-profit marketplace that operates similarly but from a different set of values and priorities. For instance, when I attended Edinburgh in 2005, it was to participate in the British Council’s showcase of work from the UK. Presenters and producers from around the world are invited to see work for which the Council will provide touring support; often this is work that has been developed with Arts Council funding at home. When I attended Momentum this past summer, it was also made possible through the support of the British Council. Inspired by the success of the British Council showcase and facilitated by Festivals Edinburgh, other cities, countries and regions such as Poland, New Zealand, South Africa, China and Quebec have begun presenting showcases during the Festival.

The result is that Edinburgh in August is increasingly an opportunity for an unprecedented range of artists, programmers and audiences from around the world to commingle, converse and interact, to drink, eat and create together. [NB: The United States has no comparable programs to support artists touring abroad, cultural diplomacy or artistic engagement with the rest of the world].

One can speculate that while the market structures of commercial entertainment at the festival trade in economic capital, they are paralleled by market structures of non-profit arts dedicated to increasing social and cultural capital. This strand of inquiry wove its way through the many conversations I had over the course of my visit, cohering gradually as I moved through the city from venue to venue, show to show, conversation to conversation.

The first show I saw was Third Angel and mala voadora’s The Paradise Project, a play for two actors engaged in the business of designing a paradise. The show is performed by different actors in rotation, in various pairings on different nights and appeared to be instructions-based. It looked like there were some set pieces of dialogue but much of it was improvised within a certain set of rules where the actors were tasked with building the set, asking questions and repeating certain interactions. It had the feeling of a high concept game that at once explored the particularities of interpersonal relations and the macroscopic issue of constructing society.

The last show I saw was Bryony Kimmings’ and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ‘Til You Make It, an emotionally affecting exploration of mental illness – specifically depression – through the lens of the artists’ marriage. What could easily have been a self-indulgent exercise in socially responsible issue-oriented autobiography turned out to be a deft, exquisite and expert examination of love, marriage, self-image and society, of the intricate choreography of intimacy, the balancing act of taking care of the private self while performing the public self – and then deliberately creating a performance in front of, and with, an audience.

In between I saw another ten or twelve seemingly unrelated shows in as many theaters, but it was that moment in Complicité’s The Encounter when I began to see the interrelationship of all the component parts.

Prior to seeing Simon McBurney’s The Encounter I saw Robert LePage’s new work 887. It is the last thing one might expect from a figure like LePage: an autobiographical solo show about growing up poor and Francophone in Quebec City during the 1960s, when the Front de Libération du Québec was fighting for separation from the Anglophone majority. It was every bit as stylized and precise as one might imagine; I found it, as I do most of LePage’s work, visually sumptuous but formal and cold. That being said, learning LePage’s backstory – as he tells it – of being marginalized in his childhood because of class and language, made me reconsider the epic scope and ambition of his work and what might be driving him.

McBurney and LePage are at similar levels of accomplishment and renown, yet have radically different approaches to theater. McBurney shows you all the tricks he is to employ in the first five minutes of the show and then proceeds to amaze and transport you all the same; LePage never reveals his tricks, playing his hand close to the vest. Yet both are gifted actors, able to call upon their mastery of vocal and physical technique to captivate audiences. The worlds that they create in The Empty Space couldn’t be more different, but they both possess an understanding of the capacity of The Empty Space and the ability to conjure imagined worlds that are, in some sense, as real as the physical world.

We can imagine that every performance is a world unto itself, one that materializes and dematerializes in space over time during that period where individuals are physically together to experience it. We can then telescope out to imagine each venue as world unto itself, a dynamic ecosystem of nested imaginary worlds appearing, disappearing and reappearing over the course of weeks. If we consider venues not so much as spaces for presentation but sites of experience, they self-evolve their characteristics over time, eventually existing independently of physical presence.

Just as Aurora Nova once had a specific venue and now produces in multiple venues, many of the venues in Edinburgh are not venues year-round. The appearance, disappearance and reappearance of venues from year to year is its own persistent, dynamic ecosystem made possible by the designation of a specific duration of time as a “festival”. This designation transforms even the year-round venues while encouraging participants to suspend pedestrian time, to allow for disruption of everyday rules, regulations and expectations, to take risks. Research conducted by Festivals Edinburgh confirms increased risk-taking by audience members during Fringe.

And this is where it gets really exciting because we can telescope out even further to imagine the entire festival system as a complex network of nested worlds appearing, disappearing and reappearing over time, all predicated on acts of collective, collaborative imagination. These sites of experience for social imagination create conditions for envisioning possibility and transformation, individually or societally. We can telescope out yet again and think of the entire city as site of transformation and meaning making. It is an indirect beneficiary of having the imaginative capacity of the public activated during the Festival and directed towards experiencing the city in new ways.

Looking back at the week, beginning with The Paradise Project, continuing through LePage and McBurney through Fake It ‘Til You Make It, I start to make thematic connections, map moments of insight or personal and communal revelation, or even just a good laugh, and attach those moments to conversations had in pubs, at bus stops and in conference rooms, conversations that continue until the moment that I write this and even later, when I publish it online and you, the reader, join in. This is a blueprint for cultivating social and cultural capital, for identifying new ways of imagining “impact” of the arts along much longer arcs.

As abstract as this may sound, what I found so energizing about Momentum was that the people at Festivals Edinburgh are actually thinking about this stuff. As much as their work is grounded in the practical, they consider the macroscopic perspective as a guidepost for strategy and planning. In this way they are light years ahead of any other organization I have encountered. All of their research and thinking, including a toolkit for creating your own festival innovation lab, is freely available on their website. The Festivals API and associated data is open to anyone. They are working collaboratively to identify gaps or needs in the field – say, the lack of professional development opportunities for producers seeking to tour work internationally – and develop ways to intervene. At a moment when many arts organizations – especially in the U.S. – seem to be doubling down on competition and being proprietary, this is a radically forward-thinking approach.

For most people, especially general audiences, these concerns are only of passing interest. This sort of thinking will only affect them insofar as it makes their experience of a festival better, or worse. But for those of us who work in the cultural field and who are in the business of re-imagining cultural production for the 21st Century, who are in the business of cultivating publics and building communities – even temporary ones – the work being done at Festivals Edinburgh is groundbreaking and important. For those of us who are invested in the idea that imagination, creativity and artistic expression are essential to the full realization of individual capacity and to the realization of the best possible version of society, this kind of thinking is essential.

It goes without saying that the world is far different today than it was in 1947 when Rudolf Bing conceived of, and produced, the first Edinburgh International Festival to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. It is a world that is as vast and complex as it is immediate and interconnected. In any case, Bing’s Imperative is as valid today as it ever was, and whether you are philosophically engaged in the big picture issues or just looking for a hell of a good time, Edinburgh and its festivals is the place to be.

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