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British Council Edinburgh Showcase 2007

Sally Cowling has had plenty of experience getting people through borders. As The British Council’s Director Of Drama And Dance and instigator of The British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase, which has run bi-annually during the final week of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the last decade, she’s used to the 3AM phone calls from theatre companies attempting to move into new frontiers on the other side of the world. The day Cowling arrives in Edinburgh following the launch of 2007’s Showcase and an accompanying publication to coincide with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, her difficulties are altogether more local.

Her BA London-Edinburgh flight may only be two and a half hours late, but such a schedule-changing hiccup illustrates perfectly the potential for disaster in showing off more than 30 theatre companies wares before several hundred delegates, producers and bookers from across the globe. Then again, nobody said The British Council Edinburgh Showcase wasn’t founded on ambition on a grand scale.

“At the time we started in 1997,” Cowling remembers, “theatre was perceived to be the declining strand of the Fringe. That’s not to say there weren’t a lot of shows on. Just that some of the more interesting companies weren’t coming up to Edinburgh anymore. There wasn’t enough guarantee that they would get anything out of it in terms of career development. The way we work at The British Council is very much about working with partners overseas, and letting them make up their own mind about what work they want.

“So it’s about us, if you like, helping to bring a set of choices in front of them, though it would be naïve of me to think that we aren’t making choices too or editing, because we’re choosing what we think is the best work from a very broad palette. I hope we’re eclectic about it, because we’re not a funding body like that. So the Showcase became a place where people who brought shows to Edinburgh would have upwards of 150 promoters from across the world looking at their work. It’s about matchmaking, really.”

What was originally designed to be a one-odd event to give theatre a boost in a climate where the Fringe was seen to be being dominated by comedy, The British Council Edinburgh Showcase’s success story can be gleaned from the companies it backed in its first year. While established names including Steven Berkoff, Nottingham Playhouse and The Traverse Theatre (the only company to consistently feature in every Showcase so far) garnered The British Council’s attention, relatively new kids on the block such as Suspect Culture and Frantic Assembly were also put in the frame on level pegging with Out Of Joint, The Wrestling School and Northern Broadsides.

From that first year alone, David Harrower’s play, Knives In Hens, toured Germany, and has since been translated into 25 languages. Also in The Traverse programme that year was Mike Cullen’s controversial play, Anna Weiss, which toured 10 countries and was translated into 12 languages. At that time, such international exchanges were relatively rare. These days, however, it’s infinitely more common.

The thing that’s been really interesting,” Cowling maintains, “is the relationships that have developed out of initial meetings. Sometimes things don’t happen for four or five years, and then there might be a co-production, or some kind of follow up. When Improbable Theatre did the first Showcase, they got a couple of American dates. Out of that, when they were over there they then got a couple of huge tours. So there’s this huge arc of success. That’s really gratifying to see, because quite often we deliberately choose relatively young companies like Improbable were then, because international promoters already know about Cheek By Jowl and will already have a relationship. What’s more interesting, for us, and them, is to watch the next generation of companies coming through. We try to support them at that stage, because it can be quite scary, showing off your work to a couple of hundred promoters in that way.”

This is part of the reason why the number of companies in the Showcase is ring-faced, so promoters and artists can meet face to face during a busy time in a manner that isn’t too much of an attention-seeking scrum. So while the 2007 Showcase features two new plays by David Greig and Tam Dean Burn’s new adaptation of Luke Sutherland’s novel, Venus As A Boy, for The National Theatre Of Scotland, new works by less easy to define companies such as Stan’s Café, Filter and Gecko also make an appearance.

In terms of developing relationships, The Traverse followed up its Balkan tour of Henry Adam’s play, The People Next Door, with a return visit to Kosova with Adam’s follow-up, Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5 (In The Time Of The Messiah).

Vanishing Point’s Lost Ones also visited The Balkans en route to Sri Lanka, and found themselves stumbling on a Balkan band who will now take part in the company’s forthcoming production later this year. Similarly, when Grid Iron visited Jordan and Amman, they not only introduced site-specific work into a culture with no history of such a way of working, but they then employed an actor from the Arab world to appear in Roam, the company’s airport-set exploration of national identity.

For all the Edinburgh Showcase’s success stories, there have also been some disappointments over the years. Some shows inevitably haven’t lived up to their potential, while others don’t transfer or translate well once in a new venue.

“I never find it easy to explain why you choose something,” Cowling admits, “but even with lots of advisors and the best will in the world, there’s bound to be things that don’t work.”

Cynics might also argue that creating what looks like a selected tier of work in the manner that the Edinburgh Showcase delivers goes against the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s spirit of anything goes democracy. One might also observe that some theatre companies quite deliberately gear their work’s schedule towards the Showcase, skipping none-Showcase years in order to maximise their potential for inclusion.

Cowling acknowledges both perceptions, but, in the first instance, maintains that “It’s no different from a venue choosing what it programmes. By definition, when you curate something, there are things that aren’t being curated, but we come up early and see as many shows as we can that we don’t know about. We’re constantly trawling what’s going on, and if something appeals we will recommend that promoters go to see them. But we don’t put big British Council signs up everywhere, because we don’t want shows to be just things that promoters go to. It’s good for promoters to see audience reaction, so we try and cement the experience and make it as normal as possible.”

Of Cowling’s personal favourites over the last decade include 70 Hill Lane, by Improbable Theatre, who would later go on to success with The National Theatre Of Scotland in a co-production of The Wolves In The Walls. For the future, the Edinburgh Showcase will continue to pick up on theatrical trends, be they site-specific, verbatim, cross-platform or new writing.

“What we want to do,” Cowling says, “is for countries to maybe take work that surprises them, and not necessarily just take work that we might think fits in with our perceptions of their culture. We want to generate and encourage a mutual form of curiosity, and that can sometimes take years to bear fruit. When it does happen, and when it really works, it’s a real pleasure.”

In the mean-time, Cowling has a plane to catch, and other borders to open.

British Council Edinburgh Showcase 2007, August 20-25

The Herald, June 19th 2007



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