The image of street theatre in Scotland is one of Edinburgh Festival Fringe buskers spray-painted silver and clogging up the highways. Twenty-first century Hogmanay, however, has introduced revellers to major European spectacles on a grand scale. These have braved elements the companies involved rarely encounter on the European circuit, and have emerged triumphantly. This year, however, with the inaugural Feet First festival of open-air theatre seeing in the New Year by taking over Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, thirteen sets of home-grown performers aim to prove that, whatever the weather, Scotland too can be a major player on the street theatre scene. With already familiar names such as Cora Bissett, Al Seed, Mischief La-Bas and Plutot La Vie lined up on the programme, word on the street suggests it might just work.
Prime mover behind Feet First is its producer and co-director Chloe Dear of Iron-Oxide productions, who has pulled the Feet First programme together with Boilerhouse director and co-producer Paul Pinson. The pair have formatted the evening so the Royal Mile is transformed into a wonderland which exists solely in its own realm. It even has its own currency.
“You’ll be given Neuros as you go in,” says Dear. “You have to go to the human cash machine courtesy of Mischief La Bas. You can use these ten Euro notes on the stalls in the Market of Optimism, and you might want to buy five minutes with your guardian angel. Once you go through the portal, it really does become another world.”
Once inside that world, audience members are invited to promenade as they wish for the next two hours, taking in such theatrical delights as Al Seed’s Window Of Opportunity, which takes place in the booth normally used for paying City Council bills, and The Wishgatherers, The Puppet Lab’s large scale contribution. Cora Bissett will perform her own mini musical, Deep Breath, Plutot La Vie step in with their physically based Flik Flak, while RJ McConnell’s sound based News Real will imagine 2009 as a projected broadcast. Ronnie Heeps and Graham Tydeman will present an animated tableau called Optimismo Head, while Tydeman will also present a very special musical instrument in the form of The Aquaphon. More music is to be had from Orkestra del Sol’s Moveable Feast, while the evening will close with Wish-box, a grand finale from Iron-Oxide which will feature aerialists on an epic scale. All of which has been designed with a timely theme in mind.
“Hope,” says Dear. “Optimism. It’s the first day of the New Year, so it’s about casting off the baggage of the old year and looking towards the future. Cora’s piece, for instance, is about having the most dreadful Hogmanay ever, about casting off those layers, and the release you get letting go of old lovers and all the baggage that goes with it, so you can take a step forward and soar free.”
All of which should make for a pretty emotional spectacle, and, symbolically, may well mark the beginning of a new dawn in home grown outdoor work.
“There’s been an enormous explosion in the street arts and circus world that’s happened over recent years,” Dear says, “and there’s a lot of talent here in Scotland. We wanted to work with a lot of different artists who work outdoors already, and also to look at other people who are interested in or have just started working outside, then coming together to create an event that fits the time and a place – the Royal Mile on the 1st of January – and to create something together. At the same time, all the pieces of work stand alone, and each of them can be toured or shown elsewhere. They’re not just one-off pieces. For us, it really shows the confidence in the street arts and circus sector, and how they’re moving towards the future in Scotland.
“At the moment there aren’t very many opportunities for us to present work in Scotland, especially the larger scale stuff. There are lots of opportunities for smaller scale stuff at various festivals, but we don’t really see any of it here in Edinburgh. The profile for street work and street theatre – and I mean it in its broadest, more theatrically realised sense, not just the busking end of the spectrum – points to more and more people being interested in creating that kind of work.
At the same time, there’s been a massive increase in the number of people interested in circus. Four years ago, when Boilerhouse were doing their outdoor show, The Bridge, we could only find two Scottish aerialist. For the aerial show in Feet First we auditioned fourteen people. What’s been happening is that a lot of people have been going down south. They train in London, get tied into London and Bristol, and don’t come back because there’s not enough work for people, there’s no training, and there’s very little money for the sector as a whole. That’s changing now. There are developments going ahead next year, and we’re looking towards a full blown circus school next year.”
Such activities recalls companies such as Welfare State and Improbable, both of whom created big scale spectacles, as well as the giant spider which has become a defining image of Liverpool’s stint as European Capital of Culture. It also recalls the Tollcross State Circus, a community initiative set up in Edinburgh during the 1980s, when community participation was still relatively well funded.
“Now,” says Dear, “it’s possible to have a career in circus and street arts in this country. Lots of people go into circus as a lifestyle choice. Now they’re going into it because it’s vocational. To be really good at it you can’t play at it, and now artists are helping each other, so there’s more of a sense of community than ever before. What’s really exciting for me is that something I’ve been jumping up and down about for years is finally starting to happen.”
Given Feet First’s hopeful theme, one can’t help but admire Dear’s own optimism. The elements, after all, remain unpredictable.
“The forecast at the moment is pretty good,” Dear says. “We’re prepared to take the risks, and the weather doesn’t stop shows that often. Scottish audiences are pretty hardy, and they will turn up in their droves. It’s not so much the rain we have to worry about as the wind. We’ve factored all these things into the work, though, so I honestly believe it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”
Dear sees Feet First as a pilot project which could tour internationally. It’s also flexible enough to change its component parts.
“There’s a lot of interest in it,” she says. “We could actually take this show over to any other city quite easily, not just in its current set-up, but with other elements added in. Something like Feet First shows that people will come out for this form of collective entertainment, and that we have a need within ourselves to share in that way. As for ourselves, we do feel like we’re jumping in feet first, because we do actually feel it’s a very bold thing to be doing, to premiere thirteen brand new pieces of work on the first day of the year. I can’t think of another event that operates quite like that.”
Feet First, Thursday January 1st, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, 7-9.30pm
The Herald, A sorely edited version of this was put on the news pages on December 30th 2008