You can tell there’s a recession on, this page observed last November, when people start doing Brechtian cabaret. The context was a production of a Brecht short story, Four Men and a Poker Game, which was performed in the Tron Theatre’s Victorian Bar. While not strictly cabaret, the setting nevertheless allowed actor Davie Mackay and composer David Paul Jones, who played and sang a live musical accompaniment, a degree of intimacy which more formal spaces lack. This production followed on the heels of David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s mini musical rom-com, Midsummer, which similarly explored a small is beautiful aesthetic at The Traverse.
Both shows may have been rough round the edges, but in terms of delivery, possessed infinitely more heart than any commercial-minded big budget affair you’d care to name. Midsummer itself was the first of a new Traverse Too strand of low risk, low budget work. All of which suggested that, with the credit crunch about to bite, something was most definitely in the air that seemed to be drawing inspiration from the best of 1970s grassroots ‘poor theatre.’ A couple of months on, and with the global economy in freefall just as liberal democracy looks set to return to the White House, a slew of small-scale showcase events seem to confirm the above.
First out the traps was Words, Words, Words, a monthly night of new work presented in the Traverse bar under the mentorship of the theatre’s Associate playwright, Zinnie Harris. Hot on its heels was Ink, initiated by younger writers to present performed readings of specially commissioned short work, and which alternates between the Traverse and the Tron. Next month sees two more monthly nights move into the Traverse bar. Where Wildfire, initiated by associate director Cheryl Martin, aims to bring poets and rappers into the theatre to work alongside more recognisably dramatic writers, Noisy Nights, hosted by composer John Harris, aims to take avant-garde music out of the shadows and into a more user-friendly environment.
Already established at the Tron is the Manifesto Political Kabaret, hosted by actor Tam Dean Burn, and The Arches celebrated Scratch nights, at which emerging artists present works-in-progress at their most ad hoc. To paraphrase two 1960s anti-establishment anthems, there’s something clearly happening here, but what exactly is going on?
“My main thing is to be politically current,” Burn says of Manifesto. “Brecht and Robert Burns were products of their times, and I think some of the most important cultural moments have happened during times of recession.”
In terms of Arches Scratch nights, Jackie Wylie sees a lack of money as “both exciting and dangerous in equal measure. There’s something happening in terms of people needing some sense of community and something happening that’s in the moment. In terms of the Arches, there’s something defiant here in terms of the work we put on, because we’ve never had any money anyway.”
For Searle, Ink is “an antidote to bigger work. Because this is instant and immediate, it’s more exciting than having to work within a production system that sometimes takes years for work to get on. There’s a political thing as well, in being able to communicate with our audiences more directly.”
Wildfire, according to Martin, is “a way of providing a platform for a lot of new writers, and make them feel like they have a stake in your building. It’s experimenting for experimenting’s sake. I want to see artists push themselves out of their comfort zone. But because it’s experimental it doesn’t have to be po-faced. In times of recession, people want entertainment, but who says entertainment can’t be intellectual.”
With this in mind, Harris has set up Noisy Nights to be as much a social thing as anything. “For me it’s explicitly a hunting ground to find new artists who can try things out. In terms of music being used in theatre, the door is starting to be pushed, and I’d like to see a lot more of it.”
Much of this activity may simply be down to regime change inside respective theatres. Andy Arnold was a long-term champion of filling every nook and cranny of The Arches during his seventeen year tenure there. Now, as Wylie picks up Arnold’s DIY baton, Arnold himself is clearly aiming to take some of that spirit with him into The Tron, which he took over last year. Similarly, Dominic Hill’s appointment at The Traverse has ushered in space for a more speak-easy approach inherent in all the new initiatives.
Precedents for such events are many, with the roots of some dating as far back as the 1970s. Manifesto forges a direct umbilical link with the original Manifesto, which took place at The Traverse before moving to Theatre Workshop, where a young Andy Arnold had recently been in charge. Around the same time, Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop was founded to provide a platform for new work presented as performed readings and followed by a discussion. A similar set-up existed in Glasgow in the 1980s under the auspices of the Writers and Actor’s Workshop, while in the late 1980s, Tom McGrath presented daily readings during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the old Lyceum Studio.
More recently, The Monday Lizard was an informal platform that took place in the Traverse bar, and was again founded again by McGrath during his stint as Associate Playwright for Scotland. Emmanuel modelled Ink on similar events run in London by Paines Plough theatre co, while Martin ran a night at Manchester’s Contact Theatre called Raw Jam. Harris based Noisy Nights on the model of Whatever Happened To Music?, a monthly event he ran in the Tron Victorian Bar, and itself modelled on an Amsterdam based model called The Night of the Unexpected. Harris also cites Cubed, a cross-artform season of work produced at The Traverse in 2006.
One of the biggest hits in Edinburgh a couple of years ago was Ravenhill For Breakfast, in which a reading of a different new play by Mark Ravenhill took place every morning. A compendium of these plays went on to full production in London. Such a small scale success story was an inspiration to many of the current events, while Wylie first introduced Scratch to The Arches after seeing a series of One 0’ Clock Scratches at The Underbelly in Edinburgh. Presented by Battersea Arts Centre, whose own pioneering Scratch events first introduced the world to a fledgling version of Jerry Springer – The Opera, Wylie immediately saw its potential. Another BAC initiative was The Forest Fringe. Based in the Forest Café, this series of readings, workshops and Scratches aimed to recapture the rawness of fringe theatre, and duly picked up a Herald Angel for its efforts.
“I wanted to get international companies like The T.E.A.M. working alongside young Scottish companies,” Wylie says of her early Scratches, “and get them working alongside each other. The Scratches that don’t work are the ones when artists try and do something polished, as though it’s a showcase. The best ones are really rough.”
Roughness, immediacy and informality are the raison d’etre of all these events.
“It’s funny,” Searle observes, “because a couple of years ago there seemed to be nothing like this going on in Scotland. Now there’s so much of it, and it’s all being done in different ways, that it really feels like it’s filling a void.”
Scratch, The Arches, Glasgow, February 5th
Ink, February 15th and April 26th, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh; March 24th, Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Wildfire, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 16, March 23rd, April 27th, May 18th
Noisy Nights, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 23rd, April 20th, June 8th
Manifesto Political Kabaret, March 29th, The Tron, Glasgow
Words, Words, Words, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 30th, May 4th, June 22nd
The Herald, January 27th 2009