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Beyond The Fringe - Edinburgh's Underground Theatre Scene

When Tightlaced Theatre and Sporadic Music's co-production of Susanna Mulvihill's new play, 1933: Eine Nacht Im Kabarett, opens in Edinburgh's Summerhall complex in a couple of weeks, it not only marks the opening of 2014's home-grown theatre season. The show also points to a fertile under-the-radar arts scene that exists in the capital via a network of young companies working in venues outwith traditional theatre spaces.

This has recently manifested itself, both in the In Your Face Theatre company's recent revival of the stage version of Irvine Welsh's novel, Trainspotting at Out of the Blue's converted drill hall home, and in the Village Pub Theatre's ongoing presentations of new work in the back room of the bar the company have adopted as home. Previously, the Siege Perilous company have produced work at the Malmaison Hotel on the Shore, while Creative Electric have been devising experimental work with young people in the bowels of the Bongo Club. Tightlaced, meanwhile, along with another company, Black Dingo, have opened Discover 21, a thirty-five seat venue housed in St Margaret's House, the former office block turned into studio spaces which previously operated as The Arts Complex.

While such activities puts paid to the myth that things only happen in Edinburgh in August, it hasn't always been this way, as artistic director of Tightlaced and co-founder of Discover 21, Jen McGregor, explains.

“When I started Tightlaced in 2008, there didn't seem to be any kind of grassroots theatre scene in Edinburgh,” she says, “and if I wanted to do something outwith the legitimate theatre venues, I had to go to Glasgow.”

While Summerhall has opened things out for companies like Tightlaced, the Village Pub Theatre, which was founded in 2012 by writer James Ley and others, effectively created a space for themselves.

“It was really to do something for the Leith Festival,” explains Ley, who is one of a core of professional playwrights at VPT, which also includes Morna Pearson, Catherine Grosvenor and Colin Bell. “We didn't think it would have a life, but there was a whole group of actors and directors keen to get involved.”

The result has been a series of co-operatively run themed seasons of short works performed script in hand. More recently, VPT has appointed Caitlin Skinner as its first artistic director.

“I think Edinburgh's got such fantastic artistic institutions,” says Skinner, a recent recipient of a Creative Scotland artist's bursary, “but up to now it's seemed to lack something grassroots and informal, but in a city full of institutions, I think people really respond to something that's a little underground and hidden away.”

That's certainly the case for In Your Face Theatre, co-founded by director Christopher Rybak and actor Greg Esplin after graduating from Performing Arts Studio Scotland, based at the city's Telford College.

“We were feeling pretty uninspired by a lot of the shows we'd been involved in,” says Rybak, “and just decided to do something ourselves.”

In Your Face's debut was a production of Tom McGrath's The Hard Man, co-written with Jimmy Boyle, whose prison experiences the play was drawn from. “Once that was over, we realised that we wanted to do something else, and that it was going to be a proper adventure.”

Rybak draws much inspiration from film, and stresses the immersive nature of In Your Face's aesthetic in a manner shared by Creative Electric.

Founded by director Heather Marshall in 2009 as a youth theatre, Creative Electric has developed into an experimentally inclined professional company that has performed in places ranging from the Bongo Club toilets to skate-parks, taking in an arts centre roof in Stockholm en route.

“A lot of our work is interactive,” Marshall points out, “and deliberately isn't performed in regular spaces. If you perform in spaces where young people go, they're more likely to become interested.”

Following the success of their 2013 piece, Auditory Hallucinations, Creative Electric have been developing their next production, based on a child's experiences after he chose to wear a space mask to hide a facial deformity.

“We started off small, but are now at the stage where we're funded, and ideally would like to tour Scotland and internationally.”

While Creative Electric have found their niche, part of the problem for many Edinburgh theatre companies is sustainability. In a city dominated by high rents and precious few spaces, only site-specific company, Grid Iron, along with Stellar Quines, have survived. The fact that Grid Iron are site-specific is itself telling.

That's not to say there isn't a rich history of independent theatre in Edinburgh, from the collectively-run Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop on the 1980s to the Gateway Exchange based Mandela Theatre, which sired the Boilerhouse company.

Such canny co-opting of spaces runs all the way back to the 1960s, when a young GI called Jim Haynes began hosting play readings in the world's first ever paperback bookshop he opened in a site where Edinburgh University's Informatics Centre now stands. Haynes' readings, of course, gave rise to the founding of the Traverse Theatre, itself now a world-renowned institution.

Bringing things full circle, the Traverse will shortly be hosting a Best of the Village Pub Theatre week. VPT are also recipients of the 2013 Tom McGrath Maverick Award, which allows the company to develop new ideas. Discover 21, meanwhile, will be hosting a series of events under the name, Collider, which aims to pair writers up with directors sympathetic to their work.

“Things are cyclical,” McGregor observes, “There are bursts of energy like the one that the Traverse came out of, but just now there's a lot happening, and it's a very exciting time to be working in Edinburgh. As far as Discover 21 is concerned, I'm hoping that, as word spreads, it becomes a place where people can try things out with minimum financial risk, and where artists and companies can pool resources. I want Discover 21 to become a hub for people working at a grassroots level, and I want people to be able to make experimental theatre in Edinburgh for as long as I can.”

1933: Eine Nacht Im Kabarett, Summerhall, Edinburgh, January 22nd-February 2nd 2014; Best of the Village Pub Theatre, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 31st-April 5th.
Beyond The Fringe - Edinburgh's underground theatre companies

Discover 21 - This newly opened 35-seat space is housed in a former office block, and has already played host to several productions that allow companies to experiment in a low-risk environment. Big aspirations and open access are its aims.

Tightlaced Theatre – Founded by writer/director Jen McGregor in 2008 as a new writing company, Tightlaced have produced several shows, with 1933: Eine Nacht Im Kabarett its most high-profile to date.

In Your Face Theatre – Formed by graduates of Telford College's Performing Arts Studio Scotland, In Your Face's productions of Tom McGrath's The Hard Man and the stage version of Irvine Welsh's novel, Trainspotting, puts the audience in the thick of the action in a provocatively immersive style.

Creative Electric – Originally founded as a youth theatre company, Creative Electric's physical-based style has already seen the company perform in Sweden. Drawing from real-life incidents, the company's aim is to produce a highly-charged interactive experience.

The Herald, December 31st 2013

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