David Martin is sitting outside Leith Theatre to talk about the programme of this year’s Hidden Door, the grassroots festival he co-founded, and which will take up residence for a third time in the theatre they helped revitalise after it lay empty and unused for thirty years. Over the road is the site of the State Cinema, a similarly unused space, which Hidden Door expanded operations into last year prior to it becoming a building site where new residential properties will soon be built. As a metaphor for how things tend to go in Edinburgh, the image speaks for itself.
“It’s quite poignant,” says Martin, watching the scene of demolition on a break from his job teaching at Leith School of Art.
While this was always going to be the way with the State, its loss means that the expansive programme of theatre and dance that featured in both venues in 2018 alongside the audience-catching array of main-stage gigs can’t happen again. A financial short-fall following last year’s festival also necessitated a fundraising drive to enable this year’s events to happen at all.
As a result, after the ten-day extravaganzas of yore, Hidden Door is a smaller affair this year, confining itself to a four-night long weekend that focuses largely on gigs. A large visual art programme housed in the building’s assorted nooks and crannies will also happen as before. If this is Hidden Door getting back to its roots, for Martin and his small army of dedicated volunteers, it’s no less labour intensive.
“We initially thought we’d like to do a small-scale event to consolidate things,” says Martin, “and I suppose it looks like a little bit of a step back in a way while we get back on top of things. What we’ve discovered is that while a four-day event might look smaller, it’s still a big deal to put on, and what we’ve got is pretty fantastic.”
This is evident from a line-up which on the first-night features a female-led bill of R&B star Ray BLK, off-kilter pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma and Dunbar’s own rap trio The Honey Farm, as well as Edinburgh electronic duo Chuchoter and Glasgow DJ Sarra Wild. Friday will feature a nine-hour night of electronica led by Ninja Tune record label star Nathan Fake, local duo Maranta and Manchester’s Kelly Lee Owens.
A Saturday night part-based show features Anglo/Spanish trio Crystal Fighters and electronic quartet Low Island, while Sunday night will close with a more band-based affair led by Glasgow quintet Acrylic, Cigarettes After Sex, Dundee two-piece St Martiins and New York-based Miss Grit.
“We wanted each night to have a different identity,” says Martin, “and while we still want to be experimental, and attract new audiences, we also want people to be able to sing along.”
Hidden Door first started as a micro-festival at what is now Assembly Roxy back in 2010. After taking time out, the festival relocated to the now demolished former home to City of Edinburgh Council’s lighting depot. Over Hidden Door’s two annual residencies there, the enclosed courtyard and occupation of dilapidated buildings on all sides lent the event the air of a temporary counter-cultural village a long way from the current hotel development which took its place.
It was Hidden Door’s move into Leith Theatre for the first time three years ago that captured the public imagination, and, galvanised by a long-standing local campaign to re-open the space, helped put the venue back on the map. Since then, Edinburgh International Festival have utilised the theatre for their own contemporary music programme, while other events, including the epic stage production of The Last Days of Mankind, have taken place there. If all this other activity has slightly stolen Hidden Door’s thunder, Martin remains both pragmatic and philosophical enough to recognise that’s how things go.
“When EIF said they wanted to go down to Leith Theatre we were dead chuffed,” he says, “but it means we have to work harder for what we want to do. EIF’s great for putting on more established acts, but our programme is more about featuring what’s innovative, and is more about what’s going on now. One of our challenges, and it’s the same for EIF, is getting an Edinburgh crowd to come along to something they might not have heard before. There isn’t that culture in Edinburgh. A lot of the time people would rather save up for something they know rather than take a chance.”
Despite this, Martin is unbowed in terms of Hidden Door having a future.
“It’s pretty exciting for us just now,” he says. “It feels like a really good moment in our development. We’ve plans to take Hidden Door to other places, and maybe take artists abroad and bring artists from elsewhere here. One of the main things about Hidden Door is to keep our international connections going no matter what.”
As the last year has proved, none of this is going to be easy to realise.
“Festivals are really struggling at the moment,’ says Martin, “and the business model we use is very high risk, so if you don’t get something right it’s really difficult to keep things going. Part of our task over the next year is to try and work out how we can fund everything we do, but I think the important thing for Hidden Door is to keep the spirit right, and make sure we’re not caught up in too much bureaucracy. Ultimately we’re about trying to create space for people to be able to innovate, and to be able to take the risks they want to take.”
Hidden Door runs at Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, May 30-June 2. Full details can be found at www.hiddendoorblog.org
The Herald, May25th 2019