Despite the intensity and richness of the festival seasons across Edinburgh (and yes, there are others beyond August) there is always room for something to shake the status quo and demonstrate a sliver of uniqueness, an alternative angle, or to provide accessibility.
With the progressive manoeuvre towards additional (and different) festivals in the city, StagEHd, one of Edinburgh’s newest Theatre festivals, launched over the final weekend of May, taking over the Ross Bandstand within the Princes St Gardens from Saturday the 28th – to Sunday 29th, offering a space with no limitations of creative risk for those taking part, and a chance to demonstrate those who lost venues and places during recent Lockdowns.
Openness is the foundation of this festival, with an accessible and encouraging invitation outstretched to Edinburgh’s finest independent, grassroots and community theatre groups, who were encouraged to produce showcase pieces. Notably, The Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group takes a prominent place in Sunday’s staging with Claire Wood’s site-specific piece rocks. The festival significantly stems from EGTG’s determination to continue producing away from traditional venues, coming together to create an opportunity to promote homegrown talents.
StagEHd loudly publicises its most encouraging feature – cost. There is none, for audiences at least. It’s an opportunity to broaden the reach of the cities’ art communities while utilising an often-under-utilised space in the heart of Edinburgh, appealing to residents and tourists as free theatrical, cultural and musical entertainment in the shadow of the Castle from morning into the early evening.
Shifting the dynamic of productions away from their temporary digital homes and back into the physical. The creation of the festival serves somewhat like water to test their comfort, its creation very much in line with responses towards the closure of art spaces during the height of 2020 pandemic. And from children’s pieces to operatic, one-man shows and historical dramas, StagEHd certainly boasts a substantial catalogue – and while the individual quality of productions expectantly varies, we’ll offer a brief overview and thoughts on the Sunday pieces we managed to catch:
A notorious pirate, a brave young soul, and a doctor fond of a tipple or two, Galoshins possess the familiar elements of most tall tales; swashbuckling, love and loss, and delightfully colourful camp energy to carry through the crowds.
Capturing the quintessential nature of folk theatre, Galoshins furthers the country’s rich history of storytelling, bringing light to a traditional tale with a few contemporary gags thrown in for the wider audience. Performed at eye-level, the use of the space is limited – never setting foot on the actual bandstand, leaving much of the potential impression at the side-lines.
Chipper, engaging, and short enough to enjoy your picnic before the salad wilts or before the more substantial issues of projection and performance elements take hold.
A production of our time – Claire Wood’s new piece rocks is a site-specific show written and constructed for the festival. Part historical escapade, more so eco-political commentary, set in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle and the ever-present, dormant volcano it sits upon; a mound of rocks, watchers, which have seen the city through the peakiest of highs, and the depravity of lows. Yet there it is, watching over the city for all its fault, witnessing the ‘progression’ of humanity as we pave our roads, burn our coal, and rake the oceans. And digging. Always, digging.
The nature of the show ties directly into Scotland’s history and communities, stretching down to the shores of Leith, to the ports of Dundee and beyond as the fisherman, their wives, the seaweed collectors, and of course, their children all move throughout time. Wood’s writing weaves time through the piece, though not in a linear fashion; as a contemporary clubber waits for her date while others in the past debate the introduction of oil over coal. And despite this shifting pattern, the narrative flows well, aided by the more spoken word aspects of the rocks, these watchers played by Brian Neill, Wendy Mathison and Alan Patterson.
All provide a sterling presence, and though immovable objects in themselves, the people surrounding them provide momentum for the show, conducted at the foot of the stage, as the likes of Eirini Stamkou, Claire Morand and Neil and Flynn Colquhoun all carry the show’s more choreographed moments.
There’s little question that Callie Rose Petal’s Underworld Opera, KATABASIS has developed a significant following and spoken to a select crowd of fans and vitally woefully underrepresented and respected communities. Self-described as a vulnerable and shocking conceptual album, the expectations of the crowd are indeterminable but safe to say division of the piece is evident.
Utilising space and platform to draw out the light from the shadows of the infinite complexities of a lived trans experience. An operatic performance communicated in seven parts, complete with orchestrated electronics and distortion effects, the path through the Underworld, past the follies of Icarus and the might of Arachne and beyond is littered with referential elements of the great Greek tragedies, all tied directly into the vulnerabilities and experiences of us real-world mortals. With vocals which plunge into the avenues of rock operas and elements of death metal, one thing is for certain – Callie Rose Petal promised to close the festival with an explosive climax, and delivered on that.
KATABASIS demonstrates the promise, and limitations, of the StagEHd festival – A piece many audience members couldn’t form any attachment with, flickering out as the sun in the sky followed suit. It demonstrates the static nature of the festival, where the closing piece is given no real introduction, conclusion, or build-up which may be required for the more avant-garde concept pieces amongst the more traditionalist theatre aspects.
But herein is where the sour notes emerge for the festival, not least those attending and perhaps not realising what they had signed up for. With a programme of exceptionally diverse productions, from children’s pieces to comedic shows, from musical extravaganzas and transfeminine operatic, the broadness of the festival is impressive, if unfocused. There’s little in the way of coherency other than an encouragement of grassroots talents to set the tone and feel of the festival, that other than being a histrionic celebration, there’s no clear intention or method communicated to audiences.
A large drawback, in terms of returning viewers, is the lacking synergy between shows – sometimes with two-hour gaps between productions, with no formal announcements/publicity or host to tie together the shows. This is an encouraging space where the limitations of genre have no framework and makes for a marvellous way to offer a sliver of an idea of the new creatives and fresh ideas surrounding us – but even then, StagEHd lacks an identity. There are snippets of information relating to the shows, but regrettably, these scaled-down blurbs lead to a few surprises. Not always pleasant.
There are productions here which may not receive as open an invitation from other festivals and at least economically, be unable to stage shows in other venues – a persistent query raised around the
profiteering use of space during ‘peak’ festival times. There’s no exclusion here, and there shouldn’t be one – but clarity and identity are a must. StagEHd is to be encouraged to progress and evolve as a festival for grassroots creatives, to utilise the reach and promote the unsung areas of the industry – but the quality of these productions cannot trickle through the gaps unnoticed, and when all is said and done, that is what audiences will remember from these opening performances. Not what they spent (or didn’t), but what was watched and garnered.
Full information relating to StagEHd’s 2022 programme, and how to become involved with the 2023 season may be found here.
Photo Credit – J.L. Preece