Into the Forest

Feature in Issue 20-4 | Winter 2008

Forest Fringe director Andy Field reflects on the Edinburgh landscape.

Edinburgh in August. Briefly the unrelenting drizzle had subsided, replaced with something that might optimistically be described as overcast. It was the final night of The Paper Cinema and Kora’s The Night Flyer, the show that had headlined our venue, Forest Fringe. As usual before the show I was occupied with rearranging chairs and lighting candles while Kora rehearsed his guitar loops, the gentle plinking echoing through the dark, empty hall; a beautiful, fragile moment of calm in an otherwise frantic month. Having checked my sound cues and made sure that they were ready to go I headed downstairs to see the box office. ‘How are we doing?’ I asked. They simply pointed at the queue of people snaking out of the door and down the street, waiting for the possibility of standing room at the back of the auditorium. I didn’t quite know what to say.

Forest Fringe was an attempt at doing things differently. Edinburgh in August is a dizzyingly exciting place but few would deny that it has its problems. Far from being the all-welcoming democracy that it is frequently championed as, the Fringe festival is riddled with suffocating conventions that promote only a very limited spectrum of work. Because of the eye-watering price of renting space, shows generally have to be no longer than an hour and have a breakneck get-in and get-out time. In order to get reviews and therefore find an audience amongst so much else going on, shows have to be on for at least a week. Shows must be squeezed into tiny black spaces. They must be parcelled and gift-wrapped and offered to a bleary-eyed audience like fast food – to be considered, consumed and discarded in the space before the next of the five shows they have lined up to see that day. Subtlety struggles to breathe in Edinburgh amidst all the shouting and the brightly coloured show T-shirts and the neverending paper sea of flyers.

Forest Fringe was our response to this. A space outside of the official Fringe festival that attempted to dismantle some of those conventions and encourage people to see afresh all the things that are still possible in Edinburgh. We wanted to encourage artists to experiment in front of eager audiences in the midst of the most gaudily, loudly, brilliantly theatrical environment you’ll ever find.

It was a wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating couple of weeks. What I think struck me most was quite how comfortable people were with genuinely trying something out to see if it worked, in the full knowledge that it might not. Chris Goode getting up to read a staggering piece of sound poetry he’d never performed all the way through before; Abigail Conway’s hauntingly lovely installation piece made especially for the venue; Bristol artist Ed Rapley moving around the building finding new spaces for his intimate one-on-one encounters; Kora improvising a new soundtrack of swirling, looping guitar sounds to an old Brothers Quay film picked at random by someone in the audience. Something about the whole set-up, from the pay-what-you-can tickets to the informality of a venue staffed by people performing there, to the ageing church hall itself, smelling of old dust and varnished wood, seemed to give people a confidence to risk something of themselves, trusting that we were all somehow in this together. This was for me what gave the place its atmosphere – the spirit of generosity from both artists and audiences and the giddily intoxicating sense generated that anything might be worth trying.

It was by no means perfect. And those old conventions too easily slunk back in, but it felt like a start. Next year we may well be back, though what I’m more interested in is in seeing other people following our lead – finding a space in which to play and working together to make something happen. Hopefully we showed that if you build it, they will come.

Forest Fringe is a not-for-profit co-operative venue run by theatre-makers Andy Field and Deborah Pearson in collaboration with the Forest Cafe, and with the support of Battersea Arts Centre. The venue won a Herald Angel Award 2008; Night Flyer won an Arches Brick Award and was shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award. See www.forestfringe.co.uk

The Forest Café in Bristo Place Edinburgh is a year-round venue and haven for all things alternative, offering free events on a regular basis. See www.theforest.org.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-4
p. 24