Open Minds, Open Doors – a day spent at Summerhall

A rainy Edinburgh evening, and there are puddles everywhere. I’m in a queue round the back of Summerhall, next to the Pickering Gin distillery, near the Paines Plough Roundabout tent (a big yellow geodesic dome) and one young man standing nearby says to his friend: ‘So this is where all the clever stuff is, you know, not your regular comedy shows and stuff, like Pleasance, but….’ I wait to hear how he’s going to finish this thread, …like, experimental modern dance and things like that.’ The friend tries to sound interested but his oh, uh huh? doesn’t sound convincing.

He’s half-right. Summerhall is the Edinburgh Fringe venue where you’re most likely to see the more experimental sort of shows – not just dance, but also contemporary European theatre, live art, and circus-theatre that is about a lot more than tricks and turns. But it is also (in that Roundabout tent and elsewhere) the best of new writing – comedian Richard Gadd’s debut play Baby Reindeer, about his experience of being stalked, is a hot ticket in this category. You’ll find plenty of reviews from Summerhall in Total Theatre, as so many of the artists we love and support play there – this year, for example, sees the return of previous TT Award winners Ridiculusmus, Sh!t Theatre and Rachel Mars, amongst many other excellent shows.   

Summerhall is not just a Fringe venue – it operates year-round as an arts centre running exhibitions, shows, workshops, and talks – and it hosts the archive of the venue and gallery’s founder Richard Demarco (the legendary artist and promoter who co-founded the Traverse Theatre, and presented early UK performances by Marina Abramović, Joseph Beuys, and Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot 2 group).

One of the delights of a visit to Summerhall in August is the chance to see the visual art exhibitions, and to experience some of the work programmed into unconventional spaces around the site.

This year, the courtyard is hosting the Swallow the Sea Caravan – which is indeed a vintage caravan that can seat an audience of four people, with a roster of three shows on offer on different days. The day I went along, it was Lamp, which was a lovely 15-minute object theatre piece in which two performer-puppeteers animate a pair of large lampshades, which take on a life of their own (of course the whole point of object animation) in a gently absurdist narrative. Sometimes the lampshades ‘dance’ in the space alone; sometimes hands, feet, and heads pop out, creating wonderfully weird moving pictures. It’s all accompanied by an acapella sung soundtrack of hums, sighs, and squeals. Lovely stuff! 

In front of the main building is another structure, a shipping container, which is the site for Darkfield’s Coma. This follows on from previous Darkfield shows Seance and Flight with a similar setting – a 20-minute show set in the dark, exploring fear and anxiety – the audience member wearing headphones that provide a high-quality surround-sound soundtrack. Invited in to the container, we pass an archaic coffee machine and grafitti saying Don’t Take the Pill, to find a double row of bunk beds, stacked in threes. Each bed unit is covered in white vinyl – everything is white, with a blue-white light illuminating the space. I go for a floor-level bunk, it feels like the safest bet. We put on our headphones, and an unnaturally slow and calm authoritative voice (think: secure institution – intensive care unit, asylum, jail) suggests that we take off our shows and settle down. There is, we are told, a pill on a little shelf (check: yep, there it is) and we are told to take it, it won’t harm us. Do I take the pill? Yep. It’s a theatre show. They’re not going to poison or drug us, are they? The lights start to dim, we are warned that this is our last chance to leave, and soon we are in total darkness, with just the voice for company. The voice that becomes voices, near or far. There are footsteps, and skirmishes, and then someone is (apparently) whispering in my ear… I enjoy Coma – for me, it’s a purely sensory experience, a kind of virtual reality fairground ride. Once the experience has ended, there is not a lot left to ruminate on.

Inside the main building, there are numerous visual art exhibitions.  Jane Frere’s Exit – 100 Days of Khaos ‘holds up a mirror to the continuing political turmoil that has  followed the narrow EU referendum vote’ with a series of arresting lino cuts, murals, collages, and prints (mostly in a palette of graphical black, red and white) along with film animations created in collaboration with Georges Eloi Thibault. Scottish artist Alan Smith’s The New World is an interesting series of works, a contemporary response to Tiepolo’s 225-year-old painting Il Mondo Nuovo, in which Smith – for most of his life a painter and ceramicist – discovers the medium of photography in his later life, but developing that new interest with a painterly eye.

Down in the basement, there’s space given over to the graphics and campaign materials Extinction Rebellion, with a number of linked performance works programmed.

Also in the basement, Mats Staub presents 21: Memories of Growing Up – a really wonderful installation piece based on filmed interviews, with the starting point the question: Where were you when you turned 21? In this edition of the work, more than 80 subjects are featured. Entering the room (two linked rooms, in fact) you see large screens lining the walls, with seats and headphones with each. Each ‘station’ features four interviewees. I decide that in the time I have (you can spend up to two hours in the space – I have an hour in there and wish it could be longer) to listen to as many interviews as I can in full, rather than nipping butterfly-like around the space. So I mostly stay put, and get to hear the stories of Ms Marie, a woman of Asian heritage from Cape Town, South Africa; Mr Modai, from Eilat, Israel; and Mr Yéré, originally from West Africa.

The artist has made the brilliant decision to first show us the subject sitting and listening to their own interview, and we then get their response to hearing their own words. This makes for a beautifully multi-layered piece that is as much about the process of remembering as it is about the memories themselves. The stories I hear are very different, and the responses equally varied. Ms Marie listens solemnly, with the occasional wry smile, to her story of unplanned pregnancy, the decision to have an abortion, and the subsequent soul-searching as a feminist who supports a woman’s right to choice, but who personally would not make the same choice again. She says, astutely reflecting on hearing her own story in her own words, that ‘there are three me’s in the room – the me doing the listening, the me talking, and the me being remembered.’   Mr Modai is an Israeli soldier turned circus artist. He turned 21 in 2001 – and refers to the fall of the Twin Towers obliquely, noting that as someone who lived with day-to-day violence, bombings and attacks, the response to 9/11 is different to someone who has never experienced terror. He claims that he doesn’t feel there was any one moment of ‘coming of age’ and still doesn’t see himself as a grown-up. He is mostly in neutral mode as he listens to his own words, saying only that yes, this was how it was…  Mr Yéré on the other hand listens to his own words with tears, smiles, and sometimes enormous guffaws of laughter. As a young man, his ambitious Ivory Coast family were determined that he would study maths and economics, which he dutifully did, but then chucked it in to do what he really wanted to do – study history. There was enormous resistance, but he stuck to his guns. This, he reflects, is perhaps the moment of adulthood – when you first confront and stand up to your parents. Years later, his mother praised him for his determination. Reflecting on the experience of listening to himself, he says to the artist/the camera: ‘ It’s like listening to someone I know [rather than to myself].  Hearing what I said to you moved me.’ A really wonderful piece of work – I’d love to experience it again – only another 77 or so interviews to hear!


Featured image (top): Swallow the Sea Caravan: Lamp. 

Swallow the Sea Caravan is supported by Puppet Animation Scotland.

Darkfield: Coma runs in 30 minute slots 31 July to 25 August 2019.

Mats Staub’s 21: Memories of Growing Up is presented at Summerhall throughout August as part of the Pro Helvetia Swiss Selection Edinburgh programme.

For more about Summerhall’s Edinburgh Fringe 2019 programme and year-round activities, see

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.