Edinburgh International Festival's adventurous new 'festival within a festival' explores the questions affecting our lives and communities today
With 14 main stage productions, 265 artists from around the world and four strands with multiple approaches to engaging both audiences and artists in dynamic conversations, You Are Here has the flavour of an important new direction for the Edinburgh International Festival. Curated by Kate McGrath of Fuel, a production company which has supported some of the most exciting and challenging performance of the past 15 years, under the aegis of both the Royal Lyceum's David Greig and International Festival director Fergus Linehan, this festival within a festival has both the high production values associated with the EIF but also a more eclectic and provocative edge.
'We are interested in artists that are really engaging with audiences, who are looking socially, politically and culturally at the world around us today, and creating work that has different perspectives on where we find ourselves now, and where we might be going,' says McGrath. 'The form and the scale of the works are diverse, from one person work in development as part of the Departure Lounge strand to a big ensemble piece on the Lyceum main stage or an orchestral piece in the Usher Hall, but they share a contemporary connectedness.'
The four strands of the programme are split between the expected main stage performances, more informal work in the Departure Lounge (the Lyceum Rehearsal Studio) – including readings and conversations between artists and audiences – professional development which allows Scottish and international artists to exchange ideas and enhance their skills, as well as a series of community projects.
Kalakuta Republik / credit: Doune Photo
There appears to be a broad agenda within You Are Here to address the disconnect between Edinburgh and its festivals, encouraging a comprehensive experience for potential audiences that goes beyond simply consuming performances, towards re-examining the status of the EIF and its relationship to the host city and the country's cultural communities. 'The other part of that theme is the audience,' McGrath continues. 'I am interested in work that is seeking to engage the audience, to share ideas and celebrate live performance.'
The main stage strand is an intriguing mixture of the familiar (Guardian favourite Kate Tempest, contemporary dance from Cas Public, the National Theatre of Scotland presenting an adaptation of poet Jackie Kay's autobiography Red Dust Road), the critically acclaimed (Purposeless Movements from activist and provocative theatre maker Robert Softley Gale, Tim Crouch pondering belief and control in Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation), Scottish artists and artists who have not previously appeared in Scotland. The juxtaposition of their diverse styles generates less an homogenous programme but a series of potential interactions.
The questions raised by the performances cover some of the most pressing contemporary issues: class, environmental danger, the role of faith both spiritually and politically. 'To actually have conversations and not just consume performance: to use that moment of internationalism and see what conversations might happen,' says McGrath. 'And expand the experience of theatre so that the audience have more opportunities for deeper engagement – to talk with other people, to meet artists, maybe make connections across different pieces in the programme.'
The Departure Lounge aims to take the audience deeper into these topics. In the daily Morning Manifesto, hosted by Greig and playwright Sara Shaarawi, audiences are asked to respond to a series of manifestos from artists, including Javaad Alipoor, who has Rich Kids running at the Traverse throughout the Fringe, War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, theatre-maker Maya Zbib, academic and TV presenter Emma Dabiri and Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh. 'It is about recognising that a festival has within it the possibility of creating something bigger than the sum of its parts,' notes McGrath, who explains that at the end of the three weeks of the festival, a collectively authored manifesto will be produced. The project has been inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which was created collectively by people from all over the world.
Kiinalik / credit: Jeremy Mimnagh
Another strand within the Departure Lounge is Breaking Bread, an opportunity to sit down and eat at an artist-led meal. From the always witty and bold Scottee, through teaching artist Sarah Rose Graber to British bharatanatyam artist Seeta Patel and Australian choreographer Lina Limosani, the artists kick off with a short provocation, leaving the guests to follow and lead their own conversations. The conviviality of the theatre becomes transformed into the intimate and immersive experience of sharing food.
The weaving of the four strands is certainly a move away from the more passive notions of performance: while 'raising awareness' still sits at the heart of the programme, the community and artist development events demonstrate a willingness to risk a closer conversation and a refusal of the traditional belief that a play or gig can be an end in themselves. 'Both David and Fergus are interested in what kind of city Edinburgh is, what kind of world we are living in, and I think connecting these local questions about community with the way that we are internationally known is really of interest to the EIF and the Lyceum, and Fuel,' adds McGrath.
The emphasis on artists from around the world not only challenges the Eurocentric bias of much theatre – the Fringe struggles with inclusion – but introduces forms and perspectives that are less familiar. Hear Word! examines the experiences of Nigeria's women, through a cast of ten of the nations' famous film, theatre and television performers; La Reprise Histoire(s) du theatre (I) from the International Institute of Political Murder delves into a murder that shocked Belgium but opens up a reflection on the nature of tragedy. Kiinalik sees two Canadian artists – one a musician, the other performing a Greenlandic mask dance – consider colonial legacies and climate change.
McGrath affirms her belief in the potential of performance.'I think everyone can make a difference: the arts culture in many ways punches above its weight. We understand ourselves in the world through stories and images. That's nothing new but the question of what stories are being told, what does that tell us about who we are and what we value, and how we relate to each other?'
Overturning the traditional boundaries, and encouraging audiences to grapple with the politics of performance, You Are Here is a welcome and adventurous approach to the possibilities of the Festival: while remaining within familiar programming, it seeks to expand the experience and points towards new formats and blurred boundaries between art and society.
You Are Here, part of Edinburgh International Festival, various venues, 2–26 Aug, eif.co.uk