Behind the scenes at the Edinburgh festivals

This article is from 2014

Behind the scenes at the Edinburgh festivals

Clockwise from top-left: Jamie Mitchell, James Shaw, Idil Sukan, Joanna Boyce, Anthony Wright, Carrie Hutcheon

Insiders reveal the preparation and dedication that goes into making one of the world's largest cultural events run smoothly

It often seems that the Edinburgh festival experience is just about all those show-offs on stage trying to make us laugh or acting their hearts out or reading from their latest unit-shifting tome. But what of the hard-working people who burrow away far from the glare of publicity? We spoke to some of those who might not get the credit that their talents deserve, and yet whose work enhances the festival experience for all of us

Jamie Mitchell

The Fruitmarket Gallery manager on getting art into the space.

The process of an exhibition coming together can spread over a long time frame. Early on it’s about broad strokes, but the closer it gets, it’s more about specifics and we’ll be talking to fabricators, transport companies and people working on it from different angles.

One day, Jim [Lambie] and his studio manager came to visit and we just wandered around and put tape marks on the floor to give us an idea of density, and we talked in order to find out about the work. For one of his set-pieces, the distribution of the ladders and distribution of colour is important. You need a fairly robust idea of how it’s all going to look.

From my point of view, I’m concerned with the nuts and bolts, but it’s always about putting the artist at the centre of our work. We want to make their experience of working here as important as the audience that’s coming in. In terms of getting the art in, there’s no secret ‘art entrance’ at the back.

We talk about the triangle of moving art, so there are things that are heavy, things that are large and things that are fragile. You can generally accommodate two of those things at one time, but when you have all three, that’s when it gets tricky. But it’s all about flexibility.

James Shaw

Book Festival booksales manager on handling staff and authors

We trade for 18 days a year, and in that time we turn over around £600,000 of books and merchandise. We’re independent booksellers and run the operation ourselves, so the profit goes directly back into the Book Festival. Part of the reason we are there is to bring in some income for the festival, but also to help people enjoy it while they’re there.

We have roughly 800 events, but authors appear in different events, so there are logistical challenges in making sure we have the right things at the right place at the right time. The booksellers will come on site around 5 August and we then train them up. About 50% of the people we employ come back the next year, so either they have short memories or they really do enjoy it.

At one of the signings last year we had Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood; they had a joint event but they have slightly different audiences and the trick is to keep everyone occupied. At one stage, we were overflowing on Neil Gaiman’s side of the queue and we had to juggle people to keep Margaret busy until it picked up again.

At the end of the festival, I’m not thinking: ‘how can we do that better?’ I’m just thinking: ‘how did we do that?’

Idil Sukan

Fringe photographer on making publicity pictures tell a story

I try to come in at an early stage as art director and create a visual coherence across all the marketing materials. Even if I’m just doing photography for a show, I try to develop a real narrative.

We’re trying to create mini-universes that bubble up across Edinburgh because we want to build communities and fanbases around the show. On many occasions they’ll wear the same outfit on stage that we chose for the photo shoot, the same colours and the same props, all that kind of thing.

Everything is very tailor-made, and while people say that they can spot my work and that it has a real visual identity, I still make sure that it’s as individually developed as possible for each performer I work with. So the picture I take for one thirtysomething male comedian I wouldn’t take for any other thirtysomething male comedian. I think we should push the standards every year to try and make the festival as exciting as possible.

Ultimately there are entire careers on the line, and it’s horrible to see an identikit photo from someone who is spending thousands of pounds to be here and away from their family. You have a responsibility to those individuals who are here for a month and basically going to war.

Carrie Hutcheon

EIF head of stage management on sourcing some crazy props

Most of my stories come from going out to get stuff. There was a time I had to go and get a box full of cockroaches for an Argentinean show. I went to a butterfly farm, where I was taken to the counter and they said, ‘just take the ones you want’. I had to sit with them in the van and worry about them toppled over.

On stage, they were dormant for a while, but then they had to run around on cue. So I had to learn that you can put them in the microwave for a while, and that makes them run around or put them in the freezer to make them docile.

I’ve done a few shows where I’ve had to get a car on stage. One was for Peter Stein’s Blackbird. For the last minute of the play, there was a scene change into a car park and there was a specific car that I had to get. I then had to book a crane to get it on stage but then Stein changed something about the car so we had to get a different one.

A lot of the time, situations happen because a company has forgotten to pack a hundred million peacock feathers or something like
that. They call me the ‘head of the dressing-up box’, or ‘head of everything else’.

Anthony Wright

Barrhead Kid Co owner on creating bags for the Tattoo shop

I am a tanner, and my family have been tanners for seven generations. We do quite a bit for the dance shoe business and Strictly Come Dancing has been very good to us; the UK dance shoe business is doing very well and that helps keep us up on the normal side of things.

I started tanning Scottish deerskin which was all just going to waste otherwise, and I found myself making bags out of it. I started trying to sell the bags wherever I could. I was doing the Castle Terrace farmers’ market when someone from the Tattoo came and saw the bags and asked if I’d be interested in making bags for them. So, that’s how you get into the Tattoo.

That was about six years ago, and I don’t think they were quite sure where they were going with merchandise back then, but this year they’re definitely going with it in a big way and we’re working very closely with them. They’ve been very supportive of us and we’re very grateful to them.

Our product is 100% made in Scotland and the leather is Scottish. We’re doing an overnight bag and making satchels for them. There are a lot of satchels about and you might think that we’re coming late to the satchel, but it’s actually our biggest seller. The satchel is the must-have thing for women now.

Joanna Boyce

Mela Kidzone curator on creating a theme

We always have an environmental woodlands theme, and it always involves a journey that the kids make. They arrive at the entry zone and go through a series of arts and crafts activities and then return through an exit zone. There might be a passport theme where they’re going round the world, or a treasure hunt theme, or a nature-spotting theme.

One of the main aims is to challenge the kids so they are coming in and trying something they’ve never tried before, or tasting something they’ve never tasted before, and meeting people they’ve never met before. We get them to stretch themselves a bit.

It’s sometimes like weaving gold out of straw in terms of material. This year, the theme is animals that used to be in Scotland and have become extinct or are in Scotland and in danger of becoming extinct, so there’s the iconic Scottish wildcat, red squirrel and golden eagle.

The fun bit is getting the design right. As co-ordinator, I have to think about anything and everything that might happen on the day, but I engage with the public and support the staff and run about doing all those unforeseen things that might happen. So on the day, I try not to give myself a role beyond troubleshooter and quality controller and generally smiling at everyone to keep them motivated and inspired. I’m continually running around, feeding people pieces of chocolate.

Edinburgh Mela

World music, dance, fashion, food and fun. During the week the Mela takes over various venues around Leith.