[email protected]: on the front line of arts activism

Since it launched in 2017, [email protected] has attached itself to some of the most creative, exciting and edgy companies around, and shown itself willing to confront some complex questions, even when they are being asked of the army itself. By Kate Copstick

A scene from Rosie Kay Dance Company's 10 Soldiers
A scene from Rosie Kay Dance Company's 10 Soldiers

Back in the day, when important socio-political communication was done through the medium of witty badges, there was one that read “Join the Army, travel to wonderful exotic places, meet fascinating people… and kill them.”

Through the years, ideas about the army have not changed much. It didn’t help that, compared to the army, the Sphinx was positively Alan Carr when it came to chatting about itself. When Lt. Col. Gordon MacKenzie took on the job of Head of Engagement, he says, “it quickly became clear that we are less understood than other public services. We work in places with no public access or contact with people’s daily lives, and our world seems detached.”

But pretty much from a standing start in 2017, [email protected] has attached itself to some of the most creative, exciting and edgy companies around. “It was a joint effort between us and Summerhall,” says MacKenzie. “Initially I just surfed the internet looking for companies that may be interested and sent out cold call invitations with our pretty generous venue package.”

Army Head of Arts Lieutenant Colonel Wendy Faux PIC: Jess Maud

Since then, the Army’s Hepburn House HQ has been on the frontline of arts activism in August, willing to confront some complex questions even when they are being asked of the army itself.

“Getting new, energetic material which breaks ground in giving insights to ideas about soldiers is not easy, and there’s a lot of stuff out there which is clichéd or predictable,” says MacKenzie. “It’s also been tricky to get the balance right between shows which have some aspect of soldiering involved and others which are not directly connected but which explore ideas and values we want to be associated with, such as diversity, inclusion, female empowerment.”

The army’s progress in learning to swim in the unpredictable and frequently stormy fluidity of non binary gender identities is not widely discussed. Nor its tussling, in the twenty-first century, with its own ‘isms’. But here, in its Fringe programme. theatre, poetry, opera, visual arts and a load of creative discussion opens every Army closet wide.

“We’ve had shows which touched on bullying, PTSD, discrimination against gay people and people of colour,” says MacKenzie. “There is no doubt that some of the less senior levels sometimes felt uncomfortable handing over temporary control of our narrative to playwrights and actors.”

This year’s wideranging programme was to have featured Posterboy, adapted by James Robert Moore from Out In The Army by James Wharton, an openly gay soldier who joined after the ban was lifted in 2000.

“I’ve had nothing but support and encouragement from the Army surrounding the making of the piece,” says Moore. “Since the ban was lifted they have moved mountains to become a more inclusive and diverse working environment. POSTERBOY is an example of showing how far they’ve come.” There will be a live – yes, actually live - reading and discussion of the play as part of [email protected]’s impressive adapted 2020 programme, which begins on Monday.

The most unlikely relationship in Army history has to be that with Leith-based, LGBTQ, disabled, working class, activist company, Creative Electric. “We’re definitely not the most obvious partner.” says their director, Heather Marshall. Their Happiness Project, exploring the need for non sexual contact amongst marginalised groups, was part of last year’s [email protected] and they have stayed, bringing Dandelion (about Forces’ families) this year.

“My initial reaction was ‘ABSOLUTELY NOT!’ as the army in no way aligned with my or Creative Electric’s politics,” says Marshall, “but Summerhall suggested it could be seen as an intervention, a way to ensure voices that wouldn’t traditionally be heard in that space were heard.”

And how did that work out? “[email protected] has been the most supportive Fringe venue we’ve ever performed at.” she says emphatically. “After our first performance we went into the bar and one of the Lieutenants had put a musical on the TV for us! It wasn’t quite our thing but we ended up putting on Dirty Dancing and having a few drinks together. Without our costumes and uniforms we were all working towards the same thing - to create an exciting festival that challenged perceptions.”

Looking back, Marshall says, “I’m embarrassed. I would be furious with anyone who lumped all disabled people together or all queer people, but there I was doing it with the Army and not seeing Gordon, Pearl, Stevie and the rest of the team as individuals.”

Talking of Gordon… “I’d love to upgrade the garage at the venue so we can cope with large, immersive productions.” says MacKenzie. “I want to have writers like embedded journalists, exploring our world and creating content which reflects us, warts and all. I’d like [email protected] to be a mechanism to tap into some of the creative talent we have in the army, with works being written or directed or performed by serving soldiers even if the subject matter is nothing to do with the army. The army is all about developing talent and responsibility, and the artistic field is as valid as any other. And of course, I’d like more people to come and see our shows.”

This year’s Army @ the Fringe programme is online at https://www.armyatthefringe.org/virtual/one, with shows going live from Monday 10 August

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