‘I’ve been coming to the Edinburgh Festival for the last 14 years,” says Francesca Moody from a Zoom chat screen. “I started going to Edinburgh when I was 17, working jobs including front of house, then when I was about 22 I started producing theatre there. So it’s enshrined in my year, and not having it really has discombobulated me. My identity is so wrapped up in my work as a producer that I had a moment of thinking, ‘who am I and where do I fit into all of this?’”
Instead of gearing up to bring shows to Edinburgh, Moody is in London, working with theatre-maker Gary McNair on the Shedinburgh Fringe Festival, their just-announced, next-best-thing online alternative to the Fringe itself. To hear them both explain the impact the Covid pandemic has had upon their livelihoods is to realise that no corner of the theatre industry is untouched by what’s happened.
Moody is arguably the go-to young theatre producer in the country right now, largely – but not exclusively – for her handling of the Edinburgh debut of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in 2013, which went on to sell out in the West End last year. Her other productions include Richard Gadd’s 2019 Fringe hit Baby Reindeer – just starting rehearsals for its postponed 2020 West End run when the lockdown started – and McNair and Kieran Hurley’s thrilling Square Go.
McNair, meanwhile, had planned to return this year with a new production of his 2012 hit Born to Run, once more with Shauna MacDonald taking to the treadmill for the play’s entire 55-minute duration. Yet before lockdown officially began he had decided against it, forecasting that even a Covid-enforced 10 per cent drop in tourism (“very naively on my part…”) could have been the difference between paying everyone or being saddled with a big debt.
While much of his work has been postponed, he counts himself fortunate that the major piece he was working on going into lockdown was a non-stage-based production for Audible.com. “Our oven broke yesterday, and a guy came in to fix it,” he says wryly from his shed (more on this in a moment) in Glasgow. “He said, ‘are you working yourself, mate? I said, ‘I’m in theatre’. He said, ‘well your oven’s f***ed, but it’s no’ as f***ed as you’.
“But d’you know what? For now, I feel OK. I keep focusing on the positives. It’s one of those things where you bump into somebody on the street and they say (in a Scottish granny’s voice), ‘well, we’re a’right, in’t we? And we’ve got tae be thankful fir that’. That wee pleasantry has really echoed with me.”
He says that Moody would be flattering him if she were to describe him in a co-producing role for Shedinburgh (“punsmith and occasional ideas person,” is his suggested credit), but the idea was indirectly McNair’s. While we’ve been speaking, he’s given us a visual tour of the garden shed where he does his work – a godsend during lockdown, with his partner and children back in the house – with its disco colour-changing lights to reflect his mood and the “wee mouse” he believes he shares it with.“Francesca and I were talking earlier in the year, and she said, it looks like they’re going to cancel the Fringe tomorrow,” says McNair. “I was sitting right here and I said, no worries, I’m going to do the Shedinburgh Fringe from here! I’d been making that joke a lot that week, but only Francesca called me back and said, Gary, see your Shedinburgh Fringe idea…?”
Moody took the idea and ran with it. What has emerged is three weeks of remote online performances from a host of established Fringe performers and comedians, taking in new and old work, as well as panel discussions and slots for emerging artists – each of them broadcast from a shed. Partner organisations the Traverse Theatre and the Soho Theatre will both host a shed within their buildings in Edinburgh and London, respectively, while other guests (including McNair) might use their own back garden structures.
“I just love a project,” says Moody. “I’m a producer, and at our core, producers love to be doing and making and spinning plates. So Shedinburgh kicked into motion those cogs that whirr when I get excited about an idea, as soon as Gary mentioned it.” As with all of the online activity at this year’s virtual Fringe, fundraising is a big part of Shedinburgh; each performance will recreate the unique appeal of theatre by only being viewable for its scheduled time slot, with a minimum £4 donation (there is no upper limit, of course) to access it.
Amid a programme which took just six weeks to put together, there will be exclusive comedy from Sara Pascoe and Rosie Jones; a live reading of Kieran Hurley’s Beats by the actor Lorn Macdonald; a revival performance of Tim Crouch’s play My Arm; The Guilty Feminist podcast creator Deborah Frances-White’s live show; a reading from comedian Jack Rooke’s new book Cheer the F*** Up; a reading of the Traverse’s past Fringe hit Adam by its star and subject Adam Kashmiry; and much more.
While the first aim is to raise funds for those affected by theatre’s shutdown, both Moody and McNair have one eye on next August – on how artists can return to stages again, but also on how Edinburgh and its festival can make the right adjustments in terms of equality, affordability and accommodation for the participants who make the event.
“We want to see [the festival] back and thriving again, we want people to come from all over the world to see work, to make work, to engage in a global arts economy and community,” says McNair, conjuring a bit of nostalgia for all who are missing Edinburgh in August. “It’s lashing it down here right now, people would have been hating it and loving it at once. Burrowing into cubbyholes to see a show, steam coming off them; it would have been a beautiful, wet Fringe. But if people are pulling in audiences with a wee stand-up show, they should be able to leave that festival with some money in their pocket, you know?”
“The loss of the Fringe is a cultural hole in the calendar year, it has global significance, and to mark it instead is really important,” says Moody. “Next year is a moment for fringe theatre, though. Really flexible, small-cast storytelling… the kind of theatre that we’re going to be able to present is going to be those cool, unknown shows at Underbelly, the Pleasance, Summerhall. Subject to us being able to gather in theatres in a meaningful way, I think we’re going to see a bumper year for excellent, original, innovative work. I’m really hopeful.”
The Shedinburgh Fringe Festival takes place online at www.shedinburgh.com from Friday until September 5. Applications for open slots are open until Wednesday
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