Scotland set for its first ever Celebration of Death

Glance through Scotland's arts diary, in theatre, film, visual arts and music, and it soon becomes clear that this time of year '“ in the run-up to Halloween'“ is our annual moment for confronting taboos, and those aspects of life we would often rather forget.

Festival of the Dead at Summerhall  Ian's Studio
Festival of the Dead at Summerhall  Ian's Studio
Festival of the Dead at Summerhall Ian's Studio

October is the month of the Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival, now going strong in its tenth year, tackling the taboos around mental ill-health; it’s also the month of Luminate, the festival that explores the often unspoken problems of ageing, and the potential for a creative later life.

And now, at Summerhall, both festivals combine with the Glasgow-based performance and street theatre company Mischief La Bas – and with two other charities, the Palliative Care Partnership and Good Grief – to tackle what may have become, in our culture, the ultimate taboo; for next weekend, Summerhall will play host to Scotland’s first ever Celebration Of Death, a three-day feast of mortality on the weekend before Halloween, All Hallows Eve, the time when restless spirits traditionally walk abroad.

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Some elements of the festival are inspired by the Day Of The Dead celebrations seen in Mexico and other Latin countries, which celebrate the macabre as part of life; but its central inspiration comes from the life and work of Mischief La Bas co-founder and moving spirit Ian Smith, who took his own life in 2014, after a long struggle with depression. Smith was an exceptional actor, creator and entertainer, nominated for a CATS award in 2011 for a stunning performance in his own disturbingly vivid five-minute show My Hands Are Dancing But My Heart Is Cold; over the years since they came to Scotland in the early 1990s, he and his wife and creative partner Angie Dight took Mischief La Bas into communities across the country, setting up fairground-style booths or travelling performances at events from Big In Falkirk to the 2009 Burns Homecoming events in Alloway. And after Ian’s death, Angie decided not only to continue the work of Mischief La Bas, but to seek ways both of acknowledging his mortality, and of celebrating his exuberant life’s work; hence the full title of the Summerhall event, Festival Of Ian Smith – A Celebration Of Death.

“It really began with Ian’s funeral, in 2014,” Angie explains, at the Mischief La Bas office in the Briggait, Glasgow. “For the sake of our children, really, and for all Ian’s friends and colleagues, I wanted to make a real celebration out of it, and to start remembering him as he had been, before he became so ill. Then last year, on the anniversary of his death, we staged an event at the CCA in Glasgow, which included a Death Cafe, full of performances pieces about mortality, that actually went on for over five hours – and I began to think that we could expand this, and make it into a more general festival of death, if you like, where people really feel free to talk about mortality, and all it means to them.

“So I’m really pleased that this year, we’ve been able to work with Summerhall and all these other organisations to create a bigger weekend festival, with exhibitions that go on all month, until the end of November. At the heart of it, there’s still a celebration of Ian’s life and work – so we’ve got the Ian Smith’s Studio exhibition that was also seen in Glasgow last year, and there are films and documentation about Ian’s work through all the spaces, along with an exhibition by Graeme Wilcox, who often made Ian the subject of his paintings. We’re also running a shrine-making workshop for people aged from five to 105 to remember those they’ve lost; there’s a Death Cafe on Sunday night, and exhibitions involving a revival of Ian’s original Good Grief installation for the National Review of Live Art, and a group show by much-loved artists, friends and associates who have recently passed away.”

Alongside these exhibitions and events, though, the weekend also features a healthy stand of theatre and performance, programmed jointly with Verity Leigh at Summerhall. These include two one-on-one performances by Glasgow-based Arches artist Amy Cameron and installation artist Andrew Tibbles, Victoria Melody’s show Ugly Chief – about her father’s terminal diagnosis, and his failure to die as scheduled – and a revival of Pauline Goldsmith’s glorious, hilarious and beautiful funeral show Bright Colours Only, which Dight first saw in Glasgow a decade ago, and found irresistible.

“I think what I’m trying to do with these events is to help people recognise that the distinction between life and death is not so black and white, you know?” says Angie Dight. “Those who have died really are still with us, in so many ways, through their work, through our memories, through the inspiration they offer. That is so overwhelmingly true of Ian, and there are all sorts of strands in this festival that should give people a chance to explore their own experience of that. Mischief La Bas is certainly still here and firing on all cylinders – partly, I think, because what we do in terms of outdoor work and work in communities naturally meets so many of the criteria for 21st century arts funding, although it worries me that other companies may be forced onto that agenda at the expense of their creative work. For next weekend’s Festival, though – well, it’s about confronting the fact of death, and not letting it become the thing that defines us. It’s about making death part of life, and celebrating the continuing presence of those who have gone; and if it 
helps people to do that, then I’m delighted.” ■

Festival Of Ian Smith – A Celebration Of Death is at Summerhall, 28-30 October, with exhibitions continuing until 27 November, and an additional Death Cafe on 13 November.