Interview: Caitlin Skinner and James Ley on taking Leith's Village Pub Theatre to the next level

Sunnyside, just off Easter Road, looks anything but sunny on a chill December night; it's a short, sloping lane of dark cobbles, surrounded by high tenements. At the bottom of it, though, sits the big, shed-like building that houses Hibs Supporters' Club, full of spacious, warm function-rooms and bars; and inside, something unusual is going on, as a group of young men and women wearing identical black woolly hats greet people arriving at the door, and escort them into the bar to await further instructions.

A night at the Village Pub Theatre PIC: Jonathan Ley
A night at the Village Pub Theatre PIC: Jonathan Ley

And now, at Sunnyside, VPT is presenting its first ever full production, a brilliantly curated group of five short plays – by Tim Barrow, James Ley, Louise E Knowles, Helen Shutt and Sophie Good – set right on this spot, in what the company call “The Sunnyside Centre”, in a dystopian future where years of catastrophic authoritarian government have left human communication and warmth in short supply, and places like The Sunnyside Centre among the only safe spaces in a devastated city.

“It’s something we’ve been hoping to do for a while,” says Caitlin Skinner, VPT’s in-house director and one of its four co-producers, when I meet her and fellow-producer James Ley to talk about VPT’s first five years. “One of our other playwright-producers, Louise Knowles, had been at an event at Sunnyside and was really keen on the space – our work is all about making theatre in social and sociable spaces like this. So we brought the writers together, and looked at this big windowless space, and began to imagine it in different ways – like the hold of a ship, or maybe a bunker; and the idea for the piece just flowed from that.”

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It’s an idea – full of imaginative possibilities, rooted in the street life of Edinburgh, and born out of an intense co-operation among artists – that’s typical of what Village Pub Theatre has achieved so far. Many of its writers – including Sylvia Dow, Catherine Grosvenor, Barrow, and Ley himself, whose Edinburgh gay history play Love Song To Lavender Menace recently delighted audiences at the Lyceum Studio – have graduated from the short play reading scene to burgeoning playwriting careers, or now move between the two. And Skinner is now a leading young theatre director in Scotland, a winner of Scotsman Fringe First Awards in 2014 and 2107, and assistant director on shows including the National Theatre of Scotland’s James Plays and Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour.

“Caitlin and I first met here at the Traverse in 2012,” says Ley, “at a workshop led by the artistic director Orla O’Loughlin and her then-associate Hamish Pirie. They said that they were surprised there was so little grassroots fringe theatre in Edinburgh outside Festival time, and we began to think about what we could do to change that. And I particularly wanted to do something in Leith; I live there, I love it, and it just seemed wrong that there was so little theatre happening there.”

At that time, Ley was an aspiring writer in his mid-thirties who had been struggling to get his work on stage, and working in various day jobs, since he graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 1998; Skinner was 27, a Queen Margaret graduate who had also studied theatre at City University in New York, and was looking for as many directing opportunities as possible. So for Ley, VPT represented a chance to develop and gain confidence as a playwright by getting much more of his work on stage, into performance by professional actors who give freely of their time to help a project that has never been able to pay anyone involved; and for Skinner it was a precious opportunity to develop her skills in working with new writers and new plays.

“In many ways, theatre is an art where you can only learn by doing; and by getting together to launch Village Pub Theatre, we all gave ourselves that chance,” says Ley. He is now working on a new play, also based on gay history, about the astonishing life story of an elderly gay man he met in Berlin; Skinner is working with Fringe First-winning New Zealand company Bullet Heart Club, and with former Traverse director Phillip Howard’s new touring company, Pearl Fishers.

Yet neither has any intention of walking away from Village Pub Theatre, or the unique, no-frills creative opportunities it provides – with added cake, since some of the playwrights are famous for providing goodies for evenings at the Village Pub. There are VPT actors beginning to try their hands at writing, there’s the chance of a new relationship with nearby Leith Theatre, and there’s the possibility of more full productions, as the company evolves.

“I think we’ve now got the potential to do more,” says Skinner. “Village Pub Theatre is about writers working together and supporting each other, and about making theatre that’s as informal and accessible as possible, like an open mic night or a pub quiz – except that it’s theatre. So I think we’re ready to push ourselves a bit artistically, to take more risks, and to go further with the work. And yes, there will still be cake. Not always, but often – I don’t bake myself, but James does, and we can promise that!”