Theatre: Hidden Door festival is helping to bring Leith Theatre back to life

Grand, old and neglected, Leith Theatre is being resuscitated by the energy and vision of this year's Hidden Door festival
Creative Scotland funding is helping Hidden Door put on an impressive programme of shows, gigs, events and exhibitions at Leith TheatreCreative Scotland funding is helping Hidden Door put on an impressive programme of shows, gigs, events and exhibitions at Leith Theatre
Creative Scotland funding is helping Hidden Door put on an impressive programme of shows, gigs, events and exhibitions at Leith Theatre

Last year and in 2015, it was in the old municipal lighting depot, in a hidden courtyard off King’s Stables Road; before that, in 2014, it made an astonishing job of bringing to life the old arches in Market Street, beside Waverley Station.

Now, though, the Hidden Door Festival’s quest for unused spaces across Edinburgh has led it to Leith, and to the great sleeping giant that is Leith Theatre, first opened in 1932 as Leith Town Hall. Hidden Door was founded five years ago in response to the feeling that, for all its international excitement, the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t really provide an effective gathering place and showcase for young artists who want to make their lives in Edinburgh and across Scotland, and to create work here. The life of a young Edinburgh artist also involves the endless quest for usable space, in a city beset by waves of commercial property development; and so Hidden Door’s founder, Edinburgh College of Art graduate David Martin, found himself creating a pop-up festival which is dedicated to remaining on the move, reinventing itself each year in whatever space becomes available.

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Which is why, this week – if you walk through the grand iron gates to the left of Leith Library, and slip through one of the side doors into Leith Theatre – you will find one of the city’s great hidden spaces, unused for the past 25 years despite a star-studded history as a venue for rock concerts and the Edinburgh International Festival, but now under the management of the independent Leith Theatre Trust, and shuddering back into life, as Hidden Door’s year-round team of more than 70 volunteers start to clear and reshape the great central space of the theatre, and all the the small spaces around it, for the 2017 Hidden Door Festival.

As ever, Hidden Door is mainly a free festival of visual art and installations – in spaces all round the huge building – funded and supported both by Creative Scotland and an impressive evening music programme, as well as Hidden Door’s many inventively-styled bars; one of which is being built at the back of the main theatre out of the remains of the old Usher Hall organ, which had been lying around in Leith Theatre along with 25 years’ worth of other municipal debris.

In the nooks and crevices of the festival, though, there’s still plenty of room for other art-forms, notably theatre and spoken word; and this year’s theatre programme features a range of 15 events over ten days, many of them solo pieces occupying the borderland between performance and installation, others larger in scale.

“I feel as if we’ve bitten off quite a big challenge, this year,” says Martin, emerging from a day’s teaching to check how this year’s build is progressing. “It’s a much bigger programme and budget – about 30 per cent or 40 per cent bigger than last year; so we really need to get audiences in, and to reach out to everyone in Leith and beyond who wants this place to come back to life. It really is strange, given Leith’s rise and rise over the last 25 years as a desirable place to live, that it doesn’t have any sizeable entertainment venue of its own; so we’re excited to be here, and to see what we can do to help bring the place back to life.”

In the quest for audiences, Hidden Door’s theatre team have invited back the popular Edinburgh-based Ludens Ensemble, who will perform a multi-media show called Love, based on Shakespeare’s Sonnets; and, for the first time, the Leith-based Grid Iron company, Scotland’s leading site-specific theatre specialists, who will present three work-in-progress performances of South Bend, a new play by Martin McCormick about the different faces of America.

“I’ve always been such a fan of Hidden Door,” says the show’s director Ben Harrison. “Just like Grid Iron when we were starting out in the 1990s, they share that passion for finding spaces around Edinburgh that need to be opened up, and bringing them alive. And it’s quite a thrill to think of working on that Leith Theatre stage, with that history – all the way from bands like AC/DC to the great Japanese director Ninagawa.”

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Alongside these two invited groups, there are more than a dozen other theatre-makers and companies involved, including the actor Tam Dean Burn and the Edinburgh-based theatre-maker Heather Marshall, of Creative Electric. Hidden Door favourite Annie Lord will present a show called Graft, which may touch on the uneasy union between Leith and Edinburgh, back in 1920 – the union that led to Leith Theatre being built, as a consolation gift to the people of Leith. Tragic Carpet Visual Theatre, from London, present a show about rendition, the secret transfer of terrorism suspects to sites where they can be interrogated and tortured; and the Glasgow-based group Surge, specialising in circus and physical theatre, will be popping up everywhere, over the first weekend of the festival, with their new site-responsive work The Mash Collective.

“This really is a new experience for us,” says Martin. “Often in the past, we’ve been working in spaces that were about to be bulldozed, or radically rebuilt; so we could have a very free hand. Here, though, we’re dealing with this beautiful art deco listed building – people are often quite awe-struck when they first walk in here – and so we have to work with the building, and try to give people a sense of what it could be. It’s a big challenge; but as you can see, we’re giving it our best shot; and we hope we’ll create something really memorable, to help set this building on its way again.”

Hidden Door is at Leith Theatre from 27 May until 4 June