Theatre: From drill halls to swimming pools, how mundane places become vibrant Edinburgh Fringe venues

Hibs football ground on Easter Road is one of the more unusual venues for a Fringe show. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Hibs football ground on Easter Road is one of the more unusual venues for a Fringe show. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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With hundreds of places preparing to become temporary theatres for the Fringe, making sure they are safe for the public is a mamoth task

It’s an annual miracle the city has come to take for granted, and even – in some cases – to resent; but all the same, there’s something unique and utterly remarkable about what happens in Edinburgh at this time of year, as hundreds of spaces not normally used for performance throw open their doors, take on a new character, and for a brief three weeks become theatres, full of the bright lights, laughter and tears associated with show business.

This year’s Fringe programme lists 505 venues, across the city; and although a few – like the Traverse Theatre, Summerhall and Dance Base – are year-round arts venues, and some are pubs and bars which host events throughout the year, the majority are spaces that are normally used for quite different purposes, or perhaps not used at all. Among this year’s new venues are the disused St James’s Church in Constitution Street, Leith, which is set to be flooded for a show inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull, a function suite at Hibernian Football Club in Easter Road, and the Army Reserve Centre in East Claremont Street – a range of buildings that’s not untypical of the Edinburgh spaces pressed into service for theatre, comedy and music during the Fringe.

Since every one of these spaces will be open to the public, each one has to meet the kinds of safety standards that are common in theatre buildings across the country – hence the taped-down power cables, white markings on the edges of steps, and careful fire precautions that audiences will see even in the most temporary of venues. And ensuring that this vast archipelago of pop-up spaces comes up to the mark requires a huge amount of work, both from the Festival Fringe Society’s own participant services team, and from Edinburgh City Council’s public safety team, and its small group of technical officers.

One of the key players in this process is the Fringe’s venues and companies manager Kevin Kimber, whose job involves advising Fringe companies on everything from visa applications to venue safety. “The Fringe Society’s remit is to offer support, guidance and advice to Fringe participants, but we don’t have responsibility for their operation and programming. In that sense, every venue is acting under its own auspices; and through its system of performing licences, Edinburgh City Council is responsible for ensuring that all venues are operating within the law. In my experience, the council is very supportive of the Fringe and all the festivals, and tries to ensure that a balance is maintained between a venue trying to be what it wants to be, and keeping the safety of the public at the forefront.”

And over at the council, senior public safety officer, John McNeill, echoes that sense of positive engagement with Fringe venues, talking enthusiastically about some of the more unusual venues he has inspected over the years. “I’ve worked with buses, cars, bikes, phone boxes, flats, caravans and campers, the public toilet in Cathedral Lane, and the swimming pool at the Apex International Hotel; and I would say that the main priority when working with Fringe venues is always crowd safety. This is no different from what happens in permanent venues, but it can be more complicated in Fringe venues due to their short life. These premises often don’t enjoy the same facilities as permanent venues, and things like temporary toilets, lighting and power all have to be shipped in, and tested.”

It’s no secret, of course, that there is some resentment and even anger in Edinburgh over the “can-do” attitude that surrounds the annual emergence of hundreds of Fringe venues, at a time when many year-round venues are struggling to survive, or closing their doors because of licensing difficulties. The loss of Studio 24 in Calton Road, now surrounded by executive flats, is only the latest in a litany of sad stories of venerable city-centre venues forced to shut up shop because of licensing issues which seemed impossible to resolve.

It is possible, though, to transform that ongoing argument from a negative to a positive, in the sense that the impressive annual effort made to support the Fringe suggests that Edinburgh could easily develop a much more positive year-round policy towards small local arts and music venues, given the political will. McNeill’s sheer enjoyment of his work, in the run-up to the Fringe, suggests that everyone gains from a positive approach to small, ambitious arts venues. “Everything about this job is a pleasure,” he says, “especially the huge mix of people wanting to put on a show – it’s always the only thing on their minds. The biggest challenge we face is just getting round them all with the small team we have.”

Kimber expresses the same sense of satisfaction, even though one of his visits to advise a Fringe venue with a problem ended abruptly when he realised that he had been meeting not with the venue boss but with the catering manager, and had accidentally been appointed head barman. “It is just so heartening to see venues start small on the Fringe and then blossom into larger operations, making their own mark, with their own style and their own following. The more kinds of venues there are to choose from, the better the chance a performing company has of finding a venue that suits them perfectly.

And if the Edinburgh Fringe often seems to run surprisingly smoothly for such a vast Festival – well, that’s because the talent on stage is often equalled by the unseen talent backstage, and front of house; all focused on making sure that companies can show their work to the best possible effect.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from 4-28 August, in venues all over Edinburgh,