Fire Exit produces important, acclaimed and popular work but its future is now in doubt after Creative Scotland’s funding cut
When Fire Exit Theatre’s latest show The Last Bordello arrives at the Traverse on Tuesday evening, it will not look like the work of a theatre company in crisis. Its theme may be sensational, and even apocalyptic; the company’s writer and director David Leddy is an artist who loves the idea of the theatre of catastrophe, and his work often circles around ideas of disaster and meltdown, both personal and global.
Yet the production itself will be vivid, beautifully presented, meticulously rehearsed, designed and lit; the work will be of a quality to attract international attention, and widespread acclaim from critics and audiences. And it will be work that matters; preoccupied with issues of injustice and abuse at the core of our civilisation, Leddy has sought to expose these shadowy aspects of our world in shows from the brilliant 2009 site-specific pieces Susurrus (in various botanic gardens) and Sub Rosa (backstage at the Citizens’ Theatre) to recent works like International Waters and Coriolanus Vanishes.
He is the only Scottish-based theatre artist to have explored – back in 2014, in Horizontal Collaboration and City of the Blind – the phenomenon of sexual abuse by UN staff and aid workers in conflict zones that has dominated our news agenda this week; and it is hardly surprising that his latest show, on which he had been working for almost ten years, brings crashing together brilliantly topical themes of war and devastation, sex, power and exploitation.
“The idea for this show was born,” says Leddy, “when I was sitting in an Edinburgh Fringe venue watching a very bad biographical monologue; my mind wandered, and I began to think about how I would write a good biographical monologue. I’ve always been fascinated by Jean Genet, and so I developed this idea of a biographical piece about him told through monologues delivered by a range of different characters reflecting his work. I knew he had worked at a notorious brothel in Barcelona, which I thought had been called Madame Petite’s; so I went to look for it.
“What I learned was it had existed, and he had worked there. It was the brothel in which he set his play The Balcony; but it had been bulldozed, and a little park named after Genet had been put in its place. So the idea emerged of all these characters in this brothel the night before its destruction, waiting for the end; and I’ve been working on it ever since.”
All of which represents such a vivid creative response to the current intense public debate about sex and the abuse of power that it makes it all the harder to believe that when Creative Scotland delivered its controversial three-year funding announcement on 25 January, Fire Exit was one of the seven major theatre companies dropped from the regular funding portfolio, on the vague prospect of future project support from a new Touring Fund not yet set up; nor was it one of the four companies who managed to achieve an immediate reversal of that decision, perhaps because the announcement coincided with the intense final rehearsal period for The Last Bordello. “It’s heartbreaking to feel it slipping away hour by hour,” wrote Leddy at the time, “while I’m in rehearsals, and other companies are out campaigning”. And since then, the company has issued a strong statement making it clear that it can no longer survive on project funding alone as it did in its early years, and that a failure to restore its secure three-year status will almost inevitably lead to its closure, some time in 2019.
“There was a time 15 years ago,” says Leddy, “when I was working 12 months a year on Fire Exit, but only being paid for two of them; I did other things, I was producer for Glasgay!, I worked on my PhD. But the organisation has now reached a point where that’s just not possible; we take on commitments on a three-year basis, and our partners include people like the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Anne Bogart’s SITI Company in New York, whom you can’t mess around. We run five different programmes of mentoring and creative learning for emerging artists, we’ve never had a deficit, we’re hugely practical and efficient as well as creative; and yet now we’re told, out of the blue, that we’ve been rejected because we ‘don’t support the wider sector’. It is, really, just completely bewildering.”
Bewilderment, of course, is something an artist like Leddy can work with. A Glaswegian by passionate choice – after growing up in a working-class family in Woking, studying for his first degree at Lancaster, and working for some years in London – he is hardly likely to abandon his much-loved adopted city without a fight; and if Fire Exit folds next year, it’s likely that Leddy will remain a strong teaching, directing and writing presence, both in Scottish theatre and beyond.
Yet if Scotland’s theatre funding system was in good working order, there would be no question of the loss of a company which has achieved so much over the last decade on regular funding that recently stood at just £175,000 a year. Talking about the big themes of The Last Bordello, Leddy says, “I think I have an almost childlike fear of injustice, and of people just accepting it, as some kind of norm.” So perhaps Creative Scotland and its new chair can expect some fireworks, once Fire Exit gets its new show well under way; and has time to launch what should be a survival campaign well worth signing up for, if it even begins to match Leddy’s theatre work for insight, intelligence, and sheer explosive style.