Traverse Theatre at 50: Vision was to showcase works by Capital playwrights

IF they had taken the idea to the Dragons’ Den for funding, the five men would have been laughed out the room.

After all, who would agree to ploughing cash into an enterprise which was obviously rife with artistic differences and at a time when theatres were closing down due to falling audience numbers?

Yet when Richard Demarco, Jim Haynes, Tom Mitchell, John Malcolm and Terry Lane got together, they created something so special it is now celebrating its 50th year, has launched the careers of many of Scotland’s most prestigious and best-loved playwrights, and is held in such affection in Edinburgh that it’s known by the shorthand “the Trav”.

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This month the Traverse Theatre celebrates half a century of artistic life – prompting an exhibition of photographs and memorabilia over the last 50 years at Edinburgh’s Central Library – but its plate glass and polished steel bears little resemblance to its forebear – a tiny space in James Court in the Lawnmarket, where the quintet of creative minds once plotted to make the Edinburgh Festival last all year round.

Even back in January 1963, the plan by Demarco, Haynes an American bookshop owner, artistic director Terry Lane, Scottish actor John 
Malcolm and Tom Mitchell, the original building’s owner, to open an experimental venue was considered risky, coming as it did just weeks after the Gateway Theatre on Leith Walk was closed due to dwindling audiences.

But arts impresario Demarco believes that without the Traverse opening on January 3, 1963, the city would not be the place it is today. “The Edinburgh Festival took root in Edinburgh when the Traverse opened its doors. I honestly believe that the future of the Festival might have been in question unless there was something there to prove that the Festival was rubbing off on the populace.

“With the Gateway closed there was nowhere else for serious theatre-goers to visit other than the Lyceum and the King’s, which were all about touring productions from London. We simply didn’t want that, we wanted Edinburgh-based productions.”

Demarco had met Haynes in 1957 during the Festival. Haynes was stationed in Kirknewton for three years, serving his time with the United States Air Force, and later obtained permission to be de-mobbed in Scotland. He opened a bookshop, The Paperback, which also hosted artworks, small theatre productions and served coffee. He and Demarco seemed 
kindred spirits.

Haynes was friends with Tom Mitchell, who owned properties in the High Street – and it was his rather 
dilapidated place at 15 James Court off the Lawnmarket, reputedly a former brothel known as Kelly’s Paradise, which became the first home of the Traverse Theatre Club – but only after it became The Sphinx Club during the 1962 Fringe, run by two Cambridge undergraduates, John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor, who were encouraged to test the space out by Demarco.

Convinced by the success of Cleese and Brooke-Taylor, Demarco set about raising money, while Haynes brought on board friend John Malcolm, whom he’d met when Malcolm had acted in a play in the bookshop, and he in turn roped in Terry Lane.

Together they converted a room just 15ft wide and eight feet high into a 60-seat theatre – the seats coming from the disused Palace Cinema further down the High Street. Terry Lane suggested two banks of seats on either side of a central stage, an arrangement he thought was called “traverse”, though the actual term is transverse. But from such a misconception the Traverse Theatre was born.

The basement was the dressing room, a scene dock and wardrobe accommodation, while the second floor housed the box office and a coffee bar, and the third had a restaurant and bar.

For start-up cash Demarco sold the Traverse as a “theatre club” where patrons would pay up front for a year’s membership – a guinea or 10/6d if they were a student. 
According to Terry Lane, the club idea also saved them money on further renovations as the space was judged “unsafe for public performance”.

But they ploughed on. “Jim Haynes and I decided we needed to put into the minds of the people of Edinburgh the idea that they could see world-class theatre all year round and not just during the Festival.

“We wanted the sort of theatre that we imagined you would get in New York or Paris. Little did we know that we were actually ahead of New York – the whole off-Broadway thing didn’t actually start for another 
couple of years.”

By the time the Traverse opened they had convinced 500 people – mainly friends, acquaintances and university students – to become members, with the promise of giving the money back if they didn’t enjoy their first visit. “I knew I was taking a big risk but I thought if we could get 500 people, that would guarantee an audience for the duration of our two-week runs because members would, hopefully, bring a friend.”

The first evening – a double bill of Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos and Orison by the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal – played to a packed (if unheated) house. The second night’s performance was somewhat less 
successful, when the audience dwindled to nine and one of the actors was stabbed because they couldn’t afford a retractable knife as a prop. Luckily she wasn’t injured too badly.

After six years in its original home, the Traverse moved to the foot of Victoria Street in the Grassmarket, and into a converted warehouse and sailmaker’s loft. This time it boasted flexible seating for 120 on the third floor, with a bar, box office, dressing rooms and other facilities on the 
second floor.

But by this time Demarco had left to concentrate on his gallery – he had wanted to call it the Traverse Gallery but was barred from doing so by the theatre board – and Haynes too had gone through “artistic differences” with Terry Lane in 1966. But the theatre went from success to success, trailblazing new writing, including John Byrne’s The Slab Boys, Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way and David Greig’s Outlying Islands as well as works by Liz Lochhead and David Harrower.

Then in 1992 it found its third home in Cambridge Street – and despite the modern building the ticket pricing remained old fashioned, with all seats at £6 or £3 or £1 for concessions. The then director Ian Brown said the policy was a cornerstone of the new Traverse. “This is the city’s theatre and it is for the people of Edinburgh to use. It may mean less money coming in, but, in the long run, we’d rather have full houses at low prices than half empty, highly priced seats.”

These days, while a full price ticket will set you back £15, the Traverse is still branded as “Scotland’s New Writing Theatre” and is still breaking the new ground that Demarco, Haynes et al set out to do.

As current artistic director Orla O’Loughlin says: “One of the most compelling qualities of the Traverse is the way it has managed to be a champion of home-grown talent whilst maintaining a world class 

“Only one year into my tenure I find myself, alongside executive producer Linda Crooks, running one of the most compelling, risk-taking and distinctive theatres in the UK. We look forward to honouring the past, celebrating the present and heralding the future over the course of the next 12 months.”

n See Edinburgh Central Library’s collection of Traverse Theatre exhibition on the Mezzanine floor until February 27.

First theatre for new plays

TEN years before the current Traverse opened in Cambridge Street, the hunt began for new premises. In 1983 a proposal to move to the empty Argyle Brewery in the Cowgate was considered and abandoned. But a solution was not far away in Castle Terrace, where sat a notorious “hole in the ground”.

At one point the hole was seen as a site for an opera house, but in December 1987, the then Edinburgh District Council agreed a plan for an office complex with a new purpose-built theatre in the design brief. The Traverse and the Royal Lyceum battled it out to become tenants of the new theatre, the Trav eventually winning in June 1988. The council contributed £3 million for equipping and fitting out the new space, and gave the Traverse removal expenses of £150,000 and a lease of 150 years.

It finally opened on July 3, 1992, the first theatre in Britain built specifically for the showing of new plays. That first new play was Michele Celeste’s Columbus: Blooding the Ocean.