Three storeys of the striking Dalkeith Road building, which dates back to 1976, will be taken over by artists, performers, musicians and DJs for a five-day event in the spring.
Organisers are promising a “Narnia-esque” experience for ticket-holders under plans to use the ground floor and two basement levels in the building, which is described by Hidden Door as “the perfect blank canvas”. Audiences will be able to explore a “maze” of former offices, plant rooms, utility spaces and even the old staff canteen for an “immersive event” running on all five nights of the festival, which will have capacity of around 1,000.
Different environments will be created across the biggest floorspace of the building under a new “green” theme for Hidden Door, which will run between May 31 and June 4.
Located opposite the Royal Commonwealth Pool, which was built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, the Scottish Widows building has A-listed status thanks to its unusual design – a series of 12 glazed, hexagonal blocks.
The complex, which was home to more than 2,200 workers until it was disposed of by Scottish Widows, has been lying empty for the past two years ahead of a £100 million redevelopment. The site is planned to become home to nearly 200 new flats – earmarked for the part of the site occupied by five of the hexagonal blocks – and revamped office space.
Hidden Door creative director David Martin said: “We went into a frenzy of searching for possible venues during the lockdown. At that point, we were looking for an outdoor venue as we were unable to use the Royal High School during pandemic times, but this building came up at that time.
“We made a few phone calls and sometimes that is all it takes when we’re lucky. It’s a really big building, but also sort of claustrophobic as it has very low ceilings. It makes for really strange spaces, which we’re going to play with.
“It’ll be all about the indoor space for us. Hidden Door will have less of a festival feel – we’re focusing on creating a much more immersive event.”
Hidden Door has previously staged events at the old Royal High School on Calton Hill, a gap site and empty warehouse below the Granton Gasholder, the historic Leith Theatre building, a former council street depot off the Grassmarket and historic arches on Market Street.
Mr Martin said: “We're turning Hidden Door a bit on its head next year. Our model up till now has been trying to drive ticket sales through booking certain acts. But next year will be more about creating an experience for everybody. We’re trying to build something that everyone will get to see.
“We had a lot of fun in the Royal High building. The most interesting things we did there were the commissions of work for the central chamber, which was an amazing space, but you could only fit 300 people in it.
“The idea with this building is that the really exciting, creative, cutting-edge content that we commission will be happening all the time every night and everyone who comes to Hidden Door will get to see it. It will be almost more like putting on a big theatre show. There will be sort of one route through the building, but people will always be free to explore.”
Hidden Door, which has put early bird tickets on sale for its next festival, is seeking bands, musicians, dancers, visual artists and spoken word performers for its 2023 programme.
Mr Martin said: “We have a time entry slot system on the ground-floor of the building. We will be gathering people together, priming them and then releasing through a mysterious doorway into this magical world. I want there to be a bit of a Narnia moment.
“We’re going to commission groups of musicians, artists, dancers and filmmakers to create individual environments, which the audience will discover as they explore this slightly disorientating, dark, strange building.
“There will be an overall green theme to each zone, which will take on the form of a different natural environment and human impacts on them. Hidden Door hasn’t really had any kind of theme before, but the ability to curate and control it a lot more in this building is a good opportunity to try it. We are not going to become a campaigning organisation, but artists really want to talk about this stuff.”
Although Hidden Door gets £20,000 worth of funding from the city council, it is heavily reliant on ticket sales and bar takings to meet its costs.
Mr Martin said: “There is a critical mass of people that we need to get to come along. We’re trying to be as diverse as possible in terms of where we get money from, but never to be too dependent on any one thing. We have to make the event as attractive as possible and give people something to look forward to.
“But the line-up is not going to be as important to sell the event as it has been in the past. It will be more about being here and hanging out here. There is hopefully an audience who come to whatever we do, but over half our audience at the Royal High were first-time attendees at Hidden Door.”
Rebecca Gates, head of UK asset management at Schroders Capital Real Estate, the building’s owner, said: “Ahead of looking to breathe new life into this very important building, we are delighted to support Hidden Door’s wonderful proposals to transform the vacant space into a temporary cultural arts venue, which can be enjoyed by the public.”