By ANDY MOSELEY
Most people’s associate the words Army and Edinburgh with the Military Tattoo, but this year the Army will also have its own Festival Fringe venue following a link up with Summerhall that will see six shows performed at The Hepburn House Army Reserve Centre in the city.
Andy Moseley spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Gordon MacKenzie to find out more about the initiative and to get a flavour of what audiences can expect.
Even in a city where almost anywhere can find itself transformed into a fringe venue, it may come as a surprise for audiences to find themselves watching theatre in an real life drill hall at an Army Reserve Centre with military personnel taking their tickets and serving them drinks. However, the venue is not the only thing that may come as a surprise.
Lieutenant Colonel Gordon MacKenzie explained “We wanted to take risks. We didn’t want to do Dad’s Army or It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, we wanted something that was much more down in the weeds and edgier, so that we could draw in audiences who wouldn’t be interested in the more sedate and traditional portrayals of the Army.”
A line-up including shows dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and gender identity, as well as the true stories of First and Second World War servicemen that don’t shy away from presenting the horrors of war, show the risks that have been taken to produce a programme that may confound many people’s expectations.
The first confirmed production was Rosie Kay Dance Companies’ 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline a piece that explores the impact of war on the human body, an army sponsored piece of performance theatre that follows the lives of five new recruits. It is the result of a link-up between Kay and the army that saw Kay experience battle exercises on Dartmoor and Salisbury plain, and visit a medical rehabilitation centre, in order to understand the effects of conflict on the human body. Kay then recreated this in a piece performed by dancers who have also undergone real military training exercises.
To build the rest of the programme, a call out was made to companies and theatres for shows that might fit within the remit for the venue and the army partnered up with Summerhall to work on the final line up. Summerhall provided “experience, expertise, marketing assistance and a stamp of quality because of their history and reputation” Mackenzie says, but there was also a synergy between their ambitions and those of the army with the programme that made it a very rewarding and productive partnership, “We didn’t want to dictate the subject matter or how writers and producers could present ideas, but we also didn’t want to give the impression that we were just renting out space. The content of the shows was very important. They didn’t necessarily have to be about the army, but they had to be things we felt strongly about, such as equality and gay rights. Summerhall understood this and helped to create a programme that reflects it.”
The questions many people may have are why are the Army doing this, and what do they hope to gain from opening their doors to the public as part of the Fringe. For Mackenzie, the answer is that bringing people into their home is very much a metaphor for their overall strategy to engage with the public and increase understanding of what the army does. “We’re not all that easy to understand. It’s no longer the case that in every generation everyone knows someone who’s served, and the uniforms, military language and even the buildings, behind barbed wire, can make it harder for people to understand what we are, what we do and what the people who make up the army are like. Army@TheFringe is part of a wider range of activities aimed at overcoming this and reconnecting with the public”
So, will we see Army personnel on stage in the productions? “Not this year, but soldiers will be at the venue, front of house on the bar, and also in the post-show Q and A discussions that will take place after some of the performances”. The involvement in the Q and A’s will not just be to talk about life in the army “many of the soldiers will be seeing the productions for the first time as the audience do, so they will be reacting to it too. Hopefully they’ll like what they’ve seen, but maybe they won’t.”
Mackenzie is delighted that Senior Army leadership are very supportive and excited by the initiative, but not surprised by this. “It could be risky, it could backfire in all sorts of ways, but we’re trusting ourselves, and reaching out to the public. Our experience with 5 Soldiers last year was amazing as people were perhaps surprised by the honest approach they saw in after show discussions which really helped to open up dialogues and maybe change perceptions of audiences. We want that to continue with Army@TheFringe.”
Going forward, he notes that “The arts offers a way of starting conversations and having our lives explored and interpreted by others in a way that we couldn’t,” and hopes that Army@TheFringe will be part of a wider engagement with the arts. As part of this the army will be inviting writers and producers into the venue in the final week of the Fringe, to look at the space, find out more about soldiers and life in the army, and possibly trigger ideas for future productions.
As to what these productions may be, and the army’s involvement in their development, Mackenzie is open to suggestions “We’re looking for the less obvious, we’re interested in original and imaginative ideas from across the arts, and we’re always happy to work with people to facilitate the development of authentic pieces that capture something about life in the army and the people who are part of it.”
For his own Festival Fringe, Mackenzie is particularly looking forward to seeing Locker Room Talk at the Traverse, Northern Stage’s Instructions for a Border Crossing at Summerhall and Pauline Myers’ What if I Told You at Army@TheFringe, as well as This Restless House at the Lyceum as part of the International Festival. It remains to be seen just how much the work involved in running a Fringe venue will limit the numbers of shows he can see, however.
Army@TheFringe is at Hepburn House, East Claremont Street from 11 to 26 August 2017.
For more information visit http://armyatthefringe.org/