The Forest Fringe
Tim Cornwell reports on the Forest Fringe’s fight for survival, while Catriona MacLeod looks at this year’s programme, which could be the iconic venue’s last
CALLING on all "hippies, lunatics, and junkies" to rally to the cause, one of the Fringe's top performers joins the campaign to save one of its most eclectic venues, when, at half past midnight, for about three hours, Daniel Kitson, winner of both top comedy and theatre accolades in the festival, will perform his trilogy Stories for a Starlit Sky at the Forest Fringe, from its base in the Forest Cafe.
The stories were first performed in Regent's Park open air theatre in London at midnight on three separate nights. Kitson will perform all three, back to back, for the first time ever, for GBP20 on the door, as part of the campaign to save the Forest Cafe, and the mini-festival it has housed for four years.
Kitson doesn't usually give interviews. But in an e-mail message circulating online he wrote: "The Forest Fringe is a great thing, in a great place. It's run on barely any money at all, and has a fascinating programme, every year...
"The building that houses the Forest Fringe is being sold, which would force the Forest Cafe and by extension the Forest Fringe into something approaching oblivion." When a prospective buyer for the building dropped out after being refused planning permission, Kitson said: "There is a genuine window of opportunity for a lovely thing to happen. For shambolic good to prevail. For a great space to be preserved. Albeit by hippies, lunatics and junkies."
For eight years, the Forest Cafe has been a counter-cultural gathering spot in Edinburgh's city centre. Its entrance is opposite the high end Hotel Du Vin, among the porcelain and art shops, and crowded tourist diners, just round the corner from the refurbished National Museum of Scotland. It is known for its vegan burritos, and the bafflingly gender-blind basement toilets covered with murals.
Its ramshackle but bustling cafe, with an overwhelmingly youthful, laid-back clientele, has large, labelled containers of muesli, marsalla sauce, or cumin seeds. On the wall is the Forest's formula for the "mysterious element" of success: a combination of S for space, P for people, R for resource, T for time, and U for the Uncontrollable factor. It operates on a handful of part-time staff and a network of a couple of hundred volunteers.
The Forest Cafe nurtures its hippyish feel. But it is also, said fund-raiser Harry Giles, "an independent, open access art centre. It's a place where absolutely anyone can get involved in creative projects. We are free for people to attend events, and they are free to put on events. With facilities for visual artists and theatre makers, we are providing an opportunity for anyone to get involved in any art at any level. We have built a very strong community that supports people's projects, that allows us to put on not just anything but really high quality work."
Four years ago, the Forest acquired its own August festival, the Forest Fringe, founded by Andy Field, a former Edinburgh student who had worked at the former Aurora Nova venue, and playwright Deborah Pearson. After quiet beginnings in 2007, the event rapidly acquired a building buzz. This year, the Forest's off-beat programme has reached an artistic maturity that has brought major arts backers behind its shows and mature theatre-goers queuing for its free tickets. But it, and the Forest Cafe that hosts it, are fighting for their existence.
The building, the former Bristo Church, is owned by the Edinburgh University Settlement, which went into administration last year. It's been valued at as much as GBP1.1 million, though was worth half that in 2003. A deal to sell it, brokered by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the administrators, fell through after planning permission for conversion to a restaurant was denied.
But the Forest Cafe team have been given notice by PwC to leave the building by the end of August as a prelude to the sale of a prime, though B-listed building, in the heart of the city. They are currently in talks, they say, in a desperate bid to prove they can stay on as responsible tenants or even buyers. PwC did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.
So far, they have raised about GBP30,000 from public donations, Giles said. This week, they will launch WeFund, a crowd funding platform that asks for pledges from the public on the internet for arts projects. The goal is to raise enough for a GBP100,000 deposit and take it from there.
The programme this year includes performer and playwright Gary McNair's show Crunch. It is the antithesis of commercialism, playing just down the street from some of the Edinburgh Fringe's most professional operators. A deceptively simple satire of the value of money and credit, modestly offered by a 25-year-old already labelled a Scottish talent to watch, with backing from the National Theatre of Scotland, it was painfully timely as the markets crashed again. Crunch involves the audience bidding for a brown envelope and putting GBP5 notes through a shredder to see how it feels.
McNair doesn't ask for donations at the end of his show at the Forest Fringe, part of its entirely free festival offering. He plays the show in the former church hall where the only set is an altar with its double steps. But Andy Field, the Forest's co-director, steps up to the mark, asking for donations. "This looks like our last Fringe. It was a lifeline when the deal fell through," he said.
The Forest's facilities range from a dark room and recording studio to the Sit and Snip Hairdressers and Massage Parlour, offering haircuts, massage, and a shot of vodka, whilst artists talk about their work. Its programme, with backing from the Jerwood Charitable Trust, includes Tania El Khoury's Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel Better, a charming, innovative off-site piece where the audience of one male manipulates the movements and emotions of a mystery woman he spots on the street.
Then there's dancer Dan Canham's show, 30 Cecil Street, a piece about the now-dead rooms of an abandoned theatre in Limerick, Ireland, that he creates with masking tape around the stage. The soundtrack, which Canham recorded there, includes an old Irish voice recalling: "It's very easy to destroy a scene, but it takes a lot to build up a scene."
Downstairs in the cafe, American singer Jason Webley thanked his cheering Forest audience for listening to a "strange accordionist" over a dozen years. "What I do would be such a small and weird thing without you guys to come here," he said. "I want to thank the Forest Cafe for existing in spite of powerful forces. If you have a rich uncle ready to sign away a thousand pounds, please help. I believe that life is unrelentingly beautiful and these moments of crisis only show that more."
'We get really innovative, unusual things people can't work on elsewhere'
IF like me, you are the kind of festival-goer for whom disruption of a meticulously planned schedule induces spontaneous combustion, you're in for a shock. Forest Fringe will require you to relinquish that schedule. Enjoying a poetry reading or theatre excerpt while sipping a coffee, exclaiming (to yourself) "But this isn't in the guide!" is all in a day's work for those milling around Bristo Hall.
The festival began five years ago and a spirit of inclusion permeates its programming. "It's massively diverse," explains Harry Giles, acting venue manager. "We mostly get really wild, innovative and unusual things that people can't work on elsewhere, either because they can't afford it, because it's not commercially viable enough, or because they want to do an experiment and need the space."
You just have to look at the collection of artists who have been put together to understand that the work can't really be pigeon-holed into Fringe guide sections, and my first Forest Fringe experience this year certainly doesn't disappoint in the experiment stakes. Hinterland is the brainchild of gamers Hide&Seek with Ross Sutherland. And I don't mean "gamers" in a World of Warcraft way; Hinterland is a poem you can play as a game, or a game that becomes a poem. Upon registering to take part, I have to make myself an avatar, a small figurine representing myself and then place it somewhere in the cardboard metropolis representing "Hinterland". After this brief craft interlude, I am given the instructions to my first "canto" and when I have completed this mission, I must phone the Operator who will then create a poem for me based on my answers. The city becomes the answer and the means of creating poetry, and there is no time limit to the creation process; nothing better demonstrates this small festival's commitment to integrating art with the city and collaborating with the people taking part. What I expect to be a more conventional theatrical experience turns into something entirely different, and I can understand what festival director Andy Field means when he claims the Forest provides space "for brilliant quality artists who span somewhere between live art and theatre and music and poetry".
We Might As Well Live begins with what looks like porridge dancing inside a speaker thumping out thick bass, and the piece unfolds as an exploration of sound, movement and space. Performers, Sharon Smith and Tom Parkinson play around with wine glasses, a guitar, comb kazoos and a whip and their monologues are weird and wonderful tangents of curious facts.
Next I see Gary McNair's Crunch, which has already earned McNair awards and acclaim and which blends the Forest Fringe's mix of quality with the unbrandable. In a show that's half monologue, half motivational speech - with a dash of improvisation and audience participation thrown in just in case it wasn't captivating enough - McNair is persuasive and powerful as he lectures his audience about money and explains why we don't need it, having a good laugh and destroying some cash in the process.
Which brings us to the issue of money. The existence of Bristo Hall itself has a time limit unless the building can be purchased, and soon. As I was there, Forestee Rachel McCrum was in the process of putting together a very Forest-like money raising scheme. "People pledge money and we promise to give you something in exchange," she explains. "If you pledge £25 we'll give you a burrito, or if you live far away we'll send you a picture of a burrito and a recipe. For £250 Billy Liar will come and perform in your bedroom, which is great - lots of people have given £250 so he'll have to perform in a lot of bedrooms."