Grid Iron theatre company has made its name putting on shows in peculiar paces. It has performed in a jute museum in Dundee, on an island in Norway and beyond the check-in desks in Edinburgh airport. During the Edinburgh festival – both International and Fringe – it has clocked up a list of venues no less extraordinary.
Now, as the Edinburgh company prepares for its tenth festival show, producer Judith Doherty and director Ben Harrison are sitting in the bright Grid Iron office overlooking the Water of Leith reflecting on the hazards and high points of taking such a singular approach. "We've gone from Angela Carter to a hip-hop musical set in Pilton," says Doherty. "We've had a rich, varied, exciting and challenging time with every single show."
THE ONE THAT STARTED IT ALL
The Bloody Chamber, 1997
Today Mary King's Close, a once sealed-off street beneath the City Chambers, is a popular tourist attraction, but when Grid Iron decided to use it for a promenade staging of the Angela Carter story, it was rare to get down there at all. So rare, they couldn't be sure they'd get permission or if they'd have to use some other underground space. "We had to go into the Fringe Programme without knowing where it was going to be," says Doherty.
Having got the go-ahead, they had to do battle with Councillor Moira Knox who interpreted the company's publicity to mean something unsavoury was happening and tried to get it closed down. When finally the show went ahead, it wasn't only the audiences that were spooked. "The place really was haunted," says Doherty. "In one scene, the actor playing Bluebeard threw down a heavy bunch of keys at the end of a bed and then the audience moved out of the room. The stage management would then come in and move the keys, but on one occasion they couldn't find them. They found them in a place where they really couldn't have got to."
THE ONE THAT INVENTED THE UNDERBELLY
On a visit to the empty vaults beneath the Central Library, they were intrigued by all the doors. The janitor told them they were out of bounds so, naturally, as soon as his back was turned, they started to explore. "We went to what we called the cathedral space," says Harrison. "The beam of the torch ended but there was still more space beyond. It was great because it gave us a final big operatic space."
In the audience for Gargantua, a Rabelaisian foodie extravaganza, was Ed Bartlam who saw the potential for the Fringe venue we know today as the Underbelly, a name coined by Grid Iron. "Ben thinks he came up with the name and I know I came up with it," says Doherty. "I'm going to have it on my gravestone: 'No, Ben, it was me.'"
THE ONE THAT WAS ALL SWINGS AND ROUNDABOUTS
Decky Does a Bronco, 2000
After their underground years, Douglas Maxwell's play brought them blinking into the sunlight. A tongue-in-cheek stage direction gave Harrison the idea about how to stage this teenage rites-of-passage drama. "Very cheekily on the front page, he had written, 'Do it in a playground, it'll be really cheap,'" he says. "We took him literally."
They built their own set of swings and found a corner of a real playground, taking care to respect the local children's right to be there (and ignoring the dog who did an on-stage poo in the middle of the press performance). "The children learnt great chunks of the storyline and got ownership of it," says Harrison. "They'd say, 'This is my bit, this is the good bit.'"
THE ONE THAT FLOPPED
Brian McMaster, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival, knew Grid Iron had commissioned Douglas Maxwell to write a play about Scottish music hall. When he phoned Docherty to talk about it, she was standing in a park holding up one of the swing poles for Decky Does a Bronco. "We were only five years old by the time we did it, so it was quite an extraordinary thing to get that phone call," she says. "It's just a shame we didn't do a bit of a better job."
It had its supporters, but Variety was generally panned. "The opportunity overwhelmed us," she says. "But the lessons we learnt mean that if we hadn't done it, we wouldn't still be here."
THE ONE THAT WAS SAVED BY THE SCOTSMAN
Those Eyes That Mouth, 2003
Actor Cait Davis and musician David Paul Jones were well into rehearsals for Those Eyes That Mouth, which was to be performed in an Edinburgh flat when, two weeks before opening night, one of the neighbours complained about the potential noise. Grid Iron had to pull out with little time to find an alternative space, let alone apply for a new licence. As the company worried about its future, the Scotsman picked up on the story. "It was on the stands: Fringe Company Loses Venue," says Harrison. "No other newspaper in the world would do that."
By 10.30am, a property developer was on the phone offering a three-storey house it was refurbishing in the New Town. The building was perfect and, by 4pm, it had been approved by the licensing and fire officers. "I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else," says Doherty.
THE ONE IN A REGULAR FRINGE VENUE
Wanting to engage with a younger audience, Grid Iron commissioned playwright Justin Young and composer Philip Pinksy to write a hip hop musical about a boy with a love of graffiti. It toured in Scotland before its run at the Assembly Rooms which, as many Fringe companies have found before, meant a radical rethink for the crew. "It went to main spaces and village halls," says Doherty. "But it took at least two-and-a-half hours to put up and two-and-a-half hours to take down because it was a big heavy set. In the Fringe, it had to go up in seven minutes and come down in eight – and it did."
THE ONE THAT OFFERED RETAIL THERAPY
The Devil's Larder, 2005
On its first outing in Cork, The Devil's Larder, adapted from stories by Jim Crace, was staged in a former city morgue. A few weeks later, by contrast, Grid Iron presented it in Debenhams department store after closing time. "In Cork it was very subtle and arty," says Harrison. "We tried it with the same rhythms in the bed department of Debenhams and it just died. It was so out of kilter. But we had such good actors that just by adjusting the tone of it, playing up the comedy, they resettled it in the space. That's why it's important to have great actors who are attuned to the space."
THE ONE IN THEIR LOCAL
On a work visit to New York, Doherty and Harrison found themselves drinking in the White Horse Tavern where Dylan Thomas once drank. They observed a woman falling out of the door and remembered the movie Barfly and the heavy-drinking culture portrayed in the writing of Charles Bukowski. Pretty soon the conversation turned to staging a show in their own local, the Barony in Broughton Street. "Getting the rights to Bukowski's work was another skin-of-your-teeth thing," says Doherty who tracked down his widow Linda after being stonewalled by the publishers. "It was 1.30am and the Fringe Programme deadline was the next day when I got a call from Linda, saying, 'Yes, you can use that story and why don't you think about this one?'"
THE ONE THAT WAS REVIVED
Decky Does a Bronco, 2010
With a new set of swings and a fresh young cast, Maxwell's play came back for a tenth anniversary tour of UK playgrounds. "The actors were very nervous when the first generation actors came to see it," says Harrison. On the Fringe, it was the year of Beautiful Burnout, the National Theatre of Scotland's testosterone-powered play about young boxers, and the two male-dominated casts were ready to square up to each other. "I think there was a fight or a five-a-side," says Doherty, convinced it was the other cast that sustained the greatest injuries.
THE NEXT ONE
What Remains, 2011
Working with long-time collaborator David Paul Jones, Harrison is orchestrating a promenade production in the atmospheric anatomy department of the University of Edinburgh. The theme for this horror-laden musical journey is about what remains after we are gone and what legacy we leave to future generations. Driven entirely by the score, it is a piece without actors. "It's got to be about isolation," says Harrison. "We've got one guy who's a great piano player – and the story came out of that presence."
What Remains, Traverse @ University of Edinburgh Medical School Anatomy Department, 4–28 August (not 8, 15, 22).
© Mark Fisher 2011
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