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Forest Fringe: Challenging the fringe status quo

Ira Brand performing at Forest Fringe: the transition from artist to co-director is a logical extension of Forest Fringe’s ethos. Photo: Jemima Yong Ira Brand performing at Forest Fringe: the transition from artist to co-director is a logical extension of Forest Fringe’s ethos. Photo: Jemima Yong

“We were making by doing in the first instance.” Andy Field and Ira Brand, two of Forest Fringe’s co-directors (the third, Deborah Pearson, is away in Canada), are sitting at a table in the National Theatre, in the strange halfway space bathed in red neon between the main body of the building and the venue formerly known as the Shed. During our conversation this location comes to feel increasingly apt.

Forest Fringe profileFounded in August 2007 by Pearson, Forest Fringe is a space for experimentation that exists within the Edinburgh Fringe and yet sits apart from it. Each year it programmes a season of performances, installations, live art and other events which do not slot easily into boxes – last year, it hosted a Hunt and Darton bake-off involving tuna and broccoli; its work is not listed in the main Fringe programme – and, crucially, all of its shows are free.

Over the years, the Forest Fringe has evolved and expanded. “At least half of what we do now is international work,” explains Field, but it started life in Edinburgh – when Pearson was approached by the Forest Cafe, a volunteer-run community arts centre, to put together a programme during the fringe. Now the three of them are currently in the process of pinning down the final details of their ninth Edinburgh season, which this year includes work by Jo Bannon, Brian Lobel, Tania El Khoury, Action Hero, Made in China and Little Bulb, as well as a programme of off-site work.

To begin with, says Field, “we had nothing as coherent as a strategy or a manifesto.” An opportunity had been offered to them and they took up the challenge. “We were so young. We were responding to the offer in an instinctive way.” The first Forest Fringe – which Field refers to as “Year Zero” – was inspired, in part, by the sense of community at Aurora Nova, where Field had been working and by both his and Pearson’s experience of London-based company Shunt. The requirement that all the work be free was a condition imposed on them by the Forest Cafe. “If we were starting our own venue,” he laughs, “we’d never have thought of making it free – because that’s fucking stupid. I also had this idea that no one would take us seriously if it was free.” The experience of creating the Forest Fringe became “this brilliant kind of education not only about what you value in art but what you value in life. The ideology and politics and artistic sensibilities have come through the practical experience of making it happen.”

Andy Field, Ira Brand and Deborah Pearson are co-directors whose relationship with performers is as much pastoral as professional
Andy Field, Ira Brand and Deborah Pearson are co-directors whose relationship with performers is as much pastoral as professional

Brand came on-board a bit further down the line. She’d performed at Forest in 2008 as part of her company, Tinned Fingers. “I’d had a rough time at previous fringes,” she says. Making work at the Forest was “a revelation, it felt entirely different.” She joined the team in 2011, their last season in the Forest Cafe. “We had an over-ambitious set of things happening around the city that year” says Field, and as a result Brand’s role became increasingly hands-on.

This transition from artist to co-director is “a logical extension of the ethos of Forest Fringe.” The level of investment and involvement from the artists is high and there’s a sense of family to what they do, though they’re mindful that this can make them seem closed off. “There’s a balance between wanting to create a sense of community and continuity and but at the same time to create space for new artists to work with us,” says Brand.

“Defining the relationship we have with artists is really hard,” says Field, but in a way that’s really satisfying to me.” They’re not commissioners nor are they producers. Their relationship with artists is “informal, it’s as much pastoral as it is professional, it’s occasionally collaborative but it’s more about working in proximity with one another”.

After the premises which housed the Forest Cafe, a former church in the heart of the city on Bristo Place, was sold, they were forced to find a new Edinburgh home. Since 2013 this has been the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, an arts and cultural centre on the road to Leith. Large and light, the space has a very different quality to their old base. “You can bring your kids, it’s wheelchair accessible,” says Brand, “and there’s daylight!” It is in many ways a more comfortable and open space that it invites its audience to spend time there, to sit, to take stock.

When they started out, “geographically we were right at centre of things but we were on the outside, now we have to recognise we are part of the Edinburgh establishment to an extent. We’ve become more a part of it while being further away.” They recognise this shift in status and feel, says Field, “a responsibility to use our outsider status to challenge the fringe when it needs challenging – the accessibility question is a case in point. If an unfunded free festival can have a full day of signed performances and be fully wheelchair accessible, why the fuck can’t you? It’s all well and good giving yourself the tagline ‘defying the norm since 1947’ but what is it that you do that’s not entirely the norm?”

5 things about forest fringeBut the fringe is a shifting thing, he says, and capable of self-correction. “That clustering around George Square, the aggressiveness in which that area is managed and presented, where you can’t move without hitting a fucking burger van. I think at a certain point people will get tired of that.

“There are certain kinds of work you can’t present in the middle of that bubble,” he continues, “because they will get lost. There needs to be silence around some work for its nuance and delicacy to be apparent.”  Brand agrees, citing Verity Standen’s Hug as an example. “When the only time you’ve got to appreciate a piece is while it’s happening,” says Field, “then that ends up privileging certain work.” The Drill Hall space, they believe, despite its own limitations, lets the work breathe.

There have been other shifts over the years they’ve been making work at Forest Fringe. “Maybe this is vanity,” says Field, “but formally and aesthetically I feel like you can see where Forest Fringe has shifted the parameters in terms of experimental practices and live art which can be successful at the festival.” Both Field and Brand would like to see things continue to shift, to see more alternatives to the big fringe bubble, to encourage younger artists to start their own movements. Buzzcut, a group of Glasgow-based artists who will be presenting a whole weekend of work at the Forest this year, is the perfect example of this. “Those guys are the coolest.”

This year the Forest Fringe team has used crowdfunding for the first time, a move Field was “very suspicious of” to begin with but both he and Brand have come round to the idea. More than 200 people contributed to the campaign. The response has been quite touching, says Brand. “It’s not a sustainable solution but it allowed us to make this year’s programme happen.”

“We make zero money from the box office,” explains Field. Because of the support provided by the Drill Hall, all of the audience donations are now split between the artist and the venue. “Every year we have the challenge of how to generate the money to run it.”

This year they’ve teamed crowdfunding with support from the Fenton Arts Trust and Oberon books and “we’ve just about managed to make it”.

But, he says, maybe that’s okay, maybe there’s something to be said for “embracing the flux and also the freedom of it, the licence to risk and experimental that it gives you. By thinking from year to year we’ve lasted longer than organisations that have a more traditional model. We’re nearly 10 years old now, and we’ve got there through embracing uncertainty.”

Forest Fringe will be at Edinburgh’s Out of the Blue Drill Hall from August 17-30 with a programme of off-site work at Forest Centre Plus. On August 25 it will present a day of BSL-interpreted work

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