Despite controversially taking over Edinburgh’s Meadows site four years ago, Underbelly’s Circus Hub is now a near sell-out and is taking risks to promote circus acts as its head of programming Marina Dixon tells Tim Bano
In some ways, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has a very long memory. There are performers who have been taking shows to the world’s largest arts festival for decades, sometimes they have taken the same show.
On the other hand, the millions of people passing through the city every year, means that the festival is constantly being renewed and refreshed.
In 2015, the Meadows, a large grassy patch just south of Edinburgh’s city centre, became home to Underbelly’s Circus Hub. And as it enters its fourth year it feels like it has always been there.
“Circus in the UK was growing,” says Underbelly’s head of programming Marina Dixon.“We noticed we were presenting more circus in our programmes and there was a growing appetite. We decided we wanted to give circus a dedicated home.”
That was in 2014. None of the existing Underbelly venues at that point were particularly suited to circus; none of them quite high enough or well-enough equipped to deal with aerial work and complicated rigging requirements. They had a year to find a location, design it, programme it and build it.
But there was a small uproar when the Ladyboys of Bangkok lost the coveted Meadows site in early 2015.
The company and its famous big top, had been resident there for 17 years until the council opened the site up to a competitive bidding process, hoping to raise more money from its rental.
Underbelly won the bidding, and three years later Dixon’s assessment of the saga is unrepentant. “Once you get a space in Edinburgh it’s not yours for the rest of time.”
It needed a big space because it wanted to put a big top there, she adds. “We needed the height and the space, and we couldn’t think where else it would work.”
Two big top tents were planned, a major 750-seat space and a 250-seater. Acts such as Cirque Alfonse from Canada, Czech company Cirk La Putyka and Palestinian Circus were programmed.
But despite Underbelly’s extensive experience building temporary venues, they hadn’t fully anticipated the harshness of an Edinburgh summer, and the Hub had an inauspicious start.
According to Dixon: “There were a few different issues. One was weather-related. Sometimes the elements just hit you and there’s nothing you can do about it. It held up everything.”
Strong winds prevented the production team from putting the cover on the larger space, the Lafayette. The build – which was meant to take four days – overran by another four, and six productions had performances cancelled, leaving performers distraught.
The second challenge was getting audiences to realise the Hub was there. “We have always found that with any space we’ve run it takes about three years to find our feet,” Dixon explains. “That’s what happened with the Hub.”
But, she insists: “Since that first year we haven’t really had any issues with the build. Things have gone up, it’s been well run.” And ticket sales speak for themselves: last year the Hub sold around 75% of all its tickets, with the Lafayette selling almost 100% every day of the festival.
Those figures are not only exceptional for the fringe, they are also crucial for Underbelly, which operates the Hub in a completely different way from a lot of its other spaces. Rather than agreeing a box-office split with programmed companies, Underbelly produces most of the shows in the Hub and pays guarantees to the companies, which means it has to make that money back at the box office.
“Circus shows are very expensive. We’ve tried to find the right financial model for them to be able to take the risk and come over. The old model of box office split doesn’t work. I hope we’ve led the way in becoming a big risk-taking, producing body at the fringe. We want to grow circus at the fringe, but we need to take the financial risk.”
But does that mean Dixon is inclined to programme safer bets and take fewer artistic risks? “It’s a mixture. We want shows to be a success, and there are some we know will be hits. So Circus Abyssinia is coming back this year because it was such a hit last year. That allows us to take a risk on new shows coming in. We programme the shows we think people need to see, the exciting ones.”
That includes Universoul’s Hip Hop Under the Big Top, with a colossal cast of 44. To an extent, the shows that Dixon programmes dictate the size and shape of the Hub. Each year Underbelly takes stock of the venue, working out what to change in terms of capacity and programming.
The 750-seat domed Lafayette proved to be too big in 2015, and it was cut down to 570 seats the following year. Then last year the Lafayette stayed at the same capacity while the 250-seat dome called the Beauty – another big top – was upgraded to a 550-seat Spiegeltent. So they started with a large and a small venue that looked very similar, and now have two similarly sized spaces that look completely different.
In its current orientation, the Lafayette is a classic circus tent, with a huge stage in the middle and a seating bank wrapping around it. The Spiegeltent, by contrast, is an old wooden tent with cabaret seating, booths and a much lower ceiling, allowing for more intimate shows such as Courtney Act’s Under the Covers.
There’s also a large backstage area – “Its large in the context of the fringe, but probably quite small in terms of what these circus performers are used to,” Dixon says – with warm-up tents, storage containers and chill-out areas.
“There’s no reason why we wouldn’t change it again. It all depends on what companies come in to work with us. I already have a fairly good idea of the shows that will want to come in for 2019. If it turns out that one of the venues may work better in a slightly different configuration it’s something we would definitely consider.”
The only limitation, really, is that there’s just an hour between shows, so each one has 30 minutes to get out and the next has 30 minutes to get in. Although that’s generous by fringe standards, Dixon says it’s “very challenging” for circus. “These shows have big sets, lots of equipment, the cast needs to warm up, they have to do safety checks before every show,” she says.
Often, that requires a lot of careful negotiation with the companies to balance what’s doable and what’s adaptable – while always prioritising safety.
“There are elements of danger with all of these shows, so we have to make sure what we’re doing is safe, and that the company feels comfortable,” Dixon says.
Universoul’s show has a high wire act, and the company wanted the high wire to stay rigged in the space every day. “We said it couldn’t, it would have to come out for the other shows. So it’s trying to find a way we can achieve what the company wants to do but in a way that the act comes out everyday and goes back in.”
With plans to pack up the Circus Hub and take it to other UK cities – “it’s just about finding the space for it” – Dixon is clear that the teething problems haven’t had a longer-term impact. “It was definitely a little bit of a tricky start, but there haven’t been any problems – 2015 seems like a long time ago now”.
• 45 shows from 2015 to 2018 (12 in the first year, 11 each subsequent year)
• Performers from more than 16 countries and six continents including acts from countries including Palestine, Mongolia, Czech Republic, Ethiopia and Colombia
• More than 70,000 tickets sold for the Hub in 2017, up 45% on 2015
• Site is built in less than a week, with the first show opening on August 3.
• Team of more than 30 people to build the space
• 26 sq m of puzzle mats backstage
• Acrobats drink 10 water cooler tanks a day backstage
• Venues are named in memory of the Great Lafayette and his beloved dog Beauty. The magician died when performing in Edinburgh at The Empire Theatre, having recently lost his beloved dog to a stroke, he was rumoured to be in mourning when a gas lamp on stage was knocked over during his performance and he died in the resulting fire
Underbelly’s Circus Hub is at the Meadows, Edinburgh from August 4-25