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Lyn Gardner: For new Scottish work, the Traverse is for life, not just for August

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Every show and every venue is under scrutiny during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but few experience the level of examination that the Traverse faces every August. It’s part of the fringe, but it occupies a different space from other venues, hovering between the fringe and the international festival.

Attached comes anticipation from audiences and critics that, as artistic director Orla O’Loughlin puts it, “we will deliver the best contemporary theatre on the planet during the month of August”. A tall order.

There are some crackers in this year’s line-up including Ulster American, What Girls Are Made Of, Toast, The Greatest Play in the History of the World… and more. I recall a long-ago conversation in which then Traverse artistic director, Dominic Hill, pointed out that just as a dog is not only for Christmas, the Traverse is not just for the Edinburgh Fringe. It is the backbone of Scottish new writing throughout the entire year, but during August the weight of expectation upon the Traverse is immense.

When Cora Bissett’s What Girls are Made Of opened last week there were more than 50 critics in the audience. That is 50 more than some shows on the fringe have seen all run and represents serious pressure. Like every other venue in the city during August, the Traverse needs to perform well at the box office but, unlike others, it can’t just balance the books by throwing a crowd-pleaser into the main house mix.

A good fringe at the Traverse is good news for new Scottish writing

A poor show at the Pleasance or Underbelly simply disappears into the seething mass of the programme, but a show that attracts neither audiences nor good critical feedback at the Traverse can feel like a much more public failure not just for the artists involved but for the venue too. A good fringe at the Traverse is good news for new Scottish writing. It gets home-grown shows noticed and it means there might be a bit more money to support it over the coming year.

No wonder that O’Loughlin says: “On a good day I feel like a magician and on a bad day it feels impossible.” Throughout the duration of the festival, the artistic director, who leaves the theatre at the end of the year to become vice-principal and director of drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama,  will be on call from 10am, when the first show goes up, right up until 3am, when the bar closes. O’Loughlin likes to go undercover, so she can hear what audiences are saying not just about the shows but also about the food in the cafe. She also knows her visible presence is important not just to artists but also to festival-goers.

“It’s not just about the work, it’s about the welcome,” O’Loughlin says. “During the festival we need to be asking the same questions that we must ask of ourselves all year round: why are we here, what is our responsibility, who are we talking to and how far are we willing to meet people?”

That’s the fundamental difference between a theatre and a venue. The day after the festival finishes, venues around the city will be dismantled. A week after the festival has finished, you wouldn’t know they were ever there. But the Traverse will quietly continue with its job of supporting new writing and theatremaking and connecting with audiences all year round. It’s here for the long haul, not just for August.

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