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The Church of Scotland Assembly Halls decked out for the Fringe
The Church of Scotland Assembly Halls decked out for the Fringe

The Kirk, the Festival and the Fringe

Wednesday August 2 2017

As the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe mark their 70th anniversaries, Bruce Cannon looks at the role of the Church of Scotland in their history.

In the celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, the contribution of the Kirk and other churches in Scotland towards the growth of this astonishing explosion of artistic and musical talent, should not be overlooked or underestimated.

The Festival began as an attempt to recover some of the cultural heritage and influences that had been lost in the Second World War. In a wonderfully sunny August in 1947, an international assembly of world-class musicians, singers and actors descended on the city. Under the direction of Rudolf Bing, managing director of Glyndebourne Opera, the Festival was launched on Sunday, August 24 with an inaugural service at St Giles’ Cathedral and, surprising for the time, an opening concert in the Usher Hall on Sunday evening.

I was a schoolboy in Edinburgh at the time and can remember the excitement surrounding this new venture. Suddenly Edinburgh came alive and welcomed the artists, eager to see and hear the performances.

At this point there was no Fringe, but several amateur and semi-professional companies realised that this concentration of theatrical and musical talent was an opportunity to join in the fun. Although they were not invited to the official Festival, eight theatre companies, six Scottish and two English, arrived independently in Edinburgh to present their plays. Known inelegantly as ‘adjuncts’, they were the forerunners of the Fringe, although it was a couple of years before that term was applied.

Finding somewhere to perform was a challenge for the adjuncts because the official Festival had claimed Edinburgh’s main theatres. One of the alternative options was the Gateway Theatre, owned and run by the Kirk – a unique combination of Church and Theatre. Formerly a cinema, the Gateway was gifted to the Kirk in 1944 by an anonymous donor who wished it to be used in a constructive way.

At that first Festival the Gateway hosted the Pilgrim Players from Birmingham. Six of the other companies used the studio theatre in Edinburgh YMCA and the Pleasance Little Theatre. The eighth company performed the morality play “Everyman” in Dunfermline Abbey sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation.

Once the idea of putting on a show at the Festival caught on, churches and church halls were suddenly in demand as venues. Fortunately, the capital’s churches were well suited for this purpose as amateur dramatics was a very popular activity. Many congregations had well-equipped halls and were familiar with the needs of performers and producers. One church even allowed an American company to convert a hall into a Wild West saloon as the set for “Kiss me Kate”. The cast of this show included a young Robin Williams at the beginning of his acting career.

It is probably true to say that the Festival gained considerably from the Church’s reappraisal of its buildings. Many redundant churches have since been converted into permanent theatres or concert halls. For example the Queen’s Hall, Church Hill Theatre and Festival Hub were all churches.

Perhaps the Kirk’s largest and continuing Festival contribution is the Assembly Hall on the Mound. It became the unlikely setting at the second Festival for Tyrone Guthrie’s stunning production of “The Thrie Estates”. Guthrie’s use of the old layout of the Hall with rows of benches on three sides of the central podium from which Assembly business was conducted, was unique. He created the “apron stage” projecting into the auditorium, an imaginative concept that was subsequently adopted by many other theatres. In the years that followed, the Hall was used for equally spectacular Shakespearean and other plays.

But the Kirk’s involvement with the Fringe is more than just providing performance space. Some congregations present their own programmes. A glance at this year’s Fringe programme lists at least ten central city churches holding virtually ‘mini-festivals’ with a mixture of visiting artists and their own performers.

Another significant venue provided by the Church today is the studio theatre in the Scottish Storytelling Centre in the Royal Mile. Owned by the Church of Scotland and supported by a large number of sponsors, the centre provides a focus and permanent location for many theatrical, artistic and community projects. I am particularly pleased that one of the acts this year is my son Andy who will be performing his one-act play on the story of Macbeth for children.

From that modest beginning in 1947, the Festival and Fringe have blossomed into this amazing, expanding celebration of human creativity. The Fringe is fussy, it’s untidy, it’s uncontrolled but long may it continue to excite, educate, entertain and challenge. The show must go on…and on...

An extended version of this feature appears in August's Life and Work. Download or subscribe

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