COUNTRY ONE – Let’s call it Sperantia

Sperantia, Scene One

A room in Edinburgh in August 2011, one of the few that has not been transformed into a theatre in a festival city that boasts 300 temporary venues as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest open access arts Festival in the world. Around the table, in wary communion, are the representatives of the key performing arts companies of a nation with a history of division; with them, the head of their government arts agency, a charismatic poet and cultural/political leader and a major Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue producer, with a passionate commitment to presenting work from the nation of Sperantia. The meeting is facilitated by my colleague, the patient but resolutely persistent International Projects Officer for Festivals Edinburgh – the organisation I lead, which, with the support of the British Council (the UK’s international cultural relations body) and Creative Scotland (Scotland’s national arts council), has brought these people together. Festivals Edinburgh and its member festivals have their own agenda of extending, deepening and exploiting the already strong internationalism of their city’s 12 major festivals to assert the value of culture alongside sport at the time of the 2012 London Olympic and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Few of these remarkable creative people from Sperantia, some with their own potent history of political struggle, have ever sat together around a table or around a shared endeavour before, even some from the same cities.  We are moved. It feels important and beyond the boundaries of this room, this city. A critical conversation begins.

Sperantia, Scene Two

One year later, 2012. After a year of complex, sometimes painful negotiations and a visit to Sperantia that involved both creative programming and fierce political advocacy, a major season of work from Sperantia is presented at one of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s most prestigious venue networks and at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, with support from their government’s arts council. Essentially, the process has also been facilitated by the leader of one of Sperantia’s national companies and the charismatic poet as well as the High Commissioner in London. In a highly competitive environment, with over 3000 shows and events across five simultaneous festivals, the artists find the experience challenging and the shows receive varied attendance but extremely positive reviews. One show wins a major award and is widely regarded as the most important piece of work at the Fringe that year. It is taken on as an international touring production by the venue producer whose reputation for quality theatre programming has been enhanced by his commitment to this brave range of work, as has that of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Sperantia’s Minister for the Arts attends the

 

season, meets our Minister for Culture and External Affairs, and Festivals Edinburgh begins a very constructive conversation about building and extending this nation’s creative ambitions over three years across our 12 Festivals. This should culminate in a programme that will mark and celebrate its cultural riches in 2014, the year when Scotland hosts the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and when Sperantia marks a remarkable moment in its birth as a nation. As a result of our combined ambitions, the British Council and Creative Scotland create a partnership to facilitate broader exchange with Sperantia, establishing a welcome sense of longer-term relationship building between the Scottish and Sperantian wider cultural sectors, who have begun to meet and connect with each other during our Festivals.

 Sperantia, Scene 3

Two years on, two Sperantian culture ministers on. 2013. Another room in Edinburgh, this time in a restaurant, with a completely new delegation from Sperantia.  There is a third strong season of work by artists from Sperantia at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but the critical shift to cross-festival ambition has not taken place; nor has the potential for broader cultural partnership building flourished at the Sperantia end. I am breaking bread with the new Minister, his team, the former diplomat who is leading the country’s major anniversary celebrations and another charismatic politicised artist, this time a classical singer. We talk about the experiences of those around the table under the repressive regime that once ran their country. We talk about the cohesion of the moment of their country’s celebration and the year of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the place of culture in each. My colleague, our new International Projects Officer talks about the need to focus investment. The former diplomat calls her “a bull with a smile’ and we all laugh. They sing to us. Protest songs. Beautiful, powerful, angry songs. They ask me to sing our songs. When I begin my mournful Scottish protest song, and my colleague from the British Council joins in, they harmonise with us.

 Sperantia, Scene 4

The café in a hotel in George Square, 2014, the civic heart of Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, early in the year of the Commonwealth Games and Sperantia’s significant celebrations of the founding of their free and democratic nation. A delegation from Sperantia’s national arts agency, and the charismatic singer who is now co-curating their international celebrations, are in the city to contribute to Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games culture programme. However, despite three years of protracted discussions, and a record of creative success, there is still no agreement on any events at any of the Edinburgh Festivals, which are now finalizing their programmes for this big year. I am in the café facilitating a speed-dating meeting where each of Edinburgh’s Summer Festivals, a total of six curators with their own distinct visions, sit down in turn and discuss how they will work to profile and celebrate the best artists, companies and community work from Sperantia with the curator of Sperantia’s celebratory international cultural programme. This man, the charismatic singer, obviously has his own distinct and ambitious vision of what that programme should look like. The conversations are

 

colourful. Does a four year long, lovingly evolved Fringe Festival programme have to be sacrificed to allow other ambitions to be fulfilled? Why should Sperantia support work that they have not selected to celebrate their moment? Who is leading? What does partnership mean? Will their profile for Sperantia be as high as other countries’ in a cross-commonwealth exhibition that has built collaborations between visual arts curators across five continents? Everything is still painfully inconclusive by the end of the day. I try to think of the artists and to channel the good-natured determination of my colleague, ‘the bull with a smile’, as I summarise our collective collaborative potential.

Sperantia, Scene 5

Edinburgh in full Festival season. August 2014, the year of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Sperantia has an unprecedented profile across Edinburgh’s Festivals, including three highly acclaimed major large scale productions at the Edinburgh International Festival, a youth music programme that brought young musicians from Sperantia and Scotland together to learn and perform in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, a series of author events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, a curator and artists contributing to an exhibition and installations within the most ambitious ever programme at the Edinburgh Art Festival, a traditional dance group performing to 8000 people a night and to millions of TV audiences at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and yes, the pruned but preserved Fringe Festival programme of theatre shows. We made it! Edinburgh plays host to an ambitious celebration of the founding of a nation and its cultural prowess, a powerful creative presence that enhances our festivals. It is the culmination of 5 years of work, collaborative vision, complex negotiation and the creative talent and will of artists and programmers on both sides. The culmination and the terminus. No work from Sperantia was supported in the following year or the year after that. The payment arrangements from Sperantia for artists and work were extremely protracted. The partnership to support long-term exchange between artists and projects in Scotland and Sperantia with the British Council and Creative Scotland just could not get traction in Sperantia. It ended. Energy and commitment were depleted at both ends. In the moment, our multiple moment, what happened was remarkable but then it was gone.

 

 

COUNTRY TWO – Let’s call it Rena

Rena, Scene 1

It is early August 2011 and my team and I are at the opening of the Edinburgh Art Festival at Edinburgh College of Art, six months after my very first, very positive visit to the nation of Rena. Festivals Edinburgh has a small planned delegation of Renan artists, producers and cultural policy makers in the city for the new Momentum Edinburgh Festivals International Delegate Programme, again in partnership with the British Council and Creative Scotland. We

 

continue to plan how Edinburgh’s Festivals, the largest ticketed event in the world outside the Olympics and the World Cup, can further enhance international relations and connections with artists, funders and organisations in the run up to the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. But in the rather rowdy, bohemian gloaming (the Scottish word for dusk) of the Art Festival Opening after-party, we are looking for the unexpected; in this case, the surprise arrival in the city of a passionate independent producer and his team who, we have heard, are in town exploring the idea of developing a major season of work from Rena – exactly what we want to encourage. Serendipity! We try to call them and email them and are not sure if they get the messages or our request to meet us at the party. We call again. No response. We end up reverting to our noses and sniff them out by instinct. Laid back and exotic-looking, among all the slightly uptight, Scottish pallor, we find them, beers in their hands, buzzing and bamboozled – we know just by looking at them who they are and that they are hooked already on the disorienting intensity of our Festival City. There is a definite, deep, warm understanding from the moment we meet but we barely share a language. We begin a conversation that will last for 5 years and will affirm the former and expose the latter, to the delight and misery of us all.

Rena, Scene 2

9 months later, May 2012. A full theatre at a new festival in the most famous city in Rena. I seem to be making the festival opening speech in the Renan language, which I have only just begun to learn. This is a surprise. After an insistent last minute request, I write the speech in English, get my generous British Council colleague to translate it and write it down phonetically as she does so. I masticate some kind of meaning out of the unfamiliar sounds and when I finish everyone cheers enthusiastically. I am relieved and moved but can’t understand a word anyone says to me afterwards. Six months previously on a visit to Rena, I sat in the office of a large bank with my colleague from Rena, the passionate independent producer, and helped him to pitch the whole idea of this festival, which was inspired by Edinburgh’s Festivals, to this major sponsor in his country. That deal has come through. The new Festival is featuring international work and workshops first seen at the Edinburgh International Festival and a wonderful show from a major Scottish theatre company, seen at the Fringe. I am presenting sessions on how to bring work to Edinburgh. A genuine exchange has begun. Wisely, our passionate producer is progressing with restraint on his Edinburgh venture, thinking step by step about how Rena engages with our festival city and about a model where artists and companies can learn over a number of years to engage independently with the Fringe. A pilot show will come to Edinburgh the following year as the producer seeks to attract government support for the larger venture. While I am there I meet with the city’s and the region’s culture ministers and begin a conversation about a more formal exchange associated with their presence at the London Olympic Cultural Programme. These are and remain parallel discussions. I am never able to join them up, never able to connect any substantial government intervention to the intent of the artists who want to engage with us. As I am leaving Rena, the major Scottish Theatre company calls me in horrified panic. The new Festival

 

have accommodated them two to a room in a dangerous area of the city and are trying to pay them in cash!

 Rena, Scene 3

Edinburgh, 2013. Rena has the biggest delegation of artists, producers, curators and policy makers in our Momentum International Delegate Programme in Edinburgh in August. They and those who have come before them are beginning to be more aware of Scottish and UK work, are collaborating to bring it to their spaces and feature it or in some cases, create a focus around it at their festivals. Some of them are working out how they can bring work to us. The powerful arts and disability work by Scottish artists has also been recognized and with support from the British Council will inform and feature in the programmes in Rena as it prepares to host its own major events. The British Council and Creative Scotland have created a partnership and investment to support wider and deeper engagement between the culture sectors in Rena and Scotland. Edinburgh’s own experience, a tiny city on the edge of Europe, asserting its position as the host of the most significant cultural event in the world alongside the most important sporting event taking place in London is shared with colleagues in Rena. Meanwhile our passionate producer is in his second year at the Fringe with ambitious, quality programming and some modest, welcome, very hard-won support from Rena’s government. We are delighted at this progress and his expanding ambition. One of their shows wins a major award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but despite my attempts to advise and support him and his team, there are fault lines opening up, misunderstandings about what has been agreed with potential venues, mis-matching of funding deadlines in Rena and festival programme deadlines in Edinburgh, choices on spaces that give artists great production standards but low audiences. He suffers. Artists suffer.

Rena, Scene 4

A year later, 2014. A member of the passionate producer’s team is on a train from London with £75,000 in cash in a bag under his feet. Because of anti-corruption regulations in Rena, this is the only way to get the money required to cover the costs for the Rena’s ambitious season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to Scotland in time. We have an important cultural leader from Rena sharing his vision at The Edinburgh Culture Summit, which brings together culture ministers from around the world during our festivals. We have the only Fringe Festival in Rena participating in the global Fringe Congress. County Two’s presence is thoroughly felt in Edinburgh this August. The season, however, almost doesn’t happen. It takes intervention by me at Festivals Edinburgh, the Renan Embassy in London and the British Council in Rena to overcome an inability to transfer funds and avert the inevitable subsequent bankrupting of a venue that had been presenting work in Edinburgh for 30 years – a human and reputational disaster for all. Getting the investment in the first place has been torturous. Only a person of the passionate producer’s deep commitment and will could have done it. The programme wins another major award and we are proud of the company and the amazing man who has helped to bring such powerful work here but the fault lines of the previous year open up further and

 

we all suffer a sense of frustration and disappointment in each other’s systems and institutions. And in each other.

Rena, Scene 5

Edinburgh the following year, 2015, a year in which 50 Scottish artists and companies have conversed and collaborated with their peers in Rena. We welcome to our festival city the future national Minister for Culture, the Minister of Culture for Rena’s most famous City (the third we have hosted in five years) along with a cluster of its impressive festivals, and the Director of the Culture Programme associated with the major international sporting event Rena is hosting the following year. They are looked after by myself and our new International Projects Officer, a native of Rena, who has evolved a passion for Scottish work though her role with the British Council and our Momentum International Delegate Programme. They see shows and exhibitions, but also spend time keeping company with each other as they meet our Minister for Culture and External Affairs (whose economic development agency now has an office in Rena), our festivals directors and Scottish and international colleagues, thinking and talking together. Edinburgh in full festival season feels to me like a unique gathering place where ideas and collaboration can be brewed. The conversations that the delegates from Rena are beginning to have make me feel like this country might just create not just great programmes around big events, those ‘moments’, but new sustainable ways of thinking and working, a legacy. I am an optimist. Not everyone is convinced and my optimism is tinged with a kind of weariness. Though many relationships and collaborations have been seeded over the last three years, there is no season of Rena’s artists and companies in Edinburgh in 2015. The passionate producer is not coming back and is telling anyone who will listen that our festivals cannot survive the way they currently work. They will, of course, and they will adapt. Sadly, our combined hopes and shared enterprise have not survived the way we worked together. We have had our moment.

 

 

COUNTRY THREE – Let’s call it Thalia

Thalia, Scene 1

February 2012. My Chairperson, the Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and I are at an international showcase of work in a fellow festival city in the Asia Pacific Region. We are stalking the head of International Working at Thalia’s arts council. She is not quite avoiding us but she is not convinced that the conversation we want to have is going to be useful. Her organisation and artists are focusing their relationship building and market development in their own region, and particularly in East Asia. My chair and I think that they should be working with our festivals in the run up to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and using the opportunity as focus to create a platform to develop and promote their artists. When we sit

 

down, we encourage her to reaffirm Thalia’s connections to Scotland and the Commonwealth, to see the opportunity to develop their English speaking partnerships and to understand that Edinburgh is the biggest arts market in the world where all of their key colleagues from Asia Pacific are going to be shopping for work and networking anyway. She is far too smart to agree to anything but we can see a small fissure open up in her outlook and we determinedly pour in ideas, possibilities. She agrees to come with colleagues to Edinburgh that August and explore the ideas further. We have coaxed a conversation into being …

Thalia, Scene 2

A year and half on in Edinburgh, August 2013. The Momentum Edinburgh Festivals International Delegate Programme is hosting a Thalian delegation led by a former colleague who has worked with Edinburgh’s Festivals. It was, in fact, she who sat at that table with the collective cultural capital of Esperantia, way back in 2011. Her experience makes a difference. The delegation includes the new head of International at Thalia’s arts council, who has bravely committed to pursuing large scale ambition, with artists, writers, curators and producers who are guided through a learning journey with one to one meetings, visits to spaces and networking opportunities with our festival directors, Fringe venue managers, experienced festival producers and Scottish artists and companies. They explore the possibilities and perils of bringing work to Edinburgh across our six festivals that take place over late July/August and others throughout the year. Their arts council thoroughly supports their endeavour and builds their own connections across a wider ecosystem of exchange, as does the British Council team from Thalia. The delegation members arrive with their own perspectives and ambitions but work with their national arts council on a combined ambition to present a bold season of work in 2014, the year of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Some are frightened off or feel they don’t have work that is right or ready. Others evolve new ideas and thinking about what they want to do. Some sow seeds for collaboration and exchange in Scotland beyond our festivals. Everyone learns. When we bring the Scottish cultural sector together with them for a massive networking lunch, we are transfixed when our colleagues from Thalia silence the room and every one of them joins in harmony to sing their national song to us in their indigenous language. Some of us cry.

Thalia, Scene 3

August 2014. Thalia takes over Edinburgh. Or that’s how it feels. There are 200 of their artists performing across seven of our festivals supported by collaboration between the arts council, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the Ministry of Trade and Enterprise with some help from the national airline. They bring their very nice wine and run a bar, creating a social focus. The arts council support their season with extensive publicity and media (>£1 million in media coverage is generated) and they work it hard with the arts industry through active engagement and pursuit of the 1000 plus international festival directors, programmers and producers who are at the Edinburgh Festivals looking for work. Other countries and regions seek them out for advice on how to do it. Their artists and companies, who have prepared the ground and their  

 

own resilience on previous research visits on the Momentum International Delegate Programme, work hard to sell their shows. One runaway show goes stratospheric. Two additional entire seasons of Thalian work are booked by other Festivals. International invitations to artists accumulate. Even before the festivals are over and the results formally assessed, we all know the season has been a triumph. I sit down with the Thalian arts council Chair and their international lead and we cautiously begin to talk about another major cross- festival season of work in 2017, the year, the moment, when Edinburgh celebrates 70 years as a festival city.

 Thalia, Scene 4

Late 2014. A city in the southern part of Thalia. I am running a day of talks and workshops with the City’s festivals and their creative, tourism and economic development agencies, at the invitation of Thalia’s national arts council. We are encouraging them to build a collaborative approach to working together, modelled on our collaborative approach and powerful partnership building with stakeholders. This is the third Thalian city in three days in which I have tried to share and evolve thinking. The session is being held in the Contemporary Art Gallery whose curator co-created the major Commonwealth exhibition as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival in 2014, a gallery where Scottish artists hang in their latest exhibition. One of those attending my events is an enthusiastic music producer who, in a few months, is taking his band to Celtic Connections, one of the few other genuinely international festivals in Scotland. Thalia is this festival’s feature country in 2015, a relationship seeded during our August festivals. Earlier in 2014, the City Councillor who introduces my event welcomed my British Council colleague from Scotland to his city and in a modest but poignant ceremony (that is filmed and goes out on national network television) accepted from her the £10 her family still owed for her great grandfather’s ship’s passage when he emigrated to the city in the 1800s. Old debts are paid. New journeys begin. I look over to my colleague from Thalia’s national arts council who has been there through the whole four-year process, and I know we both feel the almost organic political, creative and personal connections. We smile.

 Thalia, Scene Five

June 2016. The offices of Thalia’s arts council, following a major reduction in funding for culture, as national lottery income (which represents 50% of the organisation’s budget) drops dramatically. My once-smiling colleague has developed a distinct but not completely unattractive worry furrow between her eyebrows. Difficult decisions are being made, priorities redefined in austere times. The long planned 2017 Thalia Edinburgh Festivals Season is looking vulnerable. Not abandoned, not yet, but very, very vulnerable. Questions are asked. Does it matter if resources are not focused around another big Thalia ‘moment’ in August 2017? What else might be nurtured or supported within a set of new priorities? And, if the idea does not survive, what would remain?  The legacy is strong: confidence in Thalia’s artists, a new model of presenting work abroad, knowledge and expertise in presenting internationally. Artists are still touring and seasons of work from Thalia are still being presented elsewhere as a direct

 

result of their 2014 season. A demand has certainly been created among Thalia’s artists and producers for the opportunities that Edinburgh’s Festivals can offer. Nine theatre companies are taking their work to the Fringe in 2016; a further six will take part in the Momentum International Delegate Programme. We hope that long term relationships and ongoing partnerships in Scotland, the UK and internationally, that could only have been built between artists and organisations over the five years of exchange, will survive, even evolve. All is not lost, but my colleague with the furrowed brow and I know that what happened across the 18,269 kilometers that separate Thalia and Scotland recalibrated our connections and changed how our nations saw each other. We also know that everything that happened was born of that 2014 moment. The moment looks unaffordable now. Four weeks later a rollover of  Thalia’s national lottery takes the prize up to $40 million and radically revives ticket sales. The fortunes of the arts council are almost miraculously restored and the prospect of a major Thalia cross-festival season in Edinburgh re-emerges. The moment is back on the table and in the budget.

From 2007-2015, Faith Liddell was the Director of Festivals Edinburgh, the organisation created by Edinburgh’s 12 major Festivals to lead on their joint strategic development and to work collaboratively to ensure that Edinburgh retains its position as the world’s leading festival city. Between 2010 and 2015, she and her team worked with all twelve Festivals and Scottish and UK national agencies and government partners to deepen and build partnerships with artists, producers, organizations, creative and funding agencies and governments across over 15 countries and many networks. The aim was to ensure that Edinburgh’s Festivals, and the Scottish cultural sector more broadly, would be enhanced and not undermined, their profile and internationalism extended, by the advent of the two most important sporting events in the world, which took place in the same country at the same time as their peak Summer season – the 2012 London Olympic Games and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.