There is professional fervour for the Edinburgh Fringe, as an international platform on which to present new work, and then there is pure, unfettered love for the festival in all its chaos. Erica Whyman, the artistic director at the helm of Northern Stage’s ambitious Fringe programme at St Stephen’s this year, falls firmly into the latter camp.
“I just love the energy of it,” she tells me over a snatched lunchtime phone call. Unsurprisingly, Whyman – who has also just been announced as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first deputy artistic director – is a very busy woman at the moment. Northern Stage’s pilot project at St Stephen’s is due to take sixteen separate productions up to Edinburgh, where the venue is providing accommodation for all performers involved, not to mention converting the atmospheric church into a performance space. It is a massive undertaking.
“If you’re going to arrive in Edinburgh, you need to arrive with a bit of a bang,” says Whyman by way of explanation. Her initial intention was to test this collaborative model with just three productions, but the project rapidly snowballed into a full season of work over the month of the festival. The idea was born out of Whyman’s love for Edinburgh, an existing relationship with St Stephen’s, and the feeling that artists in the North needed an affordable platform to present their work to Edinburgh’s international audience.
There was also a funding incentive. “In 2011, when we were applying for Arts Council funding for Northern Stage, I was conscious that it was important to try and demonstrate a growing relationship across the region,” Whyman explains. “It struck us that we could kill two birds with one stone. We thought that there was a lot of interesting contemporary work coming out of the North and that if we bundled that together into one venue we could have a really striking programme.”
The various pieces compiled by Whyman for the festival appear, at least at first glance, to have little in common other than geographical location. They range from RashDash’s bold cabaret transformation of Cinderella to the gentle, biscuit-fuelled audience participation of Faye Draper’s Tea is an Evening Meal. Asked about the programming, which she characterises as one of the easiest components of the whole process, Whyman admits that she did not grasp at any unifying thread or theme.
“It wasn’t terribly …” Whyman trails off, chewing over her words, before continuing: “I was going to say conscious, but that’s not quite true. We didn’t set out to find a particular kind of work.” One characteristic that the productions do share, however, is a direct relationship with their audiences, which Whyman explains was intentional. She hopes that these choices will have the power to surprise theatregoers and to subvert any clichés that exist about Northern theatre, breaking away from the stereotype of gritty kitchen-sink realism to embrace more contemporary, internationally minded work. Instead of being concerned exclusively with the region they originate from, many of the works, like Third Angel’s What I Heard About the World, exhibit “an outward-looking curiosity”.
If the programming has been relatively straightforward, the logistical challenges of transporting sixteen productions to the Fringe are proving more demanding. Northern Stage has booked a total of 59 bedrooms for its artists across the festival and is creating two performance spaces and a café within the environs of St Stephen’s – and that’s without even factoring in the coordination of marketing and press, the organisation and training of volunteers, the feat of teching sixteen separate shows. As Whyman laughs grimly, “there are a lot of spreadsheets”.