In truth, every new project and production we do feels like a key career moment as you’re only as good as both your last, and your next, show.
Chief Executive, Producer and Co-Artistic Director
I studied History of Art and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. At school I’d always thought I’d be a fine artist (my mum and dad were art teachers) and after A levels I took a place on the Foundation Course in Art and Design at Nottingham Polytechnic – now Trent University – but I discovered pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to follow that path. I’m not built for such solitary working, much preferring to be part of a creative team. I’d never considered a career in theatre but whilst at university I got drawn into the Bedlam Theatre, run by the student members of Edinburgh University Theatre Company, and it all started there. By the time I got to my fourth year I’d decided to set up Grid Iron and did so three months after graduation. I have no formal training to do my job, having very much learned on the hoof, but here I am with 18 years under my belt at Grid Iron and still learning new things every day.
Meeting my Co-artistic director Ben Harrison would be a key moment. We met at university, fought like cat and dog, and then decided we should have a theatre company together. I set up Grid Iron in 1995 while he went off and did further training in theatre directing, returning to direct his first show with us in 1996. He was first to introduce me to the concept of site-specific theatre, on which Grid Iron has built most of our reputation.
In the early days of Grid Iron I was also doing freelance event work to make ends meet and I had the good fortune to work in some great places with great people, like Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival and BBC Scotland, where I soaked up experiences and contacts like a sponge. A great many of the people I met then are still very important to me now (both professionally and personally) so that period of time can be seen as a succession of key moments – or key meetings at least.
With Grid Iron there have been any number of key moments; our first Fringe show in 1997, our first Scottish Arts Council grant in 2000, our first major co-production (which was with London’s Almeida Theatre in 2001), the first time we worked overseas (with the British Council in the Middle East in 2004/5) and the co-production we made with the National Theatre of Scotland as part of their first ever season in 2006. In truth, every new project and production we do feels like a key career moment as you’re only as good as both your last, and your next, show.
It sounds trite but it really is the huge variety of different types of people I get to work with, because most of our productions are site-specific we get to work with people that more conventional theatre companies don’t engage with. To give a few examples, in the past these have included air traffic controllers, baggage handlers and terminal security staff at Edinburgh Airport, the Out of Hours staff and security in Debenhams on Princes Street, dinner ladies, cleaners, jannies, Council parks and gardens keepers and pub managers all over Britain and Ireland, and a truly inspiring community of traditional wooden-hulled boat builders who inhabit an island in Stavanger Harbour in Norway. It is hugely rewarding when these folk make the shift from thinking we’re odd theatre people and are going to be a nuisance to taking real ownership of the project, appreciating that we work hard and don’t just float about being arty and start to refer to the production, as often happens, as ‘our show’.
The other brilliant thing about my job is that I get to go on fantastic recce visits. I’ve been allowed through countless locked doors, been handed keys for buildings you’d never expect to be given keys for, I’ve sailed up fjords and been driven off-road around New York’s many parks (by a gorgeous Park Ranger called Freedom – his real name!) all in the pursuit of exciting places to make shows.
Be ambitious but realistic. Seek out the right people to ask for advice, and then listen to it. Persevere.
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