Behind the Curtain: Delivering Investigative Theatre

Among many other descriptives, our Beltane Fire Festival is a theatrical performance. Andy Meechan, a long-time BFS member, talks about why it’s different from the kind of theatre you might be familiar with…

I’d like to discuss one of the many elements of Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival that combine to make it unique. In this post we will be looking at some of the unusual aspects of the staging of the performance.

Our Beltane is presented as ‘investigative theatre’; set outdoors and with no physical curtains or barriers. For obvious reasons we advertise a ‘doors open’ time along with an approximation of when the performance will begin (around 9.30pm, also known as ‘common twilight’ so I am reliably informed) and of course a set time for the public to leave Calton Hill too, but that is as much of a nod to traditional theatre as you’ll find.

Beltane Fire Festival by Daniel Rannoch
Photo by Daniel Rannoch at Beltane 2012

There are few barriers between the audience and performers which offers up opportunity for an immersive experience. It is one where you are likely to come face-to-face with one of our colourful characters, or can step back and marvel at the scale of a production wrought in only two months by around three hundred volunteers. The presentation may leave you figuratively in the dark regarding what is being portrayed, but there is also a chance you may find yourself literally there too. My tip to friends is to ‘head to the high ground and then follow the sound of drumming’ – it seems to work for them.

If you haven’t experienced the Festival you’ll likely have deduced that there is no central point where everything is performed, rather there are multiple points of focus that are spread around the marvellous public parkland on Calton Hill. A large part of the story follows the Procession of the May Queen around the Hill, but there are also counter-performances which have evolved to bring balance to the darker parts of the park. (Again: follow the sound of the drums.) The Procession’s presence awakens one group after another, each then continuing to play a part throughout the evening; the Hill comes alive, mirroring the earth’s awakening through Spring.

Beltane by Neil Hodgins
Photo by Neil Hodgins at Beltane 2010

In general we shy away from the use of actual staging as that presents an instant barrier between performance and witness. That’s not an exclusive rule however, as both of the major ‘set piece’ performances utilise staging to help balance their sheer scale. The first is during the spectacular opening sequence at the National Monument (known lovingly as The Acropolis) and the second during the penultimate event of the evening: The Death and Rebirth of the Green Man. In other words we attempt to match the tool to the job.

Finally, Beltane Fire Festival is a continuous performance lasting over three hours. Attendees have the opportunity to create their own breaks in which to step back and raise a toast to the onset of Summer, but as you do please spare a thought for those of us in the middle of it as preparation started around noon that day.

Feel free to contact me at contact@beltane.org to suggest topics for insights into what happens behind the curtain. If I cannot answer it then I can probably find someone who can.

Andy Meechan has been volunteering with Beltane Fire Society since 1999 and has at various times performed, produced, led workshops, and been a Trustee of the Society; he is continually in awe at the passion of our Volunteers.

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