I’m on the train, gently gliding past the back gardens of red brick houses somewhere on the outskirts of Leeds. The sun is smudge of white light in a pale evening sky. Everything outside feels very far away, an exact 1:1 scale model of the world bathed in perfect sinking sunlight.
My mistake, its York not Leeds.
We’re on our way back from the first trip to Edinburgh in preparation for the summer, now a little bit over two months away. This was a spectacularly brief 5 hour visit; a swift walk and a few sit downs in a very familiar city in unfamiliar sunshine, then back on the train again to head to Bristol. It’s left me feeling a strange mix of nostalgic and excited. Forest Fringe smells the same, it feels the same; if it had been raining it could have been last summer.
Yet it also feels pleasantly different. Not just the double-take acknowledgement of little tweaks and changes (a beautiful new bar nestled in the corner, a familiar face under a new haircut) but a different feeling. Just a little of the armour of almost defensive pluckiness seems to have dropped away. I walked into the hall and it seemed to have opened up its shoulders a bit, it was breathing a little deeper and a little slower.
I stood in the centre of the room, the light cascading in from the enormous uncurtained windows, and for possibly the first time Debbie and myself did our best to explain the full extent of the things we hope will happen in there in two months time. Epic pillow fights, furniture torn to pieces and remade as a house, audiences led singing down into the street, ketchup fuelled Westerns, all night performances, forty one-on-on shows squeezed into every corner of the room, a man dancing across the stage on his 75th birthday, funny things, achingly sad things and some things we don’t know yet and won’t know until the festival has already started. Shapes moved across the empty room, impossibly exciting, spectacularly intimidating. I imagined what I hoped to see, and wondered what I would see.
We actually are in Leeds now.
Forest Fringe will be different this year. Last year we were a dot, a single isolated point. A refuge maybe, from the rain or from the overpriced bars or the militia of purple-clad, Smirnoff-branded, flyerers or just from the unsustainably breathless busyness of, well, everything. And it was nice being a refuge; seeing familiar faces, standing at the door of the venue staring out at the damp street beyond like another country.
This year though we want to step over the threshold. To not simply ignore or avoid the rest of the city but ask how it might be different; how we might look at it differently, how we might remake the way the festival engulfs it. Because it no longer feels like we’re a dot; it feels like we’re part of something that’s growing; points connecting across the city; a new network or shared ideas and shared hopes based on something other than a joint marketing strategy.
Today we walked through the sunshine between Forest Fringe and St Stephen’s Church, the gentle stone giant of a building that until 2008 was occupied by the much-loved Aurora Nova. After a year where it sat sulky and unoccupied it is becoming the festival home of The Arches, Glasgow’s most consistently daring and exciting theatre. They have almost-impossible, stupidly brilliant plans for the festival, including staging the whole of Nic Green’s three-hour-long Trilogy every night; the festival hasn’t seen anything so daring, ambitious and genuinely radical for years.
On the meandering journey between our home and theirs we were also joined by a bunch of folk from BAC, who will once again be supporting and collaborating with Forest Fringe in a whole myriad of ways, without them there’s no way we would have been able to construct the kind of delirious, make-believe programme that we have. Together, we walked the space between these two places. We imagined what we might do in that space; the journeys, stories, adventures that might be constructed around it. We imagined other people walking it; artists, visitors, local people, together looking for something, or just collectively wandering. Already it felt like here was a fragile connection stretching across the city, one to be nurtured and enjoyed. One that can strengthen and grow with every person who walks that gap.
I felt like no one in that conversation was satisfied with a refuge. Everyone knew what they loved about the festival and what they found almost beyond parody; everyone had ideas for what else might happen there. It felt to me like this was the beginning of an attempt to try and make some of that happen, one which more and more people will hopefully become a part of.
With people like BAC and the Arches around in force, collaborating with us, sharing their thoughts and tips and ideas, I’m sure its going to be a good festival. And it’s going to be sunny. I’m sure of it. Gloriously sunny.