ED2020 Caro Meets ED2020 Dance & Physical Theatre ED2020 Theatre

James Mackenzie: Zoo TV

By | Published on Monday 17 August 2020

It wasn’t a huge surprise when the announcements came that the Edinburgh Festival wouldn’t be going ahead as normal this year.

Though I’m not sure I initially envisaged just how many great online experiences would be staged in its place – including some brilliant strands presented by some of our favourite edfringe venues.

One such favourite is Zoo, which this year presents its digital programme, Zoo TV. To find out more about what to expect this month, and what to expect from Zoo’s future, I spoke to Artistic Director James Mackenzie.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the Zoo TV programme of events from a technical/practical perspective? How can viewers access it and how is it being delivered?
JM: The whole programme is available to watch at zoofestival.co.uk. Each day from 17- 22 Aug we will be introducing six new pieces. Once shown, all the pieces will then be available on a catch up service until 28 Aug. It’s all free to watch but we hope viewers will hit the donate buttons and give the price of a ticket to the artists whose work they are watching.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the content?
JM: The content is a mixture of live streamed shows and newly recorded work, with some old favourites from companies across our 20-year history, and some that we hope to work with in the future.

It’s a classic Zoo mix of contemporary performance. So expect dance, new writing, durational work and some surprises. We wanted to create a celebration of our past 20 years that shows a flavour of the kind of work we present. There’s a variety of length of work from short dance films to full length plays, so whatever you’re in the mood for, we have it.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about some of the artists and companies whose work is featured?
JM: We have digital dance work from Scottish Dance Theatre, in a new collaboration with the Scottish Ensemble, plus the National Dance Company Of Wales and 2Faced Dance, all of which have featured heavily in our programmes before, and a new piece by Sadler’s Wells Young Associates Matsena Performance.

On the theatre side, it’s great to be showing work by Ontroerend Goed after their sell out show with us last year, and I’m also really excited for a rehearsed reading of ‘Tracks’, a new play by Paula B Stanic. Alongside this there’s an opportunity to view ‘Rocky!’, a piece by Danish company Fix&Foxy which would have been with us in person this year. It’s pretty much like nothing else you will have seen and such an important piece of work.

I’m also really pleased that Luke Wright is performing live for us, and that both YESYESSNONO and Graeme Leek are making live durational pieces, inspired by the messages collected during the show ‘5 Encounters On A Site Called Craigslist’ – which performed at Zoo two years in a row – and the sounds and visuals of a farm, respectively.

CM: Obviously this is very different to what Zoo would normally be up to in August. Presumably you must have got some of the way towards planning your Festival programme before COVID stepped in? When did you realise that things wouldn’t be going ahead as normal?
JM: I think we all could see what was coming, but for a while we held on to the idea that the lockdown might be short-lived and that the festival would be the light at the end of tunnel.

By early March the venues and Fringe Society knew what had to be done to give everyone, especially performers, some certainty, but the final meeting before the announcements was really very depressing.

Our first response was to ensure that the companies we work with were as supported as possible and that they had any deposits returned to them in a speedy and efficient manner.

Following that we had to look at how we would meet our year-round costs with no income. Alongside this, though, we wanted to find some positive ways to look forward, so we started work on Zoo TV.

CM: When did you actually decide to create a ‘Virtual Fringe’ contribution?
JM: I started work on the website the day the festival was cancelled. I wasn’t entirely sure it was something we should be doing at that point but it was hard to imagine us not doing anything.

Over the next few weeks we started to talk to our companies and found a real belief that in this case doing something was much better than doing nothing. Our goal is always to provide the best platform to artists and this way we could, in part, still do that.

CM: How does the cancellation of the edfringe ‘proper’ affect the long term future of Zoo Venues? Will you be able to continue on next year as normal?
JM: It’s had a massive effect on the stability of our future. Like others, we have been forced to rely on government-backed bank loans to see us through to next year. Fringe venues on the whole do not receive public funding and are largely ineligible for any of the support grants. This means we have to find a way through largely unaided. We are confident we can return next year, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. No one knows what the ‘new normal’ will be for Fringe performance.

CM: Tell us about what you do the rest of the year? Has your work been completely put on hold? What hopes/fears do you have for the industry?
JM: Most of my time is spent working for Zoo, but alongside this I still work as a freelance lighting designer, so yes, all my work is on hold.

I am of course seriously worried about the future of our industry. Even in relatively normal times the industry is on a knife-edge financially and this will undoubtedly send many over that edge.

It’s heart-breaking to see news stories daily of organisations closing or freelancers being left with nothing. My one hope, however, is that as an industry we are unbelievably resilient and endlessly inventive. If any industry can find a way to survive then it’s us.

CM: Has working on a virtual programme kept you busy? Have you had a busy lockdown?
JM: Very much so! Creating a virtual venue is almost as much work as creating a live one. It’s been enormously challenging as it’s something we’ve never done before but it’s also been very rewarding.

CM: Lots of Fringe companies have really risen to the occasion during lockdown, creating amazing digital content, Zoom-based theatre and comedy shows… do you think there’s a life for that kind of thing beyond lockdown? Is it a new avenue we should be exploring?
JM: I think for some time we will see a hybrid industry that mixes both live and online work. We need to look at how it can be monetised so artists can make a living out of it, and we need to look at how we can better link up the live and the digital.

I think there are some opportunities around audience development that online could really open up. However, ultimately live will, for me, always win out. The shared, communal experience is what makes theatre so special.

CM: What about the Fringe do you miss the most?
JM: So many things; discovering amazing new work, watching a young company go from recent graduate to fully fledged touring ensemble in the space of three weeks; even the rain, a bit. But probably the thing I really miss the most is being together with my best friends and colleagues creating something magical that is like nowhere else.

This Zoo TV programme was staged during August 2020 – when the full Edinburgh Festival was cancelled due to COVID-19.

LINKS: www.zoofestival.co.uk | www.zoovenues.co.uk | twitter.com/ZOOvenues