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Jordan Blackwood: Army @ The Virtual Fringe

By | Published on Monday 27 July 2020

If you’ve been lucky enough to spend time taking in culture at recent Edinburgh Fringes, you may well be aware of Army @ The Fringe, which – in association with Summerhall – has taken over the city’s Hepburn House drill hall each August since 2017.

Taking place in a venue staffed by soldiers, this programme’s stated aim is to “spark conversations about what the army is and what it stands for in 21st Century society”.

The venue was due to return in 2020, and was making preparations to do so when the COVID19 crisis hit and ultimately put paid to any hopes that this year’s Edinburgh Festival would go ahead as normal.

Fortunately, though, Army @ The Fringe is one of a number of concerns who have decided to take their programme of events online. I talked to producer Jordan Blackwood to find out what we can expect next month.

CM: Can you start by telling us what your role is with Army @ The Fringe?
JB: I’m Army @ The Fringe’s producer, primarily working as the main point of contact for our artists. I keep all departments in the know, take a lead on programming and generally make sure everything happens as smoothly as possible.

CM: The venue first opened in 2017. Have you been involved since the start?
JB: I directed Lesley Wilson’s ‘WIRED’, a play that featured in the inaugural programme in 2017, and then joined as producer for 2019’s festival.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the sort of work that’s been programmed at the venue in previous years?
JB: Army @ The Fringe’s mission has always been to present work that celebrates life in and out of uniform.

The majority of our programmes have heavily featured military stories – told through dance, new writing, opera, installation and exhibition – but we’ve also diversified our offering to tell wider stories, like Leith-based Creative Electric’s show ‘The Happiness Project’ in 2019.

We’re proud of the successes of our previous shows and where they’ve gone onto. From Rosie Kay Dance Company’s celebrated ‘5 SOLDIERS’ in 2017, which has gone on to tour internationally, to Akademi’s ‘The Troth’, which won a Herald Angel Award in 2018.

We enjoy working closely with artists and supporting them to strengthen their work through research and integration with soldiers.

CM: Presumably you were quite well into preparations for the actual Fringe when lockdown began? How soon did you start to realise things would have to be different this year and when did you start to think about doing things virtually?
JB: We had 85% of our programme nailed down with a few final acts being confirmed late March. As murmurs of lockdown began, we tentatively kept moving forward but straight away started thinking about contingency plans – we knew that even if the festival was to take place, it would be very different.

CM: How far are the things appearing in your virtual programme the same as those that would have appeared in the physical Fringe? Did you have to make new choices?
JB: Our initial aim for Army @ The Virtual Fringe was to support as many of the artists who would have been with us in Edinburgh as possible. We reached out to them about the possibility of an online event and nearly all of them said they wanted to be involved.

We were clear that the virtual festival shouldn’t be a digital recreation of the usual event – it has to be something different whilst also being a stepping stone to next year’s on-site festival. Yes, there’s still a few performances but we decided to aim many events to the artistic community itself, offering skills-exchanges and advice through our many workshops and presentations.

We’re also excited to offer behind-the-scenes insight to curious audience members – our events are open to all.

CM: The festival is divided into three differently themed weeks. Can you tell us about why you chose to do it that way and what to expect from each section?
JB: We’ve got a film and photo week, a theatre week, and a poetry, books and visual arts week. The reason for this was to go further than our usual emphasis on theatre and celebrate the relationship between the army and the arts across more diverse artforms. Most events relate back to theatre or putting on a fringe show in some capacity, but it was an intentional choice to make distinctions in our programme – allowing audiences/participants to narrow down what they are interested in.

CM: How did you choose events for inclusion? What was the selection process? Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to?
JB: The majority of our theatre week is programmed with artists who were due to be coming to Edinburgh with us this year. Honouring and developing our relationship with them was essential.

Beyond that, we’ve programmed the rest of the festival with artists who have been involved in Army @ The Fringe in the past, as well as others who have a relationship with the army’s arts team. Doing an open call-out wasn’t possible due to the limited resources in our team and it’s worth noting that we’re paying all our artists for their involvement.

It sounds like a cop-out, but I’m looking forward to tuning in to such a variety of events over the three weeks – taking inspiration from and being entertained by a multitude of very exciting practitioners.

It’ll be great to see how the live-from-home performance of ‘I Am Gavrilo Princip’ goes. I called Olly, the writer and performer, about the idea of a performance from his living room and he was instantly on board!

CM: I think your own background is in directing? Have you worked on any of the festival content, as well as producing?
JB: Yes, I’m a theatre director, facilitator and producer of festivals. As mentioned above, I directed ‘WIRED’ at Army @ The Fringe in 2017, but I’m not directing anything for the virtual offering this year. I like to wear many hats, but not usually at the same time – I’d rather focus on making the process as smooth as possible for our artists and be creative in that capacity.

CM: I feel as though the fringe arts community has really risen to the occasion over the last few months, creating amazing online-accessible work via platforms like Zoom. Do you think there’s any chance that a trend for the online delivery of culture will outlive lockdown?
JB: Whilst we are all craving that live theatrical experience, I think there’s something to be taken from the online-accessibility that’s been afforded in recent months and with A@TVF.

We’ve had people booking from the USA, Germany and across the world and we’re reaching new audiences that might not normally visit Edinburgh for the festival.

Something that’s definitely in our minds for future on-site festivals is how we can continue to explore online-accessible work alongside live performances – not to take away from the live element, but to strengthen its reach.

CM: Whatever happens, this is going to be a difficult time for the industry. What are your own hopes for the coming months?
JB: The past few months have allowed so many to talk more openly and frankly about how our industry could be better. I really hope those conversations inform and shape what lies ahead – mainly in respect to being more inclusive, diverse and supportive. I hope we reach a point where more people can be creative and feel supported in doing so.

CM: What will you miss most about the ‘real’ Edinburgh Festival?
JB: The atmosphere. Nothing compares to it. No matter what time of day, I love walking through Edinburgh’s streets and knowing the festival is on. I’ll miss coming across hidden gems and being inspired by new shows.

I’ll miss my yearly catch-up with collaborators and mates from across the world. I’ll miss a lot but at the same time, I’m really excited for what we can achieve online.

Army @ The Virtual Fringe was staged during August 2020 – when the full Edinburgh Festival was cancelled due to COVID-19.

www.armyatthefringe.org | twitter.com/ArmyatTheFringe | www.jordanblackwood.co.uk | twitter.com/jordanblackwd