Megan McClory is a History, Anthropology and East Asian Studies student with a minor in English at Brandeis University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2016. Megan is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.
Edinburgh is well known for the performing arts. Every summer, it hosts the Fringe Festival, one of the world’s largest gatherings for music, theatre, dance and comedy. Although Fringe 2016 has already passed, my tutorial instructor for my History of Edinburgh course told us during our tour of the Royal Mile that his favorite game in August is to try to make it down High Street, from Edinburgh Castle to the new Parliament building, without being handed a single production flyer. He has yet to succeed. The Festival takes over the entire city, as thousands of shows play over the course of the month long event—even old government buildings are open to reservation by comedians.
But the arts don’t leave Edinburgh at the end of August. They start right back up again with the new term at the University of Edinburgh. I was amazed and overwhelmed by the sheer number of performing arts societies present during Welcome Week. I counted no less than six, according to the student’s union’s website. The Shakespeare Company, Relief Theatre, the Escogriffes, Footlights, Paradocks and perhaps the most well-known, Bedlam Theatre Company. I was able to visit with the Bedlam Theatre group during Fresher’s Week.
Bedlam Theatre Gets the Freshers Involved
Let me give some background: I consider myself a theatre person. I participated in high school theatre and when I entered college back in the U.S., I got a job working with the university’s theatre department as a lighting technician. Since then, I’ve worked on numerous performances. However, I decided to give theatre a break this term since I’m trying to expand my range of activities and try new things during my time abroad. I’m comfortable with theatre, so it seemed like it would be in my interest to explore the outside world and have experiences that were more outside of my everyday life. But I couldn’t help myself from exploring Bedlam Theatre my first week!
A converted 19th century church, Bedlam Theatre is a symbol of the Fringe and Edinburgh University Theatre Company; it’s how EUTC came to be known as Bedlam Theatre Company. The physical structure itself is a work of art—it certainly took some creativity to turn a neo-Gothic church into an operable theatre! For me, it was interesting to see how they had managed to set up the lights in such a building; it looked hardly any different than what I’m used to back home.
The building is unique in many ways, the least of which being that it’s completely student run. With more than 40 shows a year, including an improv group that performs every Friday and fills the theatre’s 90 seats, EUTC provides plentiful opportunities for students to get involved in theatre.
During the first weeks of term, they hold Freshers Plays, aimed at getting people—novices and veterans alike—involved. The first years are broken into groups and each group must put on their own short production at the end of two weeks. There are no instructions, but groups are given an overall theme. In the past, students have had to put on shows to related to Beatles’ songs, for example, but the script, costumes, set, props, lighting… all of it is left to the first years to create and design for themselves.
I was hoping to join in this term and try out lighting design for the first time, but unfortunately my weekend homestay overlapped with the performances. Still, it’s a great opportunity to try something new. Since the students are in charge of everything, it’s up to each group to divide the work and take on their roles as actors and/or techies. Even if you have experience in theatre, you can choose whether to stick with what you’re familiar or try your hand at something new, be it sound, set or performing. It’s all up to you.
Improv: Always Different, Always Funny
The Improverts, the renowned improv group run by the Bedlamites, provides another opportunity for something new, especially for the techies out there. Improv theatre is unique, which is clear from the Improverts motto, “always different, always funny.” Improv is dependent on the audience for material; each show is as unique as each audience.
Naturally, the ones who put on the show must be remarkably quick to react, but this isn’t limited to the performers. The lighting technicians must have an intimate knowledge of their design and equipment in order to react quickly to the actors. Even if there are far fewer lights than in a production like a musical, the way they are used is just as impressive and important, and every improv show offers a new crash course in lighting design. Furthermore, since the Improverts perform every Friday at 10:30 p.m., there are plenty of opportunities to learn.
Sing Your Heart Out
If you’re interested in musical theatre, there’s also a society dedicated solely to musicals. Footlights, the largest performing arts society at the university, puts on one large-scale show per year. They’re always looking for new members, novices and veterans alike. Especially for those interested in backstage work, musical theatre is a great chance to develop your skills since musicals tend to have more elaborate costumes, sound, lights, and sets compared to smaller plays or improv.
The Best Part? They’re All Student Run and Student Driven
Whether you’re just now getting involved in theatre or have prior experience, there are many, many opportunities with the University of Edinburgh. The ones I’ve mentioned are just a few that I’ve personally had contact with. For me, it was an interesting experience to learn about the performing arts societies on campus. At my home university in Boston, I work primarily with the department theatre, but we have several club theatres as well.
Theatre people are fun, friendly, kind, hardworking, and determined. It is a welcoming community that forms inseparable bonds between people because everyone is working towards the same goal.
Here, they’re all essentially club theatres—Bedlam Theatre Company is entirely student run and hasn’t actually employed anyone in years. It’s a fantastic place for a student to develop their skills or learn new ones, such as marketing or finance. I hadn’t given finances much thought before, since the various theatre companies at my home university are funded by the school. At Bedlam, rather than rely on the university for funding, they market themselves, raising money through events like bake sales in which everyone participates.
The other thing that stood out to me when visiting Bedlam Theatre was something small, but it still threw me off. Back home, we call the lights themselves “fixtures,” but on the tour of the theatre they refers to them as “lanterns.” The “lanterns” were older than at my home university, and there were fewer of them, but other than that they were very much the same.
It seems theatre is another thing that doesn’t change much from place to place—especially the people. In every theatre I’ve worked with or visited, the people are always of the same type. The University of Edinburgh is no different. Theatre people are fun, friendly, kind, hardworking, and determined. It is a welcoming community that forms inseparable bonds between people because everyone is working towards the same goal. So whether you want to act, work backstage, or simply make new friends, the University of Edinburgh provides numerous opportunities for everyone to get involved in the performing arts.