Hidden Door 2017: Lost in Leith Theatre
The Skinny gets an exclusive tour of Leith Theatre, closed for 30 years, and now the site of the 2017 Hidden Door Festival
On arrival at Leith Theatre, the site of the 2017 Hidden Door festival, I get the sense that the building has been holding its breath, like it’s been waiting patiently to be rediscovered. On entering the disused parts of the building (the foyer and the Thomas Morton Hall are still used for weddings and functions) is a bit like walking into the film Labyrinth; with each step further into the depths of this abandoned masterpiece, the building grows wilder. Each corner, every space reveals something new; another beautiful destruction, a brief glimpse into a world kept behind locked doors for nearly three decades.
Once a popular concert venue, where big name bands like Thin Lizzy and Kraftwerk once played, the theatre was closed in 1988 and fell into disrepair. Currently being refurbished, walking around the building generates this eerie feeling of waiting, and wanting.
“It’s got quite a lot of character to it,” agrees Matthew Ross, one of Hidden Door’s Theatre Co-ordinators, as he leads us around the site. In the main theatre, the tour zig-zags through piles of seat cushions (to be cleaned and re-used), tattered red carpets (definitely headed for the bin) and an army of builders, working on the main stage.
At the time of this visit the cleanup of the site is ongoing, helped immensely by the free labour provided by the festival’s volunteers, which included, Ross explains, a group of 100 Mormons. “We had a fantastic army of people, 100 Mormons turned up. They came for a function and they needed a bonding exercise.” He shrugs.
The work of the unexpected tribe of Mormons and all the other volunteers, including the Edinburgh Tool Library, has had an impact, and Ross is proud that the building is looking a lot better than it did after nearly 30 years of neglect. Along with the fundraising campaign to fix the building’s leaky roof, which hit its £10,000 target and carried on to £20,000, “anything else”, he assures me, “will go into making it the best possible festival.”
Thirty years of neglect has taken its toll on Leith Theatre. In some spaces, the plaster is crumbling, in others flaked shards of paint sigh to the floor like snow. In the former dressing rooms behind the stage, the porcelain basins festoon the floor like icebergs while the cracked remains of a toilet rise up out of the floor like forgotten shipwrecks.
We move throughout the theatre, ducking in the spaces that are being considered for use for screening films, hosting exhibitions, and performing live music and theatre. We climb stairs, we stagger around unlit spaces, under the stage, before losing ourselves down winding corridors, and chicken out of climbing ladders.
The words, “This might be used” and “this has been cleared out” follow us throughout the building as Ross discusses the plans for the venue. We invent one simple rule: open every door – and we do.
“It’s a big opportunity for Hidden Door to prove its worth as a festival and prove what it can do with different venues,” explains Ross, as we meander through the site. Last year, Hidden Door took place at King’s Stables Road Depot, and the change of venue has presented the team with new challenges. “King’s Buildings [sic] is very different. It has a logic to it,” Ross explains. Compared to that, Leith Theatre has been somewhat of a challenge. “If you’ve done Hidden Door before, you’ve got so much to think about.” He continues, “Every time you come back, there’s a new issue. It’s still a challenge, it’s still intimidating.”
Intimidating is the word that he uses repeatedly when asked how it felt to be in Leith Theatre after it had lain derelict for so long. Walking into the auditorium for the very first time earlier this year, was, according to Ross, a “really intimidating experience.” And it’s not hard to see why. While Hidden Door excels in breathing new life into Edinburgh’s forgotten buildings, the sheer scale of refurbishing the theatre that he calls “the Granddaddy of them all” after it was closed for so long is massive. Especially as Hidden Door's programme promises to be the best yet, featuring Idlewild, Tam Dean Burn and Loud Poets, amongst many, many others.
“It’s just absolutely fantastic. It would be good if we could keep it like this,” sighs Ross as he discusses the refuribishment. Eventually, our tour draws to an end. As we turn to leave, the sunshine illuminates a bit of graffiti in an old dressing room. Scrawled on the wall, in black biro pen, are three words: ‘We will return.’ Just how long has that been there?