Standing Up for Leith Theatre
We talk comedy and community with Ellen Asquith in the run up to her second annual funny fundraiser for Leith Theatre
It’s fair to say that local and thriving venues are something of a commodity across Scotland at present, particularly in Edinburgh. One such place risen from the ashes is Leith Theatre, a much neglected space until Hidden Door Festival reopened it for performance in 2017. “The history of Leith Theatre is just incredible,” exclaims Ellen Asquith, organiser of Stand Up for Leith Theatre. “The way it was gifted to the people of Leith on their incorporation into Edinburgh was essentially a bribe because the Leithers voted five to one against joining the city, almost like they were forced to Brexit and given this theatre as a placatory measure.” It is completely community owned and run, and in its heyday was the weightlifting arena for 1972’s Commonwealth Games and hosted acts from Thin Lizzy to The Wombles.
The community spirit can be felt in every rejuvenated inch of the building. Charities and their volunteers have got stuck in to refurbishing the place. The Edinburgh Tool Library helped build the bars out of reclaimed items from the theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival helped fund the lighting in the main space, amongst other action from local groups. Asquith’s confident that it’s infectious throughout Leith. “In other parts of the city, because Edinburgh’s so driven by finance jobs, you do see the selfish society ‘I’m alright Jacks' with their shiny shoes with no particular interest in their local area. I think everyone [in Leith] has a sense of investment in their surroundings and the support that has been growing for the theatre is a perfect example of that.”
It’s exciting that venues like Leith Theatre seem to be influenced by the lo-fi, DIY nature of some of Glasgow’s best spaces. “Good things happen when there’s that kind of drive and spirit.” Even more exciting is the prospect of it happening on your doorstep: “It’s perceived that if you live in Central Scotland, you can go and see stuff in Glasgow just as easily as you can in Edinburgh. I feel like there hasn’t been as much drive from councils and funders to invest in Edinburgh because the perception is ‘oh there’s all this stuff going on in Glasgow and it’s only a stone’s throw away,’” explains Asquith. Close, yet far from accessible when it’s £25 for a peak return train between the cities. Edinburgh’s “a fantastic place to live if you’re a 65-year-old baby boomer retired teacher who wants to go and see opera" but it also needs to be a great place to live whatever people’s cultural interests and backgrounds.
There’s also an innate sense of community in Scottish comedy; one which puts aside individual differences and pulls together for the greater good. Asquith was formerly the programmer for The Stand’s charity benefits and infamous Red Raw new material/new act nights and saw first-hand the warmth and generosity of some comics. Experienced acts were keen to mentor newbies and had a willingness to give time to “something that they think benefits comedy within Edinburgh as a whole.”
It’s permeated the younger acts too. “A lot of the 20-30 year old comics at the moment are just a really nice bunch all across the central belt and whatever in-fighting or fallouts go on after people have accidentally shagged each other just sort of fade into the background because it’s a collective endeavour for them. One person’s success rubs off on another and they’re able to pull each other up by doing nights together and giving each other exposure in that way.”
Recently there’s been a surge in comedian activism and desire to help others in need. Aisling Bea and pals spent time in the Calais jungle, the Repeal the 8th campaign was backed by scores of comedians, and more recently Romesh Ranganathan ran a huge fundraiser in support of victims of the Sri Lankan Church bombings. But why, more than ever before, are comics front and centre of social movement? “I think comedy doesn’t come without a social conscience – all art is trying to comment on society in some form but because of the nature of comedy, whether it be satire, left-wing alternative comedy, or some of your right-wing comics, there’s always that political component so they all have quite an ingrained social consciousness..” Asquith also suggests it might be a result of the public’s perception of comedians. Because sometimes they’re accused of narcissism, there’s a reactive need to be “more outward-looking, and yes you do get the odd narcissist but actually I’ve met some very well-rounded people.” Well that, and the flexible working hours must help.
The line-up Asquith’s curated for the fundraiser is Avengers-esque in its ambition; a who’s-who of Scottish comedy. “What’s really nice about the showcase this time is being able to give a big stage platform to some of the acts I saw doing their first five minutes at Red Raw.” And it’s impressive to see just how far some of them have come: “the intermediate crew, so the likes of Gareth Mutch and Rosco McClelland, Christopher MacArthur-Boyd, Stuart McPherson and Wayne Mazadza, it’s just been so heartening to see the growth in their careers and the awards wins and being picked up by agencies and following that has been a delight.”
Sketchy boys Planet Caramel (“They have such a fun performance style and a lovely dynamic between them as performers”) and Donald Alexander (“My God what a boy! He just has comedy in his bones”) bring some variety to the bill. It’s not all men and a mic though. “I’ve always championed Kimi Loughton. She has so much energy on stage and is so driven. Also Natalie Sweeney and Megan Shandley. I’ve always just been rooting for their success.” Keeping everyone in line is compere-supreme, Susan Morrison. She’s “a kind soul. Couldn’t be happier that it’s her because I know she will hold that audience down tight".
With the aim of the fundraiser not just to relax Leith Theatre’s purse strings, but let the public see what great work the place is doing, it champions opening new spaces to new audiences and art forms. The same can be said for contemporary award-winning comedy. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, Richard Gadd’s Monkey See Monkey Do and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag have all allowed comedy to spring from unlikely places and opened up the art form for ‘non-comedy people’. “Things that have been really successful in the comedy scene recently have been extremely personal. Often they’ve been quite painful shows and when you’re willing to be so vulnerable and put a piece of yourself into your performance, I think people respond to that with a lot of positive emotion.” It brings a greater understanding and consideration for other perspectives and welcomes audiences to try comedy they wouldn’t ordinarily seek out.
For Asquith though, her hard work will be thoroughly rewarded by finally watching the gig at this historic venue. “I’m just excited for the comics to be on that stage. I know a lot of them are rockers and reprobates so it was nice to be able to say ‘hey, you’re gonna be on a stage that AC/DC played’”.
Stand-Up for Leith Theatre, Leith Theatre, 7 Jun, 7pm. Tickets £7/£5. Discount with EH6 postcode