Zoo: Artist-First Theatre Programming

This year's Zoo programme features multidisciplinary, artist-first work

Feature by Hannah McGregor | 01 Aug 2023

“If you’re looking for a straight retelling of Romeo and Juliet, you’re not gonna find it with us,” says James Mackenzie, Artistic Director of ZOO Venues, and that statement seems to reverberate along what promises to be a riskier Fringe than we have seen since pre-lockdown. 

Risk has been a part of ZOO's programming since the beginning – started twenty-two years ago, what was meant to be a one-year experiment has now turned into a multidisciplinary, multi-venue company which has solidified itself amongst the weird and wonderful of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. However, this experiment began to fill some rather large gaps in the festival scene, as Mackenzie explains: “Those [big] venues were kind of like massive factories where companies were literally thrown in one end and churned out of the other. And we wanted to try a slightly different view, to be a bit smaller and be a bit more artist-focused, make it about them… not just selling more pints of beer at the bar." This artist-first way of running a venue has certainly found its place in a changing Fringe landscape, as ZOO aims to “back [artists] up in whatever way it is that they need,” including the little things like “making sure you’re there when they’ve had a crap review or something, to give them a hug and a cup of tea."

But more than cups of tea, ZOO is recognising the current issues facing artists, which nowadays means that the Fringe is becoming make-or-break for more companies since the return of the festival after 2020. “We’re in a very different world to the one we were in in 2019; the industry has been completely ravaged,” says Mackenzie, a fact which does not escape ZOO: “The shows just can’t afford to come, so we’ve got to try and help them in any way we can; and that’s doing favourable splits, or paying all their tech hires, or whatever it may be to get that show there.” 

And ZOO has certainly gotten the companies here; with the return of the Fringe First-winning company Song of the Goat Theatre and their production Andronicus Synecdoche, promising a powerful hour and fifteen tackling war and cruelty, and Beasts (Why Girls Shouldn’t Fear The Dark) from Mandi Chivasa examining spirituality and street harassment, the lineup is “Very relevant to now." Amongst this international set also lies the likes of CREEKSHOW (Jenny Witzel), a love-letter to Deptford and a look at British gentrification. Mackenzie hopes that this year, “We get those people who want to see the kind of work that they will not see in the UK; this work does not tour the UK, this is quite literally their one chance to see it.” At ZOO, this means the highly visual, physical, and often transformative worlds of the creations that are present this year – from the audience’s journey onstage, encased in a death ritual in Funeral (Ontroerend Goed) to a “giant frozen margarita dildo” in Little Wimmin (Figs in Wigs) – promise something for every eclectic taste, with ZOO's signature technical specialties to deliver them. 

This year at ZOO venues is one to reinstate the artist-first, multidisciplinary approach – as Mackenzie says, “I think we’re slowly breaking that battle of the rest of the country thinking that Edinburgh is a comedy festival. The BBC quite regularly refer to is as ‘The Edinburgh Comedy Festival’, and every time I wanna throw a brick at the TV." ZOO lives up to its name in what promises to be the wilder yet extremely topical side of the Fringe – with a bit of risk, too.