Gig Theatre: Not Theatre, Not A Gig, A Movement

With the trend of gig theatre at the Fringe and beyond growing, we talk to a handful of performers who are bridging the gap between gigs and theatre

Feature by Amy Taylor | 29 Jul 2016

On Friday 26 February, the folk singer Karine Polwart took to the stage at the Breathe Festival in Stoke Newington to perform a new piece she’d written on the theme of air. Based on her recent explorations and research of Fala Flow, a local moor with environmental protection near her home in Midlothian, the piece was inspired by the flights of the pink-footed geese that fly to Fala. She found herself creating a piece that discussed cooperation.

Wondering what a human skein (the name given to a flock of flying geese) would be like, she set about creating her latest work. Except it wasn’t totally folk music, it was something totally different, and Polwart was unsure. “I spent about half the show apologising for how shit it was! And apologising for the Sellotape on my notes, and I was just really unsure about where to go,” she explains. Later, after performing the piece at the Traverse as part of a scratch night, she received a call from David Greig, who had just been appointed as the new Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

“He got in touch and said, ‘Loved the show. No idea what it is, no idea how to describe it to anybody, but really loved it. In fact, could you get us a pitch for it within the next 24 hours?’” The musician remembers of the fateful phone call that led to what became Wind Resistance, Polwart’s first theatre piece, which premieres at the Edinburgh International Festival this month.

What is gig theatre?

Not quite a gig, not quite theatre, Wind Resistance falls into the growing genre of gig theatre, a more relaxed, less formal performance, where music, storytelling and performance combine. But the idea of gig theatre isn’t limited to a few lone musicians going where they have never been before; the genre is a growing trend, with performers such as Kieran Hurley and Mhairi Campbell choosing to tell their stories in the overlap that exists between gigs and theatre. And this new movement isn’t just limited to the EIF, or the Fringe, but can be seen throughout the country, where it is being used to attract new, more diverse audiences.

Paul Smith of Middle Child Theatre Company, who are returning to the Fringe with their new gig theatre piece Ten Storey Love Song (the follow-up to 2015’s Weekend Rockstars) believes that theatre needs to consider the audience more when creating new work. “I just think that theatre needs to think about the audiences’ experience, because there’s not enough new audiences coming to the theatre, young audiences. I think theatre needs to learn how to adapt for them, rather than getting them to change for it.”

Lucy Rivers, who with Hannah McPake co-founded Gagglebabble, and will be performing their latest gig theatre work Wonderman at the Underbelly this year, agrees. “We like gig theatre because we want to appeal to that non-traditional theatre audience.

"We find with our show, that people like to come back again and again. I think it is the music element, because they know they’re going to get some good songs and music. I know we have attracted live music lovers into the theatre for the first time, so that’s good.”

Others, like Polwart, are trying something new for the first time. Matt Regan, a Belfast-born composer based in Glasgow, and creator of the gig theatre piece Greater Belfast, fell into gig theatre after he realised that simply singing a song just wasn’t enough for him to tell the full tale. “I would perform a song and I would see that I was only telling half the story, I’m only colouring half the picture, I’m doing this song, and I would always think there’s more to that, I really want to talk to the audience in front of me and tell them there’s more stuff to it.”

"Telling a story the right way..."

It’s this desire to not only tell a story, but to tell it in the right way, that inspired New Zealand-based Rochelle Bright and Kitan Petkovski, who will make their Fringe debut at the Traverse, with their play about Bright’s parents, Daffodils (A Play With Songs). “The story of my dad and my mum is something that I’ve always wanted to tell but couldn’t. I’d been waiting for the right way to tell it,” explains Bright, who had been waiting “for twenty years” to tell the story of her parents and their life together. “And it was a couple of years ago that I finally found the right way to tell it, and it just flew out of me.”

For Polwart, the experience of creating a gig theatre piece has given her the chance to explore new themes, thoughts and discover a whole new type of performance, one that sees her emerge from her previously static position behind a microphone and explore the space around her. “The folk scene, as a general rule, is very understated and nuanced, and the show is too. But there are a couple of places where it gets to be a little bit grand, and everything that’s happening phonically, visually, writing-wise is supporting that. It’s like having a cushion to fly on, actually, it’s really lovely.”

If gig theatre is about breaking established rules for performers, what does that mean for the audience? According to Petkovski, it’s all about inclusivity in theatre. “It was about creating something that our peers would want to attend, our demographic. At the moment in New Zealand – I don’t know if it’s the same in Scotland – the theatre audiences are getting older and older. We wanted to create something that was for people at our age and I think the music, or the gig theatre element, is what will reach out to people.”

Likewise, Smith believes that gig theatre will help get a younger audience to attend the theatre, but is aware that the concept may be problematic for some people. “Some people hate gig theatre. I’m totally ready for that. Some people do want to sit and be told a slow, quiet story, but I don’t want to judge that at all. I mean, I enjoy that too! What we’re trying to do is fill a gap, I think there’s lots of that around. What we’re trying to do is attract new audiences in new ways.”

But with so much interest in the genre, can it last? Polwart is optimistic about the future of fellow musicians straddling the music and theatre worlds. “I think there’s a lot of interest in that [gig theatre] getting made just now, musicians coming out of the scene and trying to say something, they’re trying to explore big ideas with music at the heart of it.” McPake agrees: “It feels like there’s a real movement in this type of work, and we’re part of that. There’s some really interesting shows going on using music, we’re just adding to the collection.” 

Wind Resistance, Lyceum Rehearsal Studio, 6-21 Aug, £Sold out
Ten Storey Love Song, Pleasance Dome, 3-29 Aug, 5.20pm, £6-10
Wonderman, Underbelly, 3-28 Aug, £7-13
Greater Belfast, Traverse, 4-28 Aug, £8.50-18.50
Daffodils (A Play With Songs), Traverse, 4-28 Aug, £8.50-20.50