Grid Iron theatre on Bingo!, funding and touring

Ahead of Creative Scotland’s highly controversial Regular Funding announcement and the premiere of Bingo!, their collaboration with Stellar Quines, Grid Iron’s Judith Doherty sits down with The Skinny to discuss funding, shows and touring

Preview by Amy Taylor | 14 Feb 2018
  • Judith Doherty

When we meet at The Shore, Judith Doherty – the Chief Executive, Producer and Artistic Director of Grid Iron theatre company – is chatty but nervous. In 24 hours, she and every other theatre company, theatre venue, and many more arts organisations in Scotland are due to find out if they have secured funding from Creative Scotland for the next three years.

However, despite 22 years of consistently working, performing and touring (the company formed in 1995 with their first production, Clearance, premiering at the Traverse Theatre in 1996), and the recent news that the Scottish Government’s draft budget announcement detailing a significant increase in culture spending, Doherty is still anxious.

“Despite the fact that the budget announcement was so positive, it’s hard to not be incredibly nervous.” She explains, over coffee, that it hasn’t always been easy to keep the money coming in and once they believed that their biggest production was going to be their last.

“We really, really thought that Roam [staged at Edinburgh International Airport in 2006 with the National Theatre of Scotland] was going to be our last one – that was ten years in. We had had four years without any funding from the Scottish Arts Council, but we’d had bits and pieces from other places. And then we had six years of project funding. We were very lucky, we picked up a European City of Culture commission, which was great. We’d done a show at Edinburgh International Festival in 2002, which very much split opinion, but we hadn’t had any regular funding.

"The Scottish Arts Council [now Creative Scotland] had introduced, I think – it changes its name – Core Funding, then it was Flexible Funding and now it's Regular Funding. So, we felt, right, well, this is the biggest thing we’ve done, it’s been ten years, maybe it’s time for us to move on, and then we got our first lot of Core Funding, and we thought, 'Oh, right! OK!'"

Perhaps with their history of financial uncertainty it’s fitting that their latest show – the comedy musical Bingo!, a co-production with Stellar Quines – finds both companies exploring themes of money and community. As Doherty puts it, Bingo! tackles “the things that you do when there’s something that you desperately need, and the things that you do when you’ve done something that you shouldn’t have done; how we can all be driven to do extreme things, from desperation.

“So many people are starting to look at bingo and the lottery as a sort of long term financial plan,” Doherty continues. “Pensions are difficult, savings are nigh on impossible, as is trying to get a mortgage if you’re not on the ladder already. It’s scary times and we’re looking for impossible dreams. It touches very much on that, and it touches on relationships between a mother and a daughter and their friends, and the whole community in a bingo hall and what that means.”

Perhaps it is these scary times that we live in, where the cost of living is rising yet wages stay flat, that make Bingo! so relevant. Directed by Stellar Quines’ Artistic Director Jemima Levick, and written by Johnny McKnight and Anita Vettesse with music by Alan Penman, the play is unsurprisingly set in a bingo hall, following six characters over the course of one unforgettable evening. It’s a show that’s been five years in the making, and it all began when Levick was working at Dundee Rep.

“When she was at Dundee Rep,” begins Doherty, “the staff of the theatre used to go to the bingo for a night out, and she loved it, so it was quite a big deal. So, we started gently to talk about that, but we hadn’t really over the past few years put a lot of thought into it, too many plans in place, we were looking quite far into the future. That was 2013, 2014.”

Fast-forward to 2018, and Levick’s idea is very much a reality, with the production setting up shop in a specially-built bingo hall in Edinburgh's Assembly Hall, although, explains Doherty, other venues were initially considered.

“We looked into bingo halls, and you know, they’re open from ten in the morning to ten or 11 at night, and with the best will in the world – and we have a very intrepid audience – we could maybe get people during the Fringe to come to a show in a bingo hall at 11 o’clock at night, but not in normal times. And they’re absolutely definitely not going to shut a bingo hall for a couple of hours at prime time to let us do the stuff. So this made us go, no, let’s put this on a conventional stage!”

While the decision to perform the show in a more traditional setting may sound unusual for a company that is known for its site-specific work, from What Remains at the old Edinburgh University Medical School, to Decky Does a Bronco in a playground, Doherty is quick to point out that the company can perform anywhere.

“There’s people questioning, ‘Why are Grid Iron doing something on stage?’ If you read our statement on our website, we never say we’re exclusively site-specific, because it’s about responding to the idea and responding to what the director wants to do and the designer wants to do.”

The idea behind Bingo! aside from the financial themes, is quite simple: community. Bingo halls are places that are traditionally female, a place where women can come together and relax, which makes it the perfect setting for a musical. In fact, it’s the perfect setting for Grid Iron’s second musical.

“What we also want is a real sense of community of the audience coming to see this and getting a really shiny, lovely musical experience. I love musicals. This is only our second ever, music is really important, as you know, to our work, and this is the second time we’ve done a full-on musical. The first time was in 2004, when we did a show called Fierce. We absolutely adored that, and it toured, and that was the last time we did a show at Assembly, because it came to Assembly Rooms for that Fringe.”

The 14 year gap between musicals was, as Doherty says, the result of waiting for the right idea, but interestingly, it was Fierce that allowed them to tour, and took them to Inverness, to Gaiety Theatre in Ayr, and brought them to Assembly Hall for the very first time.

“We’re very proud of being a Scottish company, not just an Edinburgh company, so when we get the opportunity to go out, it’s a bit of a treat to be in a building with dressing rooms and a bar and running water, and nobody has to wear thermals!”

Two days after our chat, it is announced that Grid Iron have secured their funding for the next three years, but other Scottish theatre companies have received a 100% funding cut from Creative Scotland. As Doherty mentioned during our conversation, "There is no shortage of ideas. There is no shortage of people wanting to make the ideas happen. There is always a shortage of money."  

Bingo! runs at Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 6-17 Mar, before touring