Due to uncertainty around the pandemic, organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) are preparing to stage it outdoors for the first time in the event’s 74-year history.
More than 200 EIF performances will be staged in bespoke pop-up pavilions supplied by Fews Marquees, set up in three outdoor spaces in the city; Edinburgh Park, the University of Edinburgh’s Old College Quad and Edinburgh Academy Junior School playing fields.
This year’s EIF has a more music-heavy line-up than ever and among the acts due to perform during 7-29 August event are Simon Rattle, Damon Albarn, Nicola Benedetti and Laura Mvula.
Here, EIF programme director Roy Luxford (pictured) discusses the many challenges involved in bringing the event out into the open for the first time, and how his team is working to overcome the many challenges presented by the pandemic.
Pressing ahead with the event in outdoor locations is a bold move. What led to it?
We usually use 10 or so venues across the city in any given year but when the pandemic hit it was quite clear early on that this industry would be one of the last to return to any sense of normal operation and if we were going to be able to present any sort of performances they would need to be in structures that were outdoors.
How did you decide what outdoor structures would best suit the nature of the event and meet the need for social distancing?
The realm of the work that we present is very much for a seated audience and we are in part of the country where we can’t rely on the climate to be kind to us. Finding the most suitable structures caused us quite a challenge, we were a few steps along the road from trying to design a whole venue because of the need to balance issues such as ventilation and Covid-safe requirements with acoustic suitability and the need to cover the audience and the stage.
What led you to use Fews’ temporary structures?
Fews’ Igloos are single structures that cover the stage and the audience but remains 60% open so it is in effect a gazebo-type structure. A brilliant aspect of the design is that you can provide the weather protection needed whilst enabling the ventilation within the space to meet all the current Covid-safe event guidelines and conditions. Brilliantly, this structure also offers a transparent covering, so that you can have an opaque end around the stage setup and have a transparent covering for the audience.
The Igloo structures come ready manufactured at 30 metres wide as standard, with 10m, 20m and 40m wide versions available on request, so that you can accommodate a very large stage, which we required. The length of the structure is made up of 5 metre sections so you can create a very large space with a fairly straightforward setup. They will be long, wide, domed shaped and transparent so they will look rather more beautiful and elegant than say a fairly traditional stage that’s just put up with a big PA.
What will be the audience capacity of these outdoor structures, given the need for social distancing?
We have two larger ones for which we have permission for 670 capacity in each at 2 metres social distancing. We usually have our orchestral programme at the Usher Hall and that can hold 2000, so the audiences will be much smaller than usual.
We have one smaller structure within the University of Edinburgh, it is a smaller footprint and that will be where the chamber music series is staged. The audience there won’t be much more than 220.
Bearing in mind the Covid event guidance could change, is there room for manoeuvre to accommodate an increased capacity?
We needed to go on sale with the ticket plan and a seating layout, so that was one limiting factor because we can’t just change that configuration if the social distancing guidance suddenly changes. There had to be a point where we could set up a seating configuration that we could confidently sell tickets for, with the appropriate social bubbles.
If there was no social distancing we would be able to accommodate three times more people but if there is an easing up of restrictions we will likely take the decision just to make the environment a bit more intimate, as opposed to trying to sell more tickets.
Did the need to focus primarily on UK acts prove limiting or challenging?
It is principally a music programme this year. We would ordinarily have large scale theatre, dance and opera companies but that wasn’t feasible at the point that we needed to make commitments. We focused on UK-based orchestras and ensembles, and our internationalism will be reflected by individual soloists or conductors. We’ve taken a bit cautious approach because fundamentally we wanted to have a programme that we could present in a Covid-safe way and one that we had the best chance of being able to present.
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