Mike Stevenson: We must feel welcome at own party

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ON A visit to Glasgow during the recent Commonweath Games I was struck by the feeling of collective positivity in the city.

The Mediterranean weather didn’t hurt, but what was noticeable was the spirit of oneness, a sense that everyone, no matter what they were doing – going to a sports event, having a drink or a meal or just going to and from work – was contributing to a greater, common purpose.

Ahead of the Games, it was remarked that Glaswegians might experience what it was like to be in Edinburgh during August.

But looking at the faces and hearing the voices in a bustling Buchanan Street, there was a conspicuous ­difference between it and the Capital during festivals season – the people enjoying themselves were overwhelmingly local.

How different, I thought, to a stroll down the Royal Mile when the festivals are in town. Not that there’s any less enthusiasm being generated and there’s certainly a great deal of fun to be had, but am I alone in thinking that it’s mostly imported? The difference with the Commonwealth Games is that still too many people in ­Edinburgh don’t feel they are part of the festivals. I hear too many natives complain that the entire enterprise, laudable though it is, feels like something imposed on them and that they feel outside of it.

Last year I watched a brilliantly innovative Fringe performance in Wester Hailes. The Common Wealth (not Commonwealth) Theatre Company had taken over a four-bedroom house which it had converted into an impromptu set for the staging of Our Glass House, a thoughtful and often disturbing dramatic exploration of domestic abuse.

One of the characters was played by a local schoolboy, who landed the role following an audition, and some members of the community – not a home of natural theatregoers – were among the audience and they seemed to enjoy it.

That was a positive effort to take theatre to the people and it was an enormous success.

I’m not the first and I won’t be the last person to make the link between social class and consumption of the arts.

But Italians of all classes love opera and some of our greatest exponents of the arts, from Robert Burns to Hamish Henderson, came from humble beginnings.

I took part in a project at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound that brought together children from across Edinburgh schools and I was struck by the number who looked sheepish and overawed by their surroundings. When I questioned some of them, they told me they never went into museums or galleries as they felt out of place and were frowned upon by disapproving uniformed guards.

The task for Edinburgh should be to take those children and, by the time they are adults, to have made them feel welcome at their events. Opening itself to the world and inviting guests to come and take part is not enough. Everyone in the city should feel proud, not just for the biggest arts festival in the world, but that they, as hosts, take responsibility and credit for it.

The triumph of the Commonwealth Games was that it advanced from the position that local people should be involved and encouraged at every stage. Of course, some will argue that it’s easier to get a crowd to buy tickets for a boxing match or a night of athletics than for an exhibition of paintings or a modern staging of The Seagull and there’s some truth in that.

But the Commonwealth Games managed to attract large numbers of people to often obscure, minority sports whose audiences, I am sure, will have included a large number of first timers. A start would be for festival organisers to encourage more schoolchildren to join choirs, attend drama groups and read good books, or perhaps by staging a music or drama competition among schools with the winner performing in the festivals.

It’s as much of a task to rouse people from their comfort zone in any field, made easier if they feel they are contributing to a common effort. The audiences in Glasgow felt they were contributing as much to the spectacle as they were witnessing it and that reciprocity of emotion is something Edinburgh has yet to achieve.

Mike Stevenson is head of Thinktastic, a public policy consultancy that advises businesses and organisations on happiness and wellbeing