Ewan Aitken: Festival is a safe space to explore difficult subjects

Darren McGarvey describes the difficulties of building consensus in his book Poverty Safari. Picture: John Devlin
Darren McGarvey describes the difficulties of building consensus in his book Poverty Safari. Picture: John Devlin
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Uncomfortable or hidden issues can be examined without taking sides, writes Ewan Aitken

As ever, our wonderful city is hooching with visitors thanks in great part to Edinburgh being the home of the largest arts festival in the world. I both love the buzz and the activity but I would admit to finding the mass of people wandering along the pavement with leaflets in their hands seeking some obscure venue or standing in huge crowds whilst some unicyclist in a tutu juggles flaming chainsaws whilst blindfolded a tad frustrating as I try to get to my destination!

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken

Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken

It’s also added to the chaos of our family summer because (Proud Dad Alert!) my 13-year-old daughter is performing in Captivate Theatre’s excellent production of Annie (2.30pm-4.40pm Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre, Rose Street). It’s a brilliant show (yes I am biased but it is!) – but it meant for weeks of the summer everything first has revolved around getting her to rehearsals and now to her performances.

There is no doubt the many festivals which now run almost year round add a great deal to the economy not just of Edinburgh but of Scotland. Thousands of jobs are created and sustained by them, both directly and indirectly. It also provides a platform to launch the careers of some great talent and a much needed income for many performers as well as an opportunity and an experience, if not hard cash, for many others. And it’s a great chance for not just one but many good days and nights entertainment.

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In truth though, the Fringe does much more than provide us with lots of entertainment, add to the economy or improve the CVs or bank balances of performers . It is a powerful reminder of how theatre, in fact the arts in all its forms, can help us understand some of the tough challenges we are grappling with just now. The festivals not only provide a common space for shared experiences – it’s possible for us to enjoy something alongside others with whom we might otherwise disagree on some fundamental things in life; but it’s also a place where disagreement can be explored in a safe space; something which sometimes seems difficult to find these days.

As Loki – AKA Darren McGarvey The Scottish Rapper (The Stand New Town Theatre, 5pm – excellent show I hear, hope to get to it next week) put in his award-winning and very powerful book Poverty Safari: “Trying to build a consensus or, God forbid, acknowledging the virtue or integrity of people you disagree with politically or conceding where other ideas have succeeded can get you publicly shamed and lynched – by your own team.”

There are six shows about Brexit and many others which reference it. There are shows about the realities of war. There are shows about the pain of being a refugee. There are shows about mental health – there’s even a Mental Health Award for the show which explores the issues most effectively. There are 29 #metoo themed shows. There are shows exploring the reality of homelessness; the list goes on. Not all shows will do these or other challenging subjects well – it’s the Fringe after all – but many of them do. The International Festival has a similar exploration of challenging issues alongside some great entertainment.

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In among the crowds and the chaos and the laughter and the colour, uncomfortable or often hidden subjects are brought to light and explored with challenge, laughter, curiosity, questions and ideas new and old. The stage or the screen or painting or the poem or the music and lyrics – whatever the art form – become a safe space which does not demand allegiance to a corner or a tribe and insights to those with whom we disagree can be reflected upon without fear of being chastised or criticised for the act of listening. In today’s divided world, those spaces are precious gifts to be nurtured and cherished.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians