Neil Cooper

IF A zombie apocalypse runs riot on the streets of Edinburgh, where do you go for sanctuary? This was one of the starting points for The Sunnyside Centre, the first full-stage production by the Leith based Village Pub Theatre. The answer for the company's artistic director Caitlin Skinner and the five writers who have collaborated on bringing their own visions to the table is the Hibs Supporters Club, the window-less function room down an alleyway off Easter Road. More known for post match socials, the club has become the host venue for the company's compendium of linked plays, as well as a key part of the production's over-riding concept. This stems too from VPT's DIY ethos, which has grown out of regular monthly nights of scratch performances seen in the bijou confines of the Village pub in South Forth Street, off Leith Walk.

“We've been interested for a while in how to turn what we do in the pub on a regular basis in an informal, social, fun, seat-of-your-pants kind of way into a more fully formed piece of work,” says Skinner. “The community of playwrights that have developed have learnt to work with each other and support each other's short plays, and we thought they could develop their writing together to make a bigger piece.

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“The other thing we were interested is pub theatre, and what the pub experience can be like for an audience to watch theatre in. What we do on a monthly basis, on our best nights it feels part clubhouse, part open mic night, part spoken word night, part theatre. After that, we don't want to suddenly go and make work in a black box theatre space.”

The company came up with something Skinner calls intimate theatre.

“It's not site-specific, immersive or interactive theatre,” she says, “but is a kind of performance where it's like sitting in a pub having conversations with interesting people, and where unexpected things might happen in a way that bring the pub together. You can be in your own little world in that little environment, but things happen that affect the whole place.”

With support from City of Edinburgh Council culture fund, Skinner and co worked with Edinburgh-based site-specific auteurs Grid Iron, which gave advice “how to make theatre that's not in a theatre.”

Edinburgh's hidden network of social clubs opened up a world of possibility.

“These spaces have a timeless feel to them”, says Skinner, “and are a bit old Leith because they've been around forever, but are also a bit new Leith because artists, festivals and bands are using them. Hibs Supporters Club feels quite secure and quite private, but it's also a place where a whole range of stuff might happen. It's big enough to make it work, but atmospheric enough that we aren't going to have to bring in lots of additional stuff to make it work.”

A reconnaissance expedition to the club with regular VPT writers Tim Barrow, Sophie Good, Louise E Knowles, James Ley and Helen Shutt sealed the deal.

“What came out of that was the feeling of it being a safe space and a hidden place,” says Skinner. “So if something happened, and people were needing a place to come for refuge, to find community, or to build resistance, this might be your sort of zombie apocalypse hide-out.”

The writers' responses have been varied, moving between character-led studies of loneliness and the need for community to more explicit looks at the aftermath of an un-named disaster.

“Each of the writers have taken really different questions about what it would be like in that dystopian future version of Leith,” says Skinner.

Village Pub Theatre was set up five years ago after Leith-based playwright James Ley put out a call on Facebook. Captioning an image of a room going spare in his local pub, the Village, were the words 'What could this be?'

“James lived up the street, and was interested in doing something in Leith for writers to put on their own work rather than wait for commissions or opportunities from more established companies,” says Skinner, who has been involved since the start.

“It evolved organically,” she says. “Then we did one for Halloween, and one for Valentine's Day. We did ones that were more topical, which we could do because it was being organised quite last minute and on the hoof, so we could be quite responsive.”

With the company existing up until now on goodwill and energy, The Sunnyside Centre is a step up.

“I think now we're ready to figure out what the next thing might be,” Skinner says. “What we don't want to do is leave behind the beauty of the rough and ready and the back room of the pub, because that's what we love. We've developed an audience for that in Leith, and want to keep that going. But people's creative ambitions are starting to grow, and I think the company's ready to do bigger things. This is a kind of experiment to find what that might be.”

Such ambitions aren't about being consumed by existing monolithic structures, but about doing things on the company's own terms.

“It feels like there's room for innovation in terms of what a theatre company is now,” says Skinner. “That's about how independent theatre companies can operate and exist in particular locations rather than being a touring company. So we're thinking about what that might mean, and also what a theatre company for Leith might be like, and how we develop that side of our work. Because the company never had a grand vision, it feels like an ongoing investigation into what's next.”

Leith has changed enormously in VPT's five-year existence, with networks of artistic activity running parallel with gentrification.

“It definitely feels like we're part of a community of arts activity happening in the area,” says Skinner. “Most of us live in Leith, so Village Pub Theatre has come up with a sense of the area being a hub for young arts professionals, both in the audience and for those doing it. I think it's so good that the Leith Creative project is leading the way in terms of thinking about gentrification, and that the discussion is being led by artists themselves rather than the council.”

In terms of grassroots theatre moving into pubs and clubs, VPT's initiatives recall similar activities in the 1970s, and things appear to have come full circle.

“Totally,” says Skinner. “There's nothing new about what we're doing. If anything is new, that's to do with social media, as being a way for communities to connect differently. A big part of our development was because we had no way of telling people we were doing something other than through Facebook and Twitter, but it's so interesting how ideas come back around again.”

The Village Pub Theatre has grown alongside a burgeoning spoken-word scene in Edinburgh. In an austerity-strapped climate, this has a much looser aesthetic that gives the nights a vitality light-years away from the high production values of more formal work.

“The Village Pub Theatre is the antithesis of that,” says Skinner. “Everyone's shoved into a small room together, writers, actors, directors and whoever else is there in the audience. It's low risk and it's good fun, and the writers get immediate feedback. It feels democratic. However we grow, it's important to keep hold of that.”

The Sunnyside Centre, The Hibs Supporters Club, Edinburgh, December 11-12 and 14.

www.villagepubtheatre.co.uk