A Potted History

A Potted History

In 2002, as part of a campaign to save the Bedlam Theatre – a campaign out of which Friends Of Bedlam grew – the following potted history of the Bedlam, Edinburgh University DramSoc and the Edinburgh University Theatre Company was produced.

Compiled by Stephen Greer and presented in May 2002 by then EUTC President Natalie Adzic, the aim was to show the achievements of the theatre and the society over the years, and demonstrate the importance of Bedlam within the Edinburgh student and theatre communities and beyond.

It is by no means a comprehensive history of EUDS/EUTC – there just wasn’t the time to delve deeply – but it gives a quick insight into the EUTC past and present. Enjoy…


Hello and good evening. Some of you will know a lot about this building and the Edinburgh University Theatre Company. Others, nothing at all. This evening’s presentation is designed to introduce all of you to some of the achievements and activities of the EUTC over that last twenty years, the first student company to successfully and independently run and manage their own theatre.

Hello and good evening. Some of you will know a lot about this building and the Edinburgh University Theatre Company. Others, nothing at all. This evening’s presentation is designed to introduce all of you to some of the achievements and activities of the EUTC over that last twenty years, the first student company to successfully and independently run and manage their own theatre.

Admittedly, there has been a Drama Society at Edinburgh University since at least 1896. It has not always had the same name, and it certainly hasn’t always made its home in this building, the Bedlam Theatre.


1. Introduction to the EUTC
While I promise I won’t go all the way back to 1896, I’d like to talk briefly about how the company came to be in this building. The EUTC was first known as the Edinburgh University Drama Society, or Dram Soc for short. Dram Soc was known for its occasional performances and for its more occasional parties.

The society didn’t have a permanent home, and although active, did not stage many productions. In the 1960s Dramsoc made a home at an old pub called “The Crown” near Lothian Street. For a short time, the company operated out of the new George Square Hall, next door to the equally new University Main Library. In the early 1970s, the company could be found briefly in Roxburgh Hall, then in another temporary home in Hill Place, an ex-warehouse that was then the University Societies Centre.

At this time it seems that we weren’t the only people moving around. The congregation of the New North Free Church on George IV Bridge – finding the building “ugly and inconvenient” – moved on, selling the building to the university. The old church became the university chaplaincy centre – until they too decided to move on. The chaplaincy centre moved to a proper, purpose built area in the Potterow student complex in Bristo Square.

For those of you still following along, and to make a long story… well. slightly longer… the EUTC moved into the New North Free Church, sharing it for a short time with the chaplaincy staff and becoming the sole residents in the early 1980s. The church was renamed the Bedlam Theatre, after a time when the city’s lunatic asylum – Scotland’s first – occupied the site.

I promise that’s the last bit of local history, at least for now. When the Edinburgh University Theatre Company came to the Bedlam Theatre well, that’s where the story of the modern company and what it has achieved really begins.


2. Productions, Performances, Plays
I’d like to explain how things get done around here, how the company works and how plays get put on. Since the 1970s, the EUTC has always had a play on a Wednesday afternoon during term time. It seemed like a good idea for an afternoon when traditionally there were no university lectures. These lunch-time slots – which continue to this day – were open slots, available to any interested member of the company.

No experience of theatre is needed and it’s a regular chance for many people to have a first experience of theatre as actors, directors, producers, stage managers or technicians. There aren’t really any limits to what you can do. The company covers the cost of the rights for a single performance, and supplies a small budget to cover other costs. As a rule, the low cost of staging produces an overall profit for the company which goes back to pay for other, future performances.

One production that has passed into our history was a performance of the Mammaries of Tiresias. To achieve notoriety on a budget of under 30 pounds isn’t bad. The audience came into the smell of bacon that had been specially burnt in the kitchen. The stage was covered in talcum powder and as the play progressed, the air became hazier and the smell of the talc took over from the bacon. Stage managers in this building are still complaining about the talcum powder. Lunchtime performances so far have included classical revivals, condensed and not so condensed performances of Shakespeare, promenade productions, entirely improvised plays and new writing – to mention just a few kinds of theatre.

Alongside these productions, the company stages two or three plays each term which run for around a week. These plays – or “mainterms” as they have become known – have a larger budget and tend to be more ambitious in terms of script, cast, staging and technical requirements.

With the lunchtimes and the mainterms combined, the EUTC has long been the most prolific student theatre company in the UK, matching if not beating many drama colleges and most professional repertory companies for sheer volume of stage hours. Let’s say on average that the company has produced around 32 plays each year. So that’s something like 670 productions over the last twenty years since we moved in. Some productions, of course, have been more successful than others and others still have been gladly forgotten – but all have given invaluable experience to generations of future theatre practitioners.

I’d like to share with you briefly some of our most ambitious and successful productions.


3. Ambitious Productions
Given the number of productions staged by the company it’s surprising that so few plays have appeared more than once. Plays that have enjoyed more than one staging include A Doll’s House, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and What the Butler Saw. So plays about sex and repression then. Macbeth, oddly, is rarely performed.

In 1998, one of the productions of Hamlet saw the conversion of the auditorium in which you are now sitting, Changing the studio space to a thrust stage surrounded by an audience on three sides. Aided by innovative stage design and the approval of the Health and safety authorities, the venue was transformed in under forty-eight hours.

Our Hamlet conversion video is currently lost – please contact us if you think you may have a copy.

An additional video which was not originally in the speech is a video of the show Like Skinnydipping doing their stage conversion.

This wasn’t the first time that the EUTC changed this space. The first major conversion was undertaken for a production of “Pericles” in 1990, changing the thrust stage into a stage in the round, encircled by the audience.

Sometimes our productions have been too ambitious for the building. In the summer of 1997, a large team took a production of Terry Pratchet’s Mort to the Pleasance Courtyard for what eventually turned out to be one of the most financially successful shows in the company’s history. Performed in promenade, the production tapped into the author’s vast fan base and pulled in large audiences.

In the late 1990s the technical skills of the company have been pushed further than ever before as productions began to introduce elements of video projection and computer generated imagery. A home grown Bedlam play entitled “Orpheus and The Angel” was the first of these in 1991/2, it showed the cast in a tunnel on the outskirts of Edinburgh, giving Sliding Doors style alternative outcomes! Another was an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed book Mr. Punch in 1998, followed by an adaptation of Clive Barker’s Dread in 1999. Again, these plays drew on new audiences by tapping into a previously ignored market. In 2000, a piece of new writing – “The Clockwork Wife and Other Stories” – used computer generated animation as a key aspect of its story telling.

The Improverts is another production that has become a firm part of the company’s history. Founded in 1989 as Theatresports by the Canadian Toph Marshall and later renamed Improverts, this improvisational comedy show has been running regularly for over ten years. Each year the show acquires a new team of performers technicians and producers, made up of the previous years participants and the cream of fresher talent. Improverts has become the training ground for a number of successful standups and other comedians, as well as enjoying a run of seven years at the Fringe.

For a frequently cold gothic church, the members of this company have been ingenious in creating reasons to stay here for longer and longer periods of time. There have been two 24 hr marathons of improvised comedy, and the 1989 staging of James Joyce’s Ulysses is currently in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest stage performance, running at thirty six hours. Unsurprisingly, records show that only six people managed to watch the entire epic, which featured upwards of six different Molly Blooms.


4. The EUTC and Festivals
Beyond regular term time productions, the EUTC has involved itself with a number of different festivals as participants and organizers. Febfest was created in the early 90s as a festival of new writing that ran during the quiet month of February when relatively few productions were staged in Edinburgh.

For several years, an agreement with the Traverse meant that the best two shows at the festival went on to an extended theatrical run at that larger venue. After a lull in the late 90’s, Febfest was replaced by FONTS, the Festival of New Theatre in Scotland, which carried on the tradition of febfest by offering an opportunity for large numbers of writers, actors, directors, producers and technicians to experiment or become involved with theatre for the first time. Some febfest and FONTs shows were successful enough to move onto the Fringe festival. Making Love by Alex Evans and Alex Carter won a Guardian Student Drama Award in 1996 after transferring from febfest of that year.

The Fringe Festival is probably the building’s busiest time of the year. The society runs the theatre as a professional venue open to outside companies and the Bedlam Theatre becomes Venue 49. At the Fringe the company regularly stages two or more plays. Improverts has become a regular and successful fixture, and Fringe firsts have been awarded to several productions over the recent years. “Grimm – the Telling of Tales” won a Fringe first in 1990 and “The Dubliners” followed on in 1996.

The Hunting of the Snark , adapted from the poem by Lewis Carroll, is an exceptional case, having been chosen to attend the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough. Competing against productions from drama colleges and various universities running course in theatre disciplines, “The Hunting of the Snark” won several awards including the inaugural Cameron Macintosh Award for innovation in musical theatre. The EUTC is now developing something of a track record for producing shows that get selected for the National Student Drama Festival. The Hunting of the Snark in 1999 was followed by a production of Melvin Burgess “Junk” in 2000, and most recently by a new political satire “Mrs. Blackwell Eats Her Cake” in 2002.

An additional video which was not originally in the speech is a video of the show Like Skinnydipping heading to NSDF.


5. The EUTC and the Wider Community
Festivals aren’t the only occasion on which the EUTC involves itself with the wider community. First of all, the society’s activities have had close links with the many university departments, EUSA and other societies.

While there are predictably a number of English literature students amongst us, they are outnumbered by mathematicians, lawyers, doctors, architects, biologists and historians. The Bedlam theatre and its members have been involved in plays staged by many other performing societies, including the revival of the English department play last year.

The company enjoys close relationships – sharing casts and crews – with Edinburgh Footlights, the Savoy Opera Group and Studio Opera. The building also acts as a hire-venue during the year for several local theatre companies, and acts as one of the main first aid posts during the New Year celebrations.

In the last three years, an initiative for theatre workshops in local schools has developed. This project began with a production of “Max and The Wild Things” in 1998, an adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. The play and accompanying workshops toured local primary schools in the summer; so successful were the workshops that a number of schools asked the team to return, which they did. This began the Youth Project, a regular program of theatre workshops culminating in a production created by the attendees.

Our workshop video is currently lost – please contact us if you think you may have a copy.


6. Bedlamites: Production Companies and Celebrities
Unsurprisingly, a large number of members of the EUTC go on to professional work and further training. Many start while they are still here in Edinburgh. Each year, a new generation of production companies appears, some short-lived but many surviving the cost of initial staging to produce regular works. Current success stories include Pyre Productions, led by Gemma Fairlie and Redcat, founded by Briony Redman.

Three Weeks, the Fringe Festival newspaper was founded and is run to this day by ex members of the EUTC, notably including Chris Cooke, whose theatrical production company “Vague ideas” continues to stage plays in London and Edinburgh.

Judith Docherty, founder and director of the critically acclaimed Grid Iron theatre company is also an ex-member. Hamish Clark, star of the BBC drama Monarch of the Glen spent time here, and Josh Cohen – another Bedlamite – was partnered with Jerry Hall in the original cast for the West End stage production of “The Graduate”. Another member of our family is Greg Wise, known for his leading role in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility.

Our alumni also include Gavin Stewart, founder of the Scottish lighting company Black Light; Phoebe Tait, currently working on Harry Potter 2 after a stint with the Jim Henson Creature Workshop.; and director, Toby Gough, winner of 4 Fringe Firsts and whose production “Lady Salsa” recently appeared in the West End of London.

To conclude, I’d like to talk about what the company is doing now. With the continued and much valued support of the University’s Estates and Buildings the Bedlam theatre continues as a secure home for the company. This year we’ve produced around twenty six plays so far, and preparations are about to begin for the Fringe 2002. The company and the building are continually active, and provide invaluable experience and enjoyment for all those involved- as well as, we hope, entertainment for those who see our productions.

I hope you’ll all join us after the presentation in our cafe for some food and drink.