An all singing all dancing parliament

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Richard Ross reports on Richard Demarco's vision for the old Royal High School. It starts with next month's Edinburgh Festival Fringe...

Arts impresario, Edinburgh festival veteran and former art teacher Richard Demarco is a man who knows he has youth on his side.

The Demarco European Art Foundation promotes international art in Scotland and Scottish art abroad. The foundation, in partnership with the European Youth Parliament, has secured the old Royal High School building on Edinburgh's Calton Hill as a Festival Fringe venue for 1998. Here the youth parliament will plunge into the world of art for the first time in its history, with an impressive programme of masterclasses and performances.

For the irrepressible Demarco this is only the beginning. He wants to see the site, which until recently was earmarked for the Scottish Parliament and last October played host to the European Youth Parliament, used as the permanent headquarters for both the youth parliament and the arts foundation.

The European masterclasses are being held in co-operation with St Leonard's School in St Andrews, which hosted a team building weekend for last year's session of the youth parliament, and with George Watson's College in Edinburgh, which represented the UK at this year's session in Granada. Among the local Edinburgh groups taking part will be youngsters from the Craigmillar Festival Society, who are also mounting their own production at the Royal High venue. And the festival programme is being mounted in collaboration with the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig.

A total of 45 youth delegates from as far apart as Finland, Bulgaria, Portugal and Lithuania will descend on St Leonard's on July 29 for masterclasses that will culminate in the Edinburgh performances from August 10 to 15. One will be an opera based around the theme of Europa and the Bull, written and composed by Professor Nigel Osborne with the help of the delegates. There will be an exhibition of visual arts, a series of concerts with solo and ensemble performances both instrumental and choral, and a programme of dance and theatre.

The famous oval debating chamber will also be put to good use for a symposium on European cultural studies, with leading figures from the Council of Europe, the Government and the arts taking part. Although many participants are still to be confirmed, Demarco already has agreement from playwright and professor Ariel Dorfman, historian Lord Asa Briggs, Lord Dundee of the Council of Europe and poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson.

Demarco says: "Representatives at the European Youth Parliament, which meets annually in cities around Europe, discuss every aspect of European and world matters from drugs to genetic engineering. They normally end their sessions with a two-hour cultural programme of theatre and music. So I thought: why not have a special session, or sessions, which reveal that the true politicians are those who can perform in a whole programme devised through masterclasses?

"The EYP is a properly constituted parliament with two schools representing each country. The delegates are usually the best debaters and the best essay writers on political themes. But in my experience there's a brilliant level of singers, actors and musicians."

Part of the European Youth Parliament programme will be a choral celebration of the Royal High School itself, something which enthuses Demarco. "The High School's roots go back beyond Jamie the Saxt to the monks of Holyrood. Famous old boys range from Sir Walter Scott and the poet Robert Fergusson to the infamous Deacon Brodie."

Almost in Michael Caine mode, he adds: "Not everyone knows this, but the school building is actually a replica of the Temple of Theseus, and Theseus was the defender of democracy. So the building itself is actually based on parliamentary oratory. How's that for resonance? It is unique in Britain, and now it won't be used for the Scottish Parliament."

But Demarco has high hopes it can be used for a Scottish Youth Parliament. "This would give Edinburgh two Parliaments. Together the EYP and the DEA Foundation could establish what would be tantamount to Europe's first International University of the Arts," he claims.

For Demarco this would be the realisation of a lifetime's ambition. "The only paid, secure job I've ever had was as a schoolteacher. Even then I thought that art should affect the whole curriculum. So this is me beginning to achieve my dream. Here I am the art master working with young people to bring art into every discipline and area of life from politics and science to history and sociology.

"I believe everyone is an artist. Education is as central to art as art is to education. That's my main bugbear with the Fringe. In recent years it has veered dramatically towards art as entertainment. Art is the experience you're entitled to when you're working. It's not about leisure. It's about social sculpture."

Although central to his programme, the European Youth Parliament masterclasses and performances are only part of a vast array of productions which Demarco will host, including many from Eastern Europe - particularly Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Poland.

But as ever with Demarco, when his horizons widen the sky still seems threatening. The truth is that unless the Royal High School venue can be made permanent, his arts foundation and the Demarco Archives will be without a home when the lease on his Albany Street office runs out on September 30.

"The DEA Foundation receives no money from the City of Edinburgh or the Sottish Arts Council. As far as I know, the city is selling off our premises at the old St Mary's School to a developer. The rent for the Royal High School is Pounds 30,000 for four weeks. To buy it would be roughly Pounds 8 million.

"But it's a building that incorporates the whole dream of the Enlightenment, " he says. "It's probably the best ever Fringe venue". To which he adds, with a mischievous grin, "though it's also capable of being confused with an OFFICIAL Festival venue."

You get the distinct impression that's something the old art master would love.

Demarco European Art Foundation, tel: 0131 557 0707, or EYP on 01993 709940

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