Inspired design;Arts

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
Edinburgh's old Tollbooth Church (below) is set to reopen as a new home for the city's International Festival planners, giving them a chance to bring the year-round, behind-the-scenes preparations into the open. Christopher Lambton reports from The Hub

When James Waters tells people he works for the Edinburgh International Festival, the first question they ask is always: "What do you do for the rest of the year?" As the festival's associate director, he is conscious of the popular misconception that every summer the world's largest arts festival simply appears from nowhere.

The trouble is that apart from three hectic weeks in August, the festival has no public profile. Education and development work continues all year, as does the task of preparing for festival performances two or even three years ahead. But it happens behind closed doors.

But all that is set to change. In July this year, the old Tollbooth Church at the top of the Royal Mile will re-open as The Hub, Edinburgh's Festival Centre. The Hub will be open all year and will have room for a festival club, box-office, offices, a library, a shop, a cafe run by top chef Andrew Radford - and a dedicated education room.

This will be the place where out-of-season visitors to the city can get a taste of the riches the festival has to offer, through books, recordings and souvenirs. Edinburgh's other festivals are also being encouraged to use the facilities. The international festival already runs the box office for Hogmanay events and the Science Festival. Now the jazz and children's festivals are showing an interest.

For the Edinburgh International Festival's education team, The Hub will at last provide space for the workshops, lectures, and masterclasses that form the basis of its year-round activity. "Until now," says programme development manager Sally Hobson, "we have been forced to rent halls and churches all over the city."

The education room is part of a newly-built extension that slots discreetly into a space high up at the back of the former church. With a great bow window facing south over the city, it has ample room for small workshops or presentations for up to 30 people.

But education work will spill into other parts of The Hub as well. The redevelopment of this striking building, with a spire that dominates the Edinburgh skyline, has been designed with flexibility in mind. The great central hall, gaudily decorated in gold, blue, red and green inspired by Pugin's original colour scheme, will be home for the festival chorus, the festival club during August, and large-scale education projects such as a dance summer school in July. It has a theatrical lighting capability, a collapsible stage, and areas backstage that could be used as dressing rooms, except during the festival, when they will house the press office.

The Hub is where some of the world's most prestigious directors, conductors, and choreographers will get to grips with the festival, and the organisers hope that giving as many people as possible a "first touch" experience of the new facilities, will inspire some to become life-long enthusiasts of the arts.

The festival's education work will not retreat exclusively into its new home. Outreach events this year include an exploration of Puccini's opera Turandot, to be performed by a Japanese company in the Playhouse, with sixth-year students from five Edinburgh schools.

Last month in Portobello High School, the composer Stephen Deazley and animateur Nicholas Bone encouraged pupils to consider the riddles at the heart of Turandot and how they might be expressed today. One group produced the riddle: "What's more unpredictable than the weather?" Answer: "A fool full of lust."

Their colleagues meanwhile demonstrated that a random melody picked out on the clarinet could be given a mysterious tension if it was built into a harmonic structure that shifted unpredictably from G to D minor. Given that Puccini was an opportunist who would do anything to avoid the bother of writing his own music, he would probably have used it without hesitation.

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