Mixing art, theatre and music Anna Meredith, Idlewild, Flint & Pitch and Grid Iron all set to perform at 2017's festival
**UPDATE 9 May 2017** Bossy Love has been replaced on the Hidden Door lineup by FOUND.
'Everybody thinks they've been to Leith Theatre,' says David Martin, Hidden Door's Creative Director, 'because they've been to Thomas Morton Hall. But that isn't Leith Theatre. Right next door to the hall is this amazing 1500 capacity space, but it's been boarded up for 28 years.'
This year, it's time to finally unlock this forgotten venue of north Edinburgh, and the privilege – and challenge – has fallen to Hidden Door. It's a fitting partnership: for the last four years the DIY multi-arts festival has taken over disused parts of the Old Town: in 2014, the Waverley arches, now the site of the swanky New Waverley development; and in 2015 and 2016, the secret courtyard in King's Stables Road, now also taken over by developers (here's hoping they're not starting a trend).
But with its showcase of grassroots artists, theatre-makers and spoken word performers, and a reliably killer lineup of bands, Hidden Door has always felt a bit Leith-y – so the move makes complete spiritual sense.
'Leith itself is full of people that want this to happen,' says Martin, whose day job is with Leith School of Art, just round the back of Leith Theatre. 'It's a much more engaged community than anything we've had before, and there's plenty of people in Leith who are going to come and inhabit Hidden Door for the time it's on and support it. There's not nearly the same kind of tutting and shaking of heads as we've had in the city centre.'
Over its 10 days, the festival's evening gigs have long been its most high profile draw. This year's is no exception, and the first two nights are curated by us folks at The List. The opening night on Fri 26 Mar is headlined by Edinburgh's own Anna Meredith, fresh from her stunning gigs at the BBC 6 Music Festival in Glasgow and at SXSW in March. She's supported by the excellent Bossy Love, Bdy_prts and Marnie from Ladytron. On Saturday, Idlewild take to the stage alongside Dama Scout, Manuela and rising Edinburgh singer-songwriter Hamish Hawk, who you might have caught on his recent tours with King Creosote and Charlie Cunningham.
'I'm very excited to be playing Hidden Door,' Hawk tells me from Oakland, California, where he's currently touring. 'I was along last year for Meilyr Jones, some street food and some physical theatre, and it's such a sweet festival. It's got a real community feel to it, and the fact that it utilises disused spaces is really appealing to me, especially as an Edinburgh local. You get to discover the little secrets the city has to offer, and there are plenty!'
There's much more music besides, from longtime Hidden Door performer Hidden Orchestra and from another SAY Award winner, Kathryn Joseph. But gigs are only part of what Hidden Door has to offer; its strength is in the way this – arguably more mainstream – strand ensconces itself around the maze of art from emerging artists showcased at the festival. At Kings Stables Road, the festival had several rooms to take over with installations and exhibitions inhabiting the disused spaces. And the cavernous Leith Theatre promises just as many curiosities, as well as a range of bars and street food vendors dotted around the site.
image: Leith Theatre / credit: Chris Scott 'The building will change throughout the 10 days of Hidden Door festival,' explains Martin. 'We want you to come on Friday when it opens, but if you come back on Wednesday it will look very different. The thing about Leith Theatre is that it has lots of nooks and crannies, rooms under the stage, behind the balcony – lots of little rooms we're going to turn into visual art spaces, a mini-theatre, there's going to be a cinema in there. So there's going to be lots to discover if you wander around.'
The beginnings of Hidden Door have their origin in a one-off event in 2010, when Martin and his early team assembled a maze of art in the Roxy. 'That started the idea that we could use any building we really wanted,' he says. Now, Hidden Door is run by a team of 60 volunteers, around 12 of whom make up the core year-round organisers. Each year has had its challenges ('Other people have likened it to childbirth') but it's the thrill of seeing the thing come together that's kept him going.
'I remember when I was a teenager going to Glastonbury for the first time,' he says, 'going into a field and there wasn't much there, and then seeing this city appear over two or three days. It was a life changing moment for me: the feeling of something just coming out of nothing, and then disappearing again. There's a tiny little echo of that with Hidden Door. It's obviously not the same scale, but there is something really beautiful about going into a place and it just being a mess and seeing 100s of people come and turning it into a thriving exciting space.'
At a time when it feels like so many of Edinburgh's venues are closing down, the reopening of Leith Theatre is much-awaited, and the vocal support the venue now gets from its patron Irvine Welsh has been a boon to its profile. Back in the day, it regularly hosted huge artists on tour: Kraftwerk, Thin Lizzy, John Martyn, Slade, Dr Feelgood and AC/DC have all played there. It was even used as a regular Edinburgh International Festival venue, until its closure in 1988.
The significance isn't lost on its upcoming performers. 'I feel very privileged to have been asked to play,' says Hawk. 'I must admit it's a dizzying prospect, following the likes of Kraftwerk and AC/DC onto the stage; it's a real honour to be playing such a beautiful space. To see it re-open will provide a huge boost to local artists, and to be a part of that is really exciting.'
'Growing up in Edinburgh,' he adds, 'it's easy to fall into "the grass is always greener" mindset. It's not uncommon for local artists to feel the pull of either Glasgow or London, and I understand that completely, but the more I play in Edinburgh these days, the more I can feel a tangible shift having taken place. More so now than ever I feel Edinburgh is building something bright and new of its own, and festivals like Hidden Door are part and parcel of that something new. It makes me very happy to have witnessed that change growing up.'
And Martin feels that tide turning too. 'I'm pretty sure that now Hidden Door is here to stay; it's time we started believing in that ourselves. It just feels like a bit of a fairy tale because we've literally made it up, with no backing, no resources, no business loan, no nothing. But it's a great city to play in and there's a huge amount of interesting partners and creative practitioners to work with. I think it's definitely going to work out.'
Hidden Door takes place at Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 26 May–Sun 4 Jun
Hidden Door Highlights
image: Idlewild Opening party with Anna Meredith Everything's coming up Anna these days, from her Scottish Album of the Year Award win for the truly excellent Varmints to the storming live sets she's been blazing a trail with all this year. Alongside first-rate support from Bossy Love, Bdy_prts and Marnie, this is an opening party you won't want to miss. Fri 26 May.
Idlewild We can't get enough of these fellas. Idlewild take to the Leith Theatre stage on Saturday, with trusty support from local lad Hamish Hawk (he's got a song about Goldenacre, y'know), Glasgow/London trio Dama Scout and the excellent Manuela, the new project from Manuela Gernedel and her husband Nick McCarthy, ex of Franz Ferdinand. Sat 27 May.
Flint & Pitch You'll know Jenny Lindsay from her time with fab spoken word cabaret Rally & Broad (RIP). Her latest venture Flint & Pitch is still in its infancy, and we're super happy to see it on the Hidden Door bill. Watch this space for a sure-to-be excellent lineup of poetry pals. Sun 28 May.
Grid Iron Whether they're performing at Summerhall, the Barony Bar or in Debenhams (it's true: they did this in 2006), multiple Fringe First winners Grid Iron are consistently one of Edinburgh's most exciting theatremakers. At Hidden Door, they'll be performing a work-in-progress, South Bend by Martin McCormick. Tue 30 May–Thu 1 Jun.
SQIFF The Scottish Queer International Film Festival is one of our favourite film events of the year, and now it's crossing the M8. At Hidden Door, SQIFF will be screening little-shown films and challenging inequality in its own special way. Fri 2 Jun.
Riot Jazz Brass Band Riot is right - there's nine of these noisy guys, and they're all set to make you move with their infectious blend of hip hop, jazz, funk and soul. This night's been curated by the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, and also features saxophonist / MC Soweto Kinch and drum & bass experimenters gnabgnab. Fri 2 Jun.