Edinburgh Venue Directors

The Venue Directors: James Mackenzie from ZOO Venues

Published on Sunday 8 July 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves. This includes the people who run the numerous venues that pop up each year at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Our next venue director is James Mackenzie of ZOO Venues. Having first come to the Festival with his school theatre company in 1995, he has been running the ZOO venues since 2000.

ZOO set up five pop-up theatres in two buildings each August. This includes a 200 seater main space with a big stage that enables ZOO to include a number of more ambitious dance and physical theatre pieces in its programme every year, alongside an assortment of other genres, including plenty of new writing.

TW: How did you first get involved in the Fringe?
JM: I first came to the Fringe in 1995 as a technician for my school’s youth theatre company. We set up our own venue in a nightclub. I learnt a lot that year!

TW: Give us a brief history of the ZOO venues.
JM: Myself and the other directors of ZOO had all been involved in one way or another for a number of years running other people’s venues and we thought it was time we tried doing it ourselves.

We felt there was a real lack of venues that put support of artists at the core of what they did. So in 2000 we formed ZOO, found a venue and tried to do just that.

Once we started running our Southside venue with its large stage, we were able to really specialise on presenting dance and physical theatre and now take great pride in being able to give a home to massively complex shows that otherwise would not be able to perform at the Fringe.

TW: What does being a venue director involve?
JM: My job is very varied and every day brings something new – anything from going to see potential shows to ordering the bins! – but at its core I am ultimately responsible for the programming of all of our shows and making sure the venue is heading in the right direction. I’m lucky to work with an amazing management team who work with me year-round to enable us to present as many shows in three weeks as some year-round theatres would present in a year.

TW: What spaces do you run and what is involved in setting them up each year?
JM: We run five spaces across our two venues. They range from small studio spaces seating 50 up to our 200 seat main house. We build all of these spaces in our temporary venues each year.

This means completely transforming empty rooms into theatres, everything from seating banks to lighting and sound systems. We also have to build the other bits you tend to take for granted in a permanent theatre, such as box office counters, bars and IT infrastructure.

TW: How do you select the shows that appear at your venue?
JM: Simply I’m looking for anything that is good. We specialise in physical work and new writing, so that’s obviously where I look first, but I will always consider anything that really stands out.

We invite applications from companies and also directly approach some artists that we think would work well as part of our programme. Recently we have begun co-producing a few shows, which is an exciting new direction for us.

TW: How big is your Edinburgh team and how do you recruit them?
JM: Our team raises from a core of five to a team of 40+ during the Festival. We recruit largely through our own website and social media, and also from word of mouth from our past staff who often recommend their friends to us.

TW: What are your top tips for companies performing at the Fringe for the first time – from a production point of view?
JM: First and foremost, above all else, make sure your show is the very best it can be. It might sound obvious to say that, but it’s so easy to get carried away making sure your marketing is great, or arranging your accommodation and travel, or whatever, that the show itself can suffer. Those other things are important and will help you have a brilliant time at the Festival, but if the show isn’t great then all those things will be in vain.

TW: What are your top tips for companies performing at the Fringe for the first time – from a marketing point of view?
JM: Ensure you a have a great image, with this you can draw your audience in. Make sure you use this image across everything. Marketing at the Fringe is all about layers, seeing that image in the programme, on flyers and posters will fix your show in people’s minds.

Take time to test your ideas out on friends and colleagues, things that may appear obvious to you working on a show may actually confuse an audience.

TW: How has the Edinburgh Fringe changed over the years that you have been running ZOO?
JM: It’s got a great deal bigger. This is both a positive and a negative. Having more people bringing a greater variety of shows is obviously positive, but this also means that the competition for those shows is far greater. When I started I think there were around 1500 shows, now it’s over 3000.

Away from the obvious growth, the Fringe has become much easier for audiences. Technology such as the Fringe App has enabled them to buy tickets quickly and easily, and the various collaborations between venues have made the experience a lot more like a cohesive festival than it felt in the past.

TW: What are the biggest challenges of running a Fringe venue today?
JM: It may sound trite, but the biggest challenge is balancing the books. We, like the vast majority of Fringe venues, are unfunded, and it’s a constant struggle to afford to open. Venues are not, despite what people may think, making a ton of money from the Festival – in fact most of us barely break even. Nobody gets into running venues at the Fringe to make money, it starts with a love of the Festival, and it’s that belief in the importance of the Festival that keeps us coming back every year.

TW: What advice would you have for anyone who aspires to run a venue at the Fringe?
JM: Aha, don’t! In all seriousness, it can be one the most rewarding jobs in the world, but it’s also incredibly hard work. You need to plan obsessively – the spreadsheet is your friend – but you must also be great at thinking on your feet, as the unexpected always happens in Edinburgh and a calm clear head in a crisis is essential.

You should also decide what type of venue you want to run, what work interests you and who you hope to attract to both perform and buy tickets. A clear vision before you start will really help. Plus, start small and build up slowly.

Ask for advice from other venue managers, there’s so much you will not have thought of, but other venues are always happy to offer advice and help. Without it I would have been lost in those early years.

TW: What do you do the rest of the year?
JM: I split my time between ZOO and working as a freelance lighting designer. ZOO probably takes up around a good 70% of my time, but it’s great to still be able to get involved in creating shows.



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