Watch: Edinburgh's Festival Theatre prepares to reopen with hit show that puts audiences on stage played by the Krankies and David Bowie

Linda Hogg does a double take as she settles down to chat in the Green Room of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 7:00 am

This is where the actors, dancers and performers who tour to what was once Edinburgh's Empire Theatre meet between shows, and it is a piece of history dating back to the venue's early incarnation that has caused the Head of Customer Service and Front of House to react the way she has.

Until recently, the historic Empire sign, salvaged during the building's refurbishment, hung above the heads of entertainers as they relaxed; six golden letters - 'E M P I R E' - each encrusted with and illuminated by bright round Edison light bulbs. All that can be seen now are the two brackets on which they hung. Linda disappears momentarily, returning minutes later, an relieved expression on her face.

She laughs, "It's just, with the Jenners' sign disappearing, you suddenly go, 'Wait a minute...' but it's okay, I found it. It's backstage, they're repainting and refurbishing it so it will look even more fabulous when it’s lit up and framing this room beautifully."

Linda Hogg, head of customer service and front of house, at the Festival Theatre

Later, gazing out from the Royal Box, following the sweeping lines of the Grand Circle to the stage where everyone from Ray Rogers and Trigger to Laurel and Hardy and David Bowie have played, Linda reveals it was a secret 'hard-hat' show, starring the Krankies, that actually reopened the venue as the Festival Theatre in 1994, ahead of the official gala opening performance by Scottish Opera. Linda worked at both.

She explains, "The first official performance that we sold tickets for was Tristan Und Isolde, in late June, but before that we had to have a trial run. So we put on a variety show with the Krankies. The people invited to attend were councilors, contractors and the builders who had worked on the restoration of the theatre.

"We called it a hard-hat night, it was a run through to check things like the ventilation was working, that the curtain was working, and that staff had time to do what they needed to do. Everything went exceptionally well, although the glass washers hadn't arrived in time, which left us having to hand wash all the glasses for just under 2,000 people in the hour between the show starting and the interval, but it was a really special night. There was something really lovely about giving back to the people who had actually worked on the project."

For Linda, who attended George Watson's before studying Hotel Management at Napier, joining the theatre was a change in direction.

Empire theatre sign being refurbished

"Having traveled the world working on cruise ships, at Disney World in Florida and in the Caribbean and Australia, I came back and thought, 'I'll go for a job in this theatre, stay for a year and then go travelling again...'" she recalls, "And here I am, all these years later."

It's a dream job in many ways, she reflects and, in normal times, one of her duties is welcoming each new show as it arrives. Every Tuesday, Linda liaises with the latest company manager to ascertain if there were any special requirements for the run. Usually that doesn't involve too much but occasionally, the star turn will have a special request.

She recalls, "When we had Joan Rivers in, she decided the dressing room was too bland so I had to nip down to John Lewis and buy some cushions and throws, and nice glasses to make it a bit more personal for her. Normally, though they're fairly low-key, like my favourite star, Bill Nighy. He was here for the film festival one year and from the moment he arrived to the moment he left was a complete gentleman. He made everyone feel really comfortable."

With no productions on stage for more than a year, the Nicolson Street theatre has, however, continued its community work through online initiatives while the closure of its bars and refreshments operations have benefited other local organisations.

The Krankies, husband and wife team Ian and Jeanette Tough, opened the Festival Theatre

The 55-year-old, who was furloughed, says, "I never thought I would see theatres closed in my lifetime. Culture is something I personally crave, without it my life is dull. I am so lucky to work here, this is my second home. We were in shock when we were closed down and believed it would only last for about eight weeks, after all, Edinburgh would never not have a Festival or Fringe.

"As time went on and the Festival was cancelled, I realised we were in this for the long run. So we did a stock take of the bars and donated everything that was about to go out of date to Empty Kitchens Full Hearts, the charity based out of Leith Theatre where I've been volunteering since September. They have an army of chefs and send out just under 1,500 food packs daily, made up with surplus food donated by supermarkets."

She adds, "The ice-creams that were getting near their sell-by date we distributed to residential homes around Edinburgh as a gift from us."

Doing so, kept the connection the theatre enjoys with the local community alive, observes Linda.

David Bowie on stage as Ziggy Stardust in 1973

"We hold a monthly tea-dance with about 60 people from residential homes attending and we managed to engage with them throughout lockdown by having a monthly online tea-dance, which we also sent out on DVD so that those who don't have a computer can watch it and be involved too."

With reopening now on the horizon, Linda is looking forward to assembling her team and welcoming the public back into the building in June, although the opening production, Blindness, is very different to those the theatre normally brings in, for a start there will be no performers.

"It's a wonderful show from the Donmar Warehouse in London and will take place completely on the stage," she explains.

"There will be four shows a day over five days, with 44 people allowed to attend each one. Audiences will arrive at the stage door, be escorted to the stage, sit down and then the sound installation, like an audio drama, will begin. It will last 45 minutes to an hour and then you will be escorted back out through the courtyard. It will be something we have never seen here before."

From September, socially distanced performances of big hitters such as Grease, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Six, The Addams Family, Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet will return and Linda is confident audiences will be as eager to return as staff and performers.

"Right now we are looking at the guidelines, which will change, but it is simple stuff that will be just as important for a safe return. If we all sanitise our hands when we come in and wear a mask, that is a huge part of it, along with respecting the distance between each other.

"As we speak, our box office manager and their assistant are in the auditorium with a seating plan and measuring tape working out what a number of socially distanced seating plans might look like. So we will be following the guidelines and doing a bit extra to make people feel safe, but all in a discreet and welcoming manner."

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