Edinburgh Fringe 2015: Cressida Brown Q&A

Cressida Brown tells how she came up with the concept for Walking the Tightrope, and why we should give the hashtags a rest when debating freedom of expression

Image: Offstage Theatre

Image: Offstage Theatre

What does Walking the Tightrope expect to get from fringe?

Discussion! We want to encourage listening and debate with audience members about the subject the plays presented rather than just furiously tweet at one another about the issues online.  

These eight thought-provoking plays are by a collection of the world’s most celebrated writers about boycott, censorship, and ‘dirty’ funding of arts organisations. The plays are all theatrical responses to the closure of three high profile cultural events last year. One of which happened at the Underbelly. So where better to perform it and get the discussion we are after.

How do you hope the audience will react; what are they meant to feel when they see the plays?

Who knows what they’ll think! There will be a mixture of empathy or frustration with different plays depending on your starting point.  But I think what will stand out in this production is that we want to know what the audience’s opinions are – and we want to give them the space to voice them.   That’s why we have an audience discussion afterwards facilitated by a panel of contrasting ‘expert’ opinions. It’s the hope that by the end of the performance the original starting points of the individual audience member may have shifted and journeyed on a little. 

Could you please provide us with a brief description of the plays (plot, characters)?

All eight plays offer contrasting opinions on different aspects of freedom of expression. What has been surprising is that they are mostly all funny too! I’m delighted that they are all written in a completely different in style too; it’s really been a director’s dream to get my hands on so many unique and diverse play forms.

For instance, we swing from Timberlake Wertebaker’s absurd and massively hilarious take on a BBC script editing meeting, to Omar El-Khairy’s abstract and unsettling piece about the voice of Muslims in the UK today. We then go from Neil LaBute’s almost immersive and profoundly upsetting piece about what an ‘artist’ should be allowed to do in a theatre to Caryl Churchill’s deceptively simple piece which explodes theatrical form whilst considering what dirty funding can do to the artistic content of a play.

What makes Walking the Tightrope different?

Again discussion! There is an urgent need within the arts community to have an open and balanced conversation about the controversy venues and artists face over freedom of expression here in the UK.  This is not something that is happening in ‘other countries’ as the events of last Summer have shown us.

Who knows what other controversies will have unfolded by the time we are actually performing these plays in front of you… Unfortunately I am learning that the subject of freedom of expression is always relevant. 

What inspired the plays?

Lack of discussion.

In January 2015 I asked twelve writers to respond to three high profile cancellations of cultural events in Summer 2015 that followed hot on the heels of one other. These were the Jewish Film Festival not running at the Tricycle Theatre, the closure of the white South African artists Exhibit B at the Barbican, and an Israeli hip hop musical losing its slot at the Underbelly. 

The sudden bonfire that erupted of opposing views on social media during these incidents made me want to react to these three events with theatre. I wanted to replace these warring tweets with all these people to share the same space as audience and have to listen to and then discuss their point of view with their online opponents. The plays are varied and cover boycott, ‘dirty’ funding, offensive art, protest, political correctness, and how media censors by selecting what voices you hear.

Image: Offstage Theatre

Image: Offstage Theatre

Why was I so worried about others seeing my opinions? Why is it only in the heat of the moment that I debate these issues with my peers?



How was the collaboration formed?

Through a discussion! My theatre company Offstage Theatre created, commissioned, and directed a version of the show in January.

Charlie Wood, Director of the Underbelly, was invited to be a panel member on one of the panel discussions on our first short run of the show, and saw the potential of bringing it to the Underbelly.

I am an Associate Artist of Theatre Uncut so knew that their brilliant short play format was the right one to adopt for the project which is why we are in association with them.


How did you come up with the idea?

Last Summer I posted the question “How can this be seen as anti-Semitic?” on to my Facebook timeline. I was referring about the Tricycle Theatre offering to replace Israeli funding of the Jewish Film Festival. I assumed that everyone I was friends with, especially those who were in the arts, would agree with me.

A couple of hours later my page had exploded in over 60 warring comments about the Tricycle but also about the Underbelly decision to cancel an Israeli government funded show.

And then I did something that triggered my eventual decision to initiate this festival.  I deleted the entire 60 strong thread from my wall. I had worried how my opinions might be regarded by others. Or whether my politics were going to affect my relationships in the art community. I had self-censored myself.


Hot on the heels of the Tricycle came the Exhibit B affair. It suddenly started to seem very unwise to post a political view online about what an art venue should or shouldn’t do. 

Why was I so worried about others seeing my opinions? Shouldn’t this be what art is about, passionately asserting an opinion? Why had I never found out what my peers opinions were on these topics before? How had I never realised what a thorny and perhaps paradoxical thing Freedom of Expression can be?  Why was it that it took 3 controversies hot on the heels of one another for me to begin to ask these questions to myself? Why should it only be in the heat of the moment that I debate these issues with my peers? Why did that debate initiate online and not in person? 

I decided to respond in the only way I know how: theatre.

Why do you believe fighting against censorship is important for the arts?

You are assuming that I am fighting against all censorship. One thing that I have learned doing these plays is that the subject is complicated. Depending on the context my opinion sways. This debate within myself I want the audience to experience and understand that everything is not as black and white as they may have originally thought.

Walking the Tightrope will be performed at the Underbelly from the 5th – 16th, and the 18th – 31st of August. 


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