Sanjoy Roy on the magic of Edinburgh's festivals

Indian performers and artists have been part of the Edinburgh festivals for years.

Drawn by the unrivalled international exposure and unique atmosphere of the city, Indian talent got its first major breakthrough on the circuit in 2001 and has enjoyed success in the city ever since.

That year, six productions from India joined the ranks in Edinburgh to a warm reception. The Indian presence grew from there, with representation at the Edinburgh International Festival, the Tattoo and the Fringe, among many others.

Sanjoy Roy is no stranger to the Edinburgh festival circuit. He is the Managing Director of Delhi-based Teamwork Arts, which every year produces over 25 performing and visual arts and literary festivals in 11 countries, including the world’s largest literary gathering — the annual ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. With Teamwork Arts, Sanjoy has brought a number of productions to Edinburgh. We have an exclusive interview with him, talking about his experiences of the Edinburgh festival scene.

HOW would you describe Edinburgh Festival and Fringe to an Indian audience who have never been there—or even heard of it?

Sanjoy Roy: It’s the largest festival in the world and the most exciting. An incredible mix of artistic energy pours into Edinburgh every August from across the world, each individual bringing with them their unique stories of love and longing, hate and betrayal, hardship and valour. And above all, it’s a celebration of creativity and humanity.

When did you first come to Edinburgh? Do you remember what your first impressions of the city and its festivals were?

I first came to Edinburgh in 1999 thanks to Sushma Bahl and British Council India, who thought it was imperative for us to visit the festival. We were festival novices—we stayed in a B&B on Dalkieth Road past the commonwealth pool. We knew no one, so we used to see shows all day in a random way, picking what we thought was interesting from the Fringe brochure, before standing in line for a hot potato and making our way back on the night bus. There was no Festivals Edinburgh to make life easy and we were very much left to our own devices. It was an incredible discovery of the many delights that Edinburgh and its festivals had to offer, and the sheer outpouring of talent as we navigated through the Royal Mile or Princess Street.

Indian artists and performers have been coming to Edinburgh for the festivals for years. What is it about Edinburgh that attracts such a fantastic range of Indian and international talent? How do you think Indian artistic companies respond to the Fringe?

In 2001, we first presented six productions from India. We followed this up year on year with a larger offering, including at the Edinburgh International Festival, International Film Festival, Tattoo, International Book Festival and the Fringe. Each group came back with stories of their trials and tribulations, successes and challenges, and became brand ambassadors to the festival. We were effectively able to market the shows to other festival directors, who came to view our productions, and this was an enormous incentive for groups like the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, Lillette Dubai’s Prime Time Theatre, Dadi Pudumjee’s Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, Indian Ocean, Mrigya and Daksha Sheth Dance Company, who went on to travel the world from Wellington to Washington. However, there is much that still needs to be done. Some groups tend to come to Edinburgh with frugal budgets and excessive confidence and find it difficult to succeed in finding audiences.

Tell us about some of your most memorable Fringe and festival(s) moments over the years.

There must be at least a few dozen stories over the years that are both hysterical and tragic: one year, landing in Edinburgh via Moscow, our sets for the musical Bombay Meri Jaan were lost in transit and we opened the show at the Traverse without any backdrops, props or sets—and we were awarded the Herald Devil! Or the year when there was the liquid bomb scare at Heathrow and all of our collective baggage—puppets, props, briefcase and sets for Transposition—were lost. Each day we waited to hear from the flight company, only to have to cancel the show in the evening. Finally, BBC 1 did a story and that prompted the company to search through the hangar, which had become a graveyard for lost luggage. Dana received a call from a friend saying oddly sized, enormous packages were going around the carousel at arrival with her name on it—we hurried over, rescued them and the show went on. And what about the year we had superstar Shah Rukh Khan at the International Film Festival? We had warned them that they should program him in the biggest venue, as they had no idea how popular he was. They didn’t listen, and the tickets sold out within an hour of opening! The Times carried a headline the next day about scalpers selling seats for £100 each. Of course, we then moved it to the largest theatre available.

Can you tell us about some notable performances and productions staged at Edinburgh by Indian talent over the years?

I remember Othello in Black and White by Roysten Abel and Mrigya, the world music group, which won both the Herald Angles and Fringe First. Also, the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, and Daksha Sheth’s Sarpagati. Or the three-day exposition of classical dance at the Lyceum Theatre, with the most incredible dancers, and the all-night classical music performance at the Usher Hall, which ended at 6.30am to standing ovations.

What is the Indian representation like in 2016? Why are there only three productions this year? What are the challenges?

This year it is slim pickings. The best works from India find it difficult to raise the necessary resources to meet the expenses in Edinburgh. This is further compounded by the adverse exchange range from rupees to sterling. Some excellent productions from India are in languages other than English, and theatre groups worry about the acceptance of the work—especially when it is text-heavy. Navigating the needs of marketing and booking ideal venues is the other big challenge, given the investment required and the uncertainty that a group will secure visas.

What has the response for productions from India at the Fringe been like?

The reactions have been excellent—the productions have been very well received across the festivals. The Classicals series at the Lyceum and Usher Hall were sold out, as were many of our shows across the city, including Aurora Nova at St Stephens, Traverse Theatre, St Augustine’s, Zoo Southside, Dance Base and Assembly Rooms.

Last year, you presented Bollywood Love Story, a musical at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. How was that experience? Any similar plans for the future?

It was an incredible experience, largely due to the collaborative nature of the work. In previous years, we used to arrive like spaceships landing in and lifting off from Edinburgh. But the experience of remaining there as a large, diverse group and working with local dancers, as well as those from New Zealand, Canada and Australia, was amazing. The Tattoo is a challenging venue and you have to work to ensure you leverage its strengths and understand its complexities, including incessant rain, slippery surfaces, quick turnarounds and the need to be spectacular every second. But it was amazing to bring the colour and joy that we did, with an assembled cast of over 100 dancers, and we hope to create other work with the Tattoo.

What's the best show you've ever seen here?

A few that stand out are: Familie Floz, Casandra Now, James I, Gulliver's Travels, Nirbhaya, Exhibit B, Cirque, and Stranded.

...and the worst?!

That would be unfair! It’s true that the festivals throw up both good and mediocre work, but it would a rare group that sets out to create an average production. Everyone strives to do their best—circumstances, budgets, resources, poor scripts and occasionally acting skills conspire to bring a production down. Your favourite haunts in Edinburgh? Fish on Rose street, the whiskey bar, traverse theatre, George square, meadows, the fudge shop, and more importantly with all the fiends & friends that we have made one the years.

We've heard that you are a fabulous cook, and your cooking for opening-night parties is legendary. What recipes have you picked up from Edinburgh?

I dream up recipes at night when I sleep, especially if I have a meal to create the next day. Edinburgh throws up its own challenges of having to cut, chop, cook and clean—and all of this between shows and meetings, and, of course, assuming that a floating population of over 100 will dine at some point in the evening and are used to multiple dishes. Much of what I make in Edinburgh depends on what fish, meats, and vegetables I can source from the wet markets. I was inspired to make a spicy blueberry sauce to go with French beans from the Fredrick Street (or is it Hanover Street?) weekly market.