Flying in the Hothouse

Nov 7 2016 | By More

High wire trapeze at Traverse Hothouse

The Traverse is preparing for its annual Hothouse event, promoting four work-in-progress performances from Edinburgh-based companies, running this week from Tuesday 8 to Friday 11 November 2016.

Æ is more than usually excited about this year’s offerings, not just because one of these, Volante, concerns an aerial artiste who could dance the minuet on a high wire with a child attached to each foot. But writer Jen McGregor first read about her in the Annals of the Edinburgh Stage, JC Dibdin’s 19th century history which inspired this very website.

Volante publicity shot

Volante publicity shot

Truth be told, all four of the shows are hugely exciting. On Wednesday, Alice Mary Cooper uses clowning, verbatim text, projection and games in a performance that explores what it means to be contaminated in  Blue Cow. This is the same Alice Cooper who made the fascinating (and sadly false) history of the butterfly stroke Waves.

On Thursday, Bite Theatre bring an early showing of a devised verbatim piece which seems to be a theatrical response to the horrors of the Brexit for those who have made Britain their home. (Can This Be) Home, directed by Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir with music by Tom Oakes, asks where home becomes if you have moved away from where you were born and raised.

Then on Friday the fab young company Black Dingo Productions stage a rehearsed reading of Scribble, Andy Edwards’ new play about what it means to have mental health issues right now. The company has been responsible for some fascinating and thought-provoking work in recent years.

But to get back to the Italian aerial artiste: Marian Violante, whose life is being celebrated by Fronteiras Theatre Lab with Volante, on Tuesday 9. Here’s the writer, Jen McGregor, on her subject:

Mariana Violante was an Italian rope walker, born in 1682. Her troupe toured Europe, performing commedia dell’arte and dance routines on tightropes and slackwires, and eventually became so successful that they performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London by royal command. Violante was famous for dancing a minuet (a difficult dance at the best of times) on a rope rigged over the stalls, with a child suspended from each foot. There are also stories about a routine she performed in Edinburgh, crossing the Grassmarket on a highwire while riding a donkey and playing a trumpet… though I think that one has probably grown in the telling.

Around 1735 her husband died in an accident during a performance in Bristol. Violante’s troupe disbanded and she moved to Edinburgh, where she got involved with an attempt to establish a playhouse in Carruber’s Close. She gave a few more performances, but she seems to have lost her appetite for rope dancing and began to focus on teaching dance instead. Accounts vary as to whether her dancing school was a success – some claim that she was the most sought-after teacher for the children of Edinburgh’s great and good, but I’ve also found gossip about balls cancelled due to poor ticket sales and scandals over a student’s lost diamond ring.


Since it’s so difficult to establish the truth about her life due to scant documentation and conflicting rumours, I decided to write what I’d call a variation on the theme of history instead of attempting a factual retelling of her life. I wanted to explore the pressures of inventing and reinventing one’s own identity, the joys and perils of experimenting with self-presentation, and Edinburgh’s unchanged nature as a compact city where gossip can spread like wildfire. It’s partly an 18th century story, partly a 21st century one, influenced by history but not bound by it. We’ve been describing it as rococo-punk.

I’m working with Brazilian director Flavia D’Avila, whose most recent show, La Nina Barro, has been playing all over the world since 2014. It has won awards in the USA, been selected for prestigious festivals in Latin America… and got censored here in Edinburgh for containing nudity. Flav specialises in visual theatre and physical performance, often with very little text, so it’s quite an adventure to have her working on my script. Her approach is very different to directors I’ve worked with before, and I love it.

Volante in rehearsal. Photo: Jen McGregor

Volante in rehearsal. Photo: Jen McGregor

The cast consists of Laura Pasetti and Daniel Hird. Laura is best known as a director over here – she’s Artistic Director of Charioteer Theatre, for whom she wrote and directed A Bench on the Road which toured Scotland last month. But before dedicating herself to her work as a director in Scotland, Laura was an established actor in Italy. She trained and worked at the Piccolo Theatre under Strehler – the list of people she’s worked with is like a who’s who of European theatre. By contrast, Daniel Hird is an emerging actor who has been training under Laura and recently made his debut at the Piccolo playing the lead in #SonsOfGod: Vox, a reimagining of Coriolanus. He’s a very exciting newcomer to the Scottish theatre scene.

I’m thrilled to be sharing this work in progress at Hothouse. Being under pressure to finish the draft and have something reasonably coherent to present has been a useful discipline, and I’m looking forward to getting the audience’s reactions. The feedback we get will help to shape the next draft, so everyone who shares their thoughts with us becomes part of the play’s progress in their own way. It’s a massive privilege.

We’re hoping that after Hothouse we’ll get to present the finished piece in 2017 when Previously… Scotland’s History Festival relaunches. That’s certainly the aim, subject to programmes being finalised and whatnot. It was the Festival Director, Susan Morrison, who first suggested that I write a play about Violante – I’d come across her when I read The Annals of the Edinburgh Stage for something I was researching years ago, but I hadn’t dug any deeper. It was only when Susan told me the stories she had learned while working on a documentary in which Violante featured that I saw her dramatic potential. Basically, Susan dared me to write it, so I did. She’ll see the results on the 8th, and hopefully she’ll be pleased with the thing she caused to happen.

And since people keep asking, the title’s not a typo – “volante” means “flying”, so it seemed appropriate for someone who spent her life dancing over people’s heads. According to Flav it also means “steering wheel” in Portuguese and is the name of a dance craze similar to the whip and nae nae, but any subtext derived from that is purely coincidental…
© Jen McGregor. November 2016


Traverse, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED. Phone booking: 0131 228 1404
Tuesday 8 – Friday 11 November 2016.
Evenings: 8pm.
Tuesday 8: Volante from Fronteiras Theatre Lab, directed by Flavia D’Avila.
Wednesday 9: Blue Cow Alice Mary Cooper.
Thursday 10: (Can This Be) Home. Brite Theatre, directed by Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir.
Friday 11: Scribble. Black Dingo, writer: Andy Edwards.



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