If life is a cabaret, Silencio is the VIP lounge.
When Laura Cameron Lewis and Jennifer Williams founded what’s become Edinburgh’s most opulent after-hours affair just more than a year ago, they tapped into an audience’s desire for glamorous excess hitherto only explored in clubland. Their mix-and-match extravaganza takes in theatre, performance art, poetry and music, and Silencio’s monthly Thursday-night shows at Edinburgh’s Counting House have become a main event, and an all-too-rare chance to sparkle in the capital’s dreich social calendar. ”I’ve always had aspirations to make Edinburgh a centre for contemporary art,” says Cameron Lewis, putting together the programme for this week’s event, ”which I can safely say, in terms of performance, it isn’t.” As sweeping a statement as this might be, there’s truth at its heart. ”Edinburgh has a problem in housing emergent forms,” says Cameron Lewis, who cut her performance teeth with the inventive Laboratorium 33 company at Richard Demarco’s venues, ”because there’s no obvious space for it the way there is in Glasgow, with Tramway or the CCA, and no underground spaces like The Chateau.” The Chateau, of course, has become famous as the spiritual home of quintessential art rockers-turned-chart stars Franz Ferdinand. Only a couple of weeks ago, Cameron Lewis’s parallel venture, fledgling theatre company Highway Diner, supported the band at an aftershow party following the Glasgow date of its tour. Doing excerpts from an opaque piece of performance art before an audience of 400 people desperate to see the band in an informal club sounds a terrifying prospect. The company, however, rose to the occasion. Such fearless risk-taking is an integral part of the Silencio experience. ”It can be scary,” Cameron Lewis admits, ”especially with new work, but that’s what makes things fresh, and it’s what makes us excited about it.” Inspired by David Lynch and Moulin Rouge, the speakeasy vibe the pair have created at Silencio recalls the decadence of Cabaret Futura, London’s early-1980s art happenings curated by Richard Strange. These shindigs featured the likes of ex-punk Richard Jobson reciting an adapted version of Sylvia Plath’s poem, Daddy, followed by Strange’s contemporary dance interpretation of D M Thomas’s Freudian novel, The White Hotel. A more recent resemblance is to C’est Vauxhall, the Herald Angel-winning performance event brought to the Edinburgh Fringe by Duckie. While Silencio may not have reached such multi-media crescendos yet, they can’t be far behind. Having hooked up with the talents behind the Big Word performance poetry club, the latest Silencio forms part of this year’s Dialogues festival of new music and new media. That such connections are being made reveals just how mind-expanding Silencio’s intentions are. ”Coming at performance from a visual art context rather than an actor-led context or a new writing context,” Cameron Lewis say, ”there’s no separation of media, and Silencio is set up in such a way there are a lot of spaces in between acts. This allows time to absorb not just what’s going on, but what’s going on behind what’s going on if you like, exploring the relationship between performance and reality. Basically sometimes that can boil down to having an excuse to dress up in something outlandish and play a part.” It’s rare to find performers of Silencio and Highway Diner’s calibre so readily in touch with their own artifice. This almost certainly has to do with roots in performance theory taught at Dartington College in England, where collaborators of dance legend Merce Cunningham introduced Cameron Lewis and others to less linear forms of creative expression than those accepted as the norm in theatre’s well-built mainstream. This led to more exploratory ways of working which, in this country, only Grid Iron, Suspect Culture and Vanishing Point are attempting. Unlike the Silencio/Highway Diner axis, however, all such companies have their feet firmly planted in the theatre world, with all the freedoms and counterpointing restrictions that implies. All too often, formal legislation has caused many young companies to be strangled at birth. This is something Cameron Lewis is acutely aware of. ”I think public funding would make things different for us,” she says. ”It would compromise what we’re trying to do, because we’d have to spend so much time having to tick all the right boxes, none of which we really fit into, that the work we want to do would be stifled. At the moment Silencio just about pays for itself, but we certainly don’t make anything off it. We won’t be able to sustain that forever and stay interested, but that’s okay, because these things do have a finite life.” In the immediate future, Silencio may be forced to relocate from the bijou Counting House to bigger premises due to demand. At last month’s first birthday event more than 150 people were crammed into the main room to witness 15 acts. The most likely venue for Silencio is the main room of Ego, the club housed in a former casino, and which played host to Duckie last year. The pair are also ”shopping around” for more creative spaces on a par with The Chateau. ”The worst thing that could happen,” Cameron Lewis says, ”is for it to get too big so it becomes a vic- tim of its own success. We’re already surprised at how big it’s become. But having said that, there isn’t anything else like Silencio, and that’s probably why people are so open to it. It’s become this wonderful hybrid, and even we aren’t sure how to define ourselves. We’re glamorous mongrels, I guess.”Silencio Dialogues 2004 special, The Counting House, West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, Thursday, 7.30pm-1am.