Burns Night is celebrated in some style in Dumfries, with three days of music, theatre and carnival. Graham Main describes how thousands of local people take part and many more attend.

Image of carnival performers
Carnival performers in dragon costumes at the Burns statue

Colin Hattersley

Few eighteenth century poets could inspire a mid-winter mass participation contemporary arts festival. Fewer still have such a place in popular culture that tickets for an event they inspired would sell from a box office in the local Morrisons store. Robert Burns is different, and so is the Big Burns Supper (BBS), a three-day festival of music, performance, cabaret, comedy and even carnival wrapped round the Bard’s birthday on 25 January in Dumfries.

We are in our third year now, so still very young, but expect around 2,500 local people to take part and anticipate a total audience of 20,000. These are substantial numbers for a large and sparsely populated region, but more important than size is the fact that many audience members and participants are people who normally have little involvement with live arts. And we are now beginning to generate a national and international reputation as a fun and high-quality event.

That is partly thanks to the Scottish government’s recognition that after Christmas and Hogmanay, Burns Night can be marketed as a third Scottish winter festival. With Burns suppers held across the planet from Utah to Ulan Bator, and most Westerners knowing some Burns, even just a line or two of Auld Lang Syne, we believe it has huge potential.

At its core are productions... which have been created over a period of months with schools and the wider community

Dumfries is my home and a reality I grew up with is that the town, and the wider region, are relatively weak on performance art. In addition, the habit of going to see live events is often not firmly embedded. The Electric Theatre Workshop, which organises BBS, has been trying to turn this round by building an infrastructure that encourages participation and simultaneously develops audiences. And the festival itself – this year featuring over 100 events and performances – aims to have the broadest possible appeal by offering a mix of well-known acts and community productions. On the one hand we have Big Country and Fred MacAulay and on the other there is Blood Orange, a dark, sexy and brutal play by our own youth theatre. As a result we have seen the emergence of a fringe culture.

In the past people might have booked tickets for one event in the town – to see a band or go to the cinema, and that was that. Now, when BBS is on, they look around for what else they can do and even, anecdotally, to see how many shows they can pack into one day. That really is a change! While the headline acts and performances involving loved ones draw people towards events that they might not otherwise have tried.

Atmospheric venues and a desire to expand on the legacy of Burns Night celebrations (rather than just the work of the poet himself) have also been critical. One example is that we use historic locations like The Globe Inn (the poet’s favourite watering hole), which hosts award-winning ten-minute Burns suppers. The hiring of a fabulous Spiegeltent has also been a winner.

BBS has also brought a fundamental innovation. Burns Night has evolved through private celebrations, with clubs and organisations holding dinners with specific rituals. These are great, but we wanted to see the Bard made public, to employ 25 January to promote the best of contemporary and traditional Scottish culture in the way Ireland does with St Patrick’s Day. As Burns was famous for his bawdry, one thing we have thrown in this year is a Burlesque Burns Supper. What would a man who was so fond of women, and vivid imagery, make of a nearly naked aerialist spinning across a large 1920s-style mirrored tent as the audience fills up on haggis, neeps, tatties and the odd drink?

Yet the heart of BBS is neither this glorious frivolity, nor the household names. At its core are productions, from the small to the very large, which have been created over a period of months with schools and the wider community. Last year a show called ‘We Can Be Heroes’ involved 1,000 people and put 500 on stage – for many it was a first. The project saw us send out ten performance specialists to work with communities across Dumfries and Galloway. There was a major problem when heavy snow forced the show to be cancelled. However, the rescheduled event brought in audience-packed minibuses from distant coastal and upland communities.

Success requires a long-term strategy rather than one-offs. And again, that means building from the ground up. One of this year’s productions, 'Torch Song', underlines the point. Ten songs about love have been chosen by vocalists, who each explain the meaning it has had in their lives. It is attracting an audience because it is real people and real lives. But a couple of years ago it would have been impossible. First we had to create a community choir, which now has 140 members. Then we had to coax some of its members to cross from song to speech, putting their hearts on the line by writing and performing a monologue.

This year we will also be holding the Homecoming Carnival, lit by up to 1,000 lanterns, with a procession of 2,000 local residents. Costumes and lanterns have been provided by school students and adult volunteers. Indeed, 300 young people were taken off curriculum for a week during which our performance specialists gave them a total immersion experience in everything from dance and circus skills, to costume and set design.

BBS 2014 will also have pop-up performances about the history of the town and its people, plus half a dozen strategically ‘abandoned’ cars which have been decorated by street artists. The more we do, the more we tweak people’s curiosity. Some of it takes people along a direct route to Burns and his poetry; much of it reflects his values and his zest for life. Ultimately, if Burns’ own sense of joy remains central to what we do then BBS and its audiences will continue to grow.

Graham Main is Founder and Director of Big Burns Supper and Director of the Electric Theatre Workshop.

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