Summer at the Traverse by Jack Tarlton

By Jack Tarlton /

My strongest memory of the Traverse Theatre from when I was young is still the seats. Huge felt covered steps that you had to clamber up to get to the top of the auditorium. Rough and exciting they captured the spirit of the place, a converted sail makers’ studio, the lights of which you reached down a darkened close in the Grassmarket.

This was not the first incarnation of the Traverse though. That was in a former brothel in the Lawnmarket. The story goes that the seating there was arranged in two blocks either side of the stage, in transverse, but that someone got the word wrong and that this is how the theatre ended up with its unique name. I like this tale as, in effect, the theatre was named after the audience, the group of people that arrive as strangers and together with the performers conjure the show.

It was in its Grassmarket home that I got to know the Traverse. It was here that I was taken to see a huge array of strong, engaging plays. It was on this stage that I took my first panicky steps on stilts, tottering from one bank of worn felt steps to the next. Along with Theatre Workshop in Stockbridge (now abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair but that’s a story for another time) it was the Traverse that encouraged and fed a love of theatre in me from an early age. It was a place that I always wanted to work in. And now, seventeen years after leaving Edinburgh to start acting, I’m actually doing it.

The Traverse has been in its posh new home in Grindlay Street for nearly 20 years now. I remember it being built and once again seeing some fantastic stuff – Bondagers, Moscow Stations and Gagarin Way remain strong memories. These were all performed in Traverse 1, the larger of its two spaces. We are performing The Golden Dragon in Traverse 2, which I believe was constructed to have the same dimensions as the old Grassmarket theatre. In fact, when Traverse 2 first opened I’m sure it still had the old felted oversized steps from its previous home.  I remember watching an early performance of Disco Pigs from them, the actors, atmosphere and audience sweaty and charged.

Now however, it is nondescript blue fold down chairs that our audience sits on. A shame, as these seats could belong to any theatre anywhere. But they can be moved and reconfigured more easily making the playing space much more flexible. And by the end I admit the previous auditorium was looking pretty threadbare and warped. If one person sat down particularly heavily it was possible for their neighbour to spring up with the force.

Even if for me the most loved thing about the old Traverse no longer remains it is still an incredibly exciting space to play. It does feel like coming home. I was nervous not just for the obvious reasons during the first few shows, as being here is a culmination of something that started when I was a shy boy who suddenly decided he wanted to be an actor. On the first preview my old art teacher who I had spent hours talking to about theatre when at school came to watch it. I was delighted to see her but it also threw up the spectre of my teenage self, someone that very few people like to be reminded of. It did not feel quite real somehow, us chatting about a preview that I was still not sure had gone that well with someone who I had once spoken over earnestly to about acting when it was something that other people did.

But now I am doing it and I do still get a kick out of coming to work every day. The dream has become a reality and that reality is far more rewarding. Simple acts like getting a coffee, mucking about in the dressing room, warming up, making friends, chatting about other plays we’ve seen or having a pint after the show are more fulfilling than I could have imagined. It has been a fantastic summer.

And I can just see a wee boy sitting at the top of a bank of huge grey felt seats enjoying the show.

Jack Tarlton


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