Edinburgh's Hogmanay: Feet First take giant steps

SYMON Macintyre walks me into a windowless industrial unit in Leith and switches off the lights. It's a disarming thing to do, but his purpose is immediately obvious. Standing radiant at three-and-a-half metres tall is a bulbous figure made of wicker, like an outsize basket Teletubby, draped in fairy lights and looking dazzling.

It has two bicycle wheels supporting the platform at its feet and a handle for steering it through the streets. Keeping close to a gas heater in this chilly shed, Macintyre's colleagues are weaving two more of these ethereal creatures. You can see the plasters on the weavers' knuckles where they've been jagged by the sharp sticks.

On New Year's Day, these enormous creations will be trundling over Edinburgh's Royal Mile, pushed by 10 operatives wearing illuminated helmets made from cutlery. The creatures are Wishgathers and they come with the promise to turn your every desire into tangible form.

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"They gather people's wishes up," says Macintyre, artistic director of the Puppet Lab. "The public makes a wish through a long tube into the ear, it gets mixed through a microphone with DJ controls altering the sound and then the wish gets turned into a Love Heart. It turns your wishes into sweet realities."

At any other time of the winter, this sight would be enough to turn heads on its own. The Wishgathers' group is, however, merely one of 18 pieces created by 120 Scottish artists for Feet First, a 265,000 event coordinated by the city's Boilerhouse theatre company. The free evening show takes place on the ground and in the air, down closes and behind windows, with a choice of performances taking place throughout its two-and-a-half hour duration. Organisers claim it is the biggest ever single commission of Scottish work.

"Nothing like this has happened in Britain before," says artistic director Paul Pinson, who is expecting an audience of 10,000. "In fact, there's nothing really like this in Europe. It's vast."

The evening will range from the quirky to the poignant. Ian Smith's Glasgow company Mischief La Bas will be staging a Market of Optimism, featuring cash dispensers handing out a special currency – the Neuro – which you can take to stalls to exchange for such products as an optimism renewal contract, a bile cannon to shoot away your worries and the rental of a guardian angel for five minutes.

Behind the seven windows of the city council's Collections Office, director Al Seed will be creating a living cartoon with the help of 22 physical theatre students. Meanwhile, enterprising actress Cora Bissett will put on a 30ft dress, suspend herself from a crane and perform a song from high above the Mercat Cross (with Grid Iron director Ben Harrison overseeing).

Some pieces are delicate, such as the light-based sculpture by students from Edinburgh College of Art. Others are raucous, such as Graham Tydeman's Aquaphon, a musical machine designed to spray water into the crowd. Edinburgh company Plutt la Vie is performing from two second-floor residential windows that happen to be opposite each other.

"As soon as people enter the space they will know they're in a performance arena," says Feet First producer Chlo Dear, who has commissioned large vortex-shaped portals to sit outside St Giles' Cathedral and the junction of Cockburn Street to define the area. "And if you really work at it, you can get to see all 18 shows."

Linking this profusion of oddball activity is the theme of "hope and optimism". Dear and Pinson approached a range of artists whose work seemed to have a street-theatre aesthetic and solicited their ideas for performances that could encapsulate the promise of the New Year.

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"From the one word 'hope', we've got all these different takes," says Pinson. "We've made links, so everybody adds to each other's work. Orkestra del Sol are going to play with Graham Tydeman's water machine, for example. I wanted to create a sense of them all being part of a big team."

The wealth and variety of their responses is testament, says Dear, to the untapped street-theatre talent at large in Scotland. "We're seeing these great ideas and helping to make them happen," says Dear, just back from Liverpool, where she checked out her aerial company Iron Oxide rehearsing Wish Box, the evening's high-level finale involving a mysterious cube dangling 15 metres in the air.

She wants to see Scotland following the example of France, where there are more than 200 street theatre companies. That we have almost none could, I suggest, have something to do with the weather, but the Feet First organisers think otherwise, although they are prepared for the worst and will reschedule the event to the next day if conditions make the event unsafe. They are adamant, however, that bad weather can happen anywhere and the real reason for Scotland's lack of activity is under-investment.

"It wasn't difficult getting 120 artists together," say Dear, looking forward to the introduction of an 830,000 grant from the Legacy Trust UK for street arts and circus in 2009. "There are a lot of people out there, it's just that they're surviving doing corporate work or in other countries. They're invisible."

"It's not weather dependent," adds Pinson. "People's desire for a collective experience is growing and I don't think the weather stops us at all. It's the lack of opportunities. The tradition of entertainment on the high street goes back to medieval times – it's not like this is new. There are logistical and technological parameters, and in the gestation of an idea we get the artists to bear those in mind. It means they're not doing things that are so exposed to the weather that they become risky."

They hope Feet First will help kick start Scotland's street theatre scene. If we invest now, they argue, then the opening and closing ceremonies of Glasgow's Commonwealth Games in 2014 could draw on the skills of a new generation of home-grown performers instead of importing artists from abroad. They have already said as much to First Minister Alex Salmond, who knows the value of projecting positive images abroad, so it could happen yet.

"Here is a sector of artists which is being given very few opportunities," says Pinson. "If you go to France, Germany or Spain, there is a completely different perception of artists who work outdoors. They are seen as legitimate theatre-makers who are just working in different environments with a different sensibility towards the audience."

Even if it takes a while for that sensibility to take root here there's a strong chance Scotland will export its new wares abroad. Representatives from at least nine international festivals will be here on January 1, and Pinson believes Feet First can travel. "They could buy individual shows or the concept of bringing a whole bunch of people together," he says. "There's a legacy of all this work. We should be doing this again and making it an annual thing."

• Feet First, High Street, Edinburgh, January 1, 7.30-9pm www.edinburghshogmanay.org/feetfirst

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