most actors have heard something of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe‹that it's fabulous, mostly. But coming to Scotland to perform defies hyperbole: There are 9,800 actors performing here! And that doesn't include the hundreds of street performers‹buskers, they're called‹who line High Street, juggling on a unicycle, swallowing flames, playing in string quartets, or blowing the ever-popular bagpipe. My first day there, a stoic piper in his native tartan stood, filling the bag with air and emitting that nostalgic sound while people moved up next to him, had their photograph taken, and deposited a coin in the waiting hat. The bagpiper just kept on impassively piping.
In a lot of ways, performing in the Fringe is just like that: Your job is to attract an audience, invite them to be identified with what you're doing, and then just keep on piping. The thing is, there is so much theatre and so many other performers doing exactly what you're doing, it's like you've just joined this coursing river. But it's not so much competition as it is belonging: a feeling of "we're all in this together" in an oddly non-competitive way. Whether it's raining or windy, or even if the sun comes out, the atmosphere in Edinburgh for the four weeks of the Festival is nothing but palpable theatre.
And if you're lucky enough to be performing, you're more at home in Edinburgh than anywhere else on earth. As for the performance itself, it's thoroughly heightened by the environment. Some of my co-players said it caused greater tension, some said they didn't notice a difference. For me, it made theatre an indigenous element, impossible to avoid, and there with every breath you take.
The Leaflet Life
To perform in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe seems the perfect way to take on the entire global theatre at large, centered as it is for the month of August in this medieval Scottish town. You think I'm exaggerating? Even the word festival can be problematic here, simply because there are so many of them going on. Briefly, here's the way it happens: At the center, there's an official Edinburgh International Festival, the kind that might take place at the Ahmanson or the Olympics or something. From this point of origin emerges the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (notice the reversal of modifiers), which has grown to such ubiquity that it outnumbers, and at times outshines, the nuclear international festival. This of course is to say nothing of concomitant festivals: Film, Book, Artisan, Jazz, even a juggling convention, all in full swing at the same time. But back to the Fringe: Classification of art form categories goes like this: Children, Comedy, Dance, Music, Musicals/Opera, Talks/ Events, Theatre, and Visual Art.
The first step for me was locating the Fringe Club, a place designated exclusively as the green room for all performers, well-equipped with a knowledgeable and friendly staff, fax and photocopy machines, computers, and every relevant piece of literature in neat little stacks for the taking‹a place for all 9,800 of us to get answers. The first time I walked out of there, I felt I was in the right place, aligned with that segment of this incredible community for which I had come. This was a particularly good thing, because out on the street, I was overwhelmed. Just reading the programme and figuring out which shows to see became a daunting task, not unlike finding your way up and down the labyrinthine cobblestone lanes.
As it turns out, every production in Edinburgh is only as good as its publicity: Leafleteers are everywhere, posters line buildings like paper graffiti. When we arrived, our show didn't have anything like that, so using the Club resources, I set out to produce some leaflets of our own. Then, when someone handed me a leaflet, I could return one of ours. It was a great feeling of connection, not only to your own show, but also to other leafleteers, and especially to that huge audience.
So your job as a performer quickly becomes getting out there and handing out leaflets. Where else can you make direct contact with your prospective audience and not be maligned for bad taste? This shameless act of self-promotion was so much fun, I actually did it for a couple of other shows I was crazy about. That's what I mean by an indigenous element: You breathe it, you speak it, and still you want more. The thing is, everyone is doing it, and in the process, you meet a large number of the other 9,800. It's a given: if you want an audience, you'll have a leaflet or a comp or a two-for-one ready at all times.
When you go to another show, you're considering first of all the expenditure of precious cash, so an informed decision can be important. Sharing a flat with six other American performers may seem like the perfect opportunity for pooling information, until you discover the subjective nature of opinion. Many bemused chin-strokings later, you develop your own system and set out on the true adventure. This adventure is continuous, the discoveries deeply personal. The thing is, you're seeing at least one show every day, usually more, so a kind of rarified atmosphere rules the day. You'd rather see a play than eat; you strike up conversations with fellow audience members, just to stay in the middle of things. You get home and fall into bed, actually looking forward to that nine o'clock call next morning.
Rock Around the Clock
We knew at the outset that the organization for our group was a little unconventional: One woman had acquired a venue, and then 10 original 10-minute one-acts, each with its own playwright and director. So of course all of these dying-to-go-to-Edinburgh actors responded to the call, contacted their playwright network, and got swept into the process. In the symbiotic tradition of the theatre, here were playwrights with material that fit her criteria, actors willing to travel, and a venue at this international fringe. What could go wrong?
A disparate group of actors and directors gathered the day before we opened to run the cue-to-cue. The venue was indeed well-located, and even with endemic jet-lag, enthusiasm ran high.
As it turned out, this producer, the woman with a venue, told my partner and me that we would only be performing half the number of times we had agreed upon in the States. What could we do now that we were 6,000 miles from any point of origin, and nothing in writing? That's when you see how badly you want to perform. You've traveled halfway around the world on a promise to give 12 performances of a 10-minute one-act, but you didn't count on an arbitrary producer. I know that politics such as these are not exclusive to Edinburgh, but the fact that we were reduced to begging for our original schedule left us with a firm resolve: Stay professional. Carry on. Keep on piping. Ultimately, we were allowed nine of the 12 scheduled shows.
At first, I thought that our 10:10 a.m. time slot would be a problem. Would people get up to see our show? Not to worry. The Fringe is organized to make this simple for audiences, who really are here to see shows‹a fact particularly comforting for this green American slightly anxious about an early start time and a reduced schedule. As it turned out, these audiences are not shy at all about showing up at 10 in the morning to see a show they know very little about.
Indeed, theatre happens from nine in the morning through the entire day and into the early hours of the following day. What we hadn't counted on was that these Edinburgh audiences know the drill: They're prepared to do whatever is necessary to see every show they can. In fact, it's impossible to see them all. People go home quite satisfied if they've seen 100 or so plays. I'm just talking plays now. In fact, 500 different performances are going on every day. The Fringe publishes a daily hour-by-hour guide to keep everything straight, and that includes everything (all of the above-listed festivals). That's when you realize the depth of devotion these audiences bring with them. They want it all. Sometimes they actually compete to see who can see the most shows. But there's no question about value: They want the most for their money.
Meantime, a special Festival supplement comes out in The Scotsman each day. The way this newspaper simplifies the review process is the star system: You get one, two, three, four, or five stars. They even have a scary feature called the "Page of Shame" for especially bad productions. Nope, they're definitely not shy about saying what they think of you. (Example: Ken Kesey, the Merry Prankster himself, was on the "Page of Shame" one day.) So we were quite elated when just three days into the run, our group of 10-minute one-acts appeared in The Scotsman with a color picture and a five-star review.
In some sense, my coming to Edinburgh represented a kind of completion of various ellipses. I worked in San Francisco with Viaduct, a company dedicated to presenting Celtic work. The producer, director, and some of the actors were from Glasgow; in fact, they're all in San Francisco now working on a new project. But coming to Edinburgh seemed a kind of fulfillment of something that got started in San Francisco. Earlier this year, I did a Nicola McCartney play, The Hanging Tree, at Edinburgh Castle Theatre Pub in San Francisco. Since The Hanging Tree was originally performed at the '97 Fringe, where our director discovered it, I was anxious to make the effort to meet her. As it turned out, she was premiering her new play, Transatlantic, at the Pleasance, and indeed I was able to meet her and some of her talented company, and of course, see her new play!
The Pleasance: Maybe I should explain what that means. There are more than 200 venues used in Edinburgh for the Fringe: Every available space gets commandeered to serve as a theatre, and through the inventiveness of directors and performers, most spaces are quite magically transformed. In addition, almost every venue runs its own caf /bar. Some venues, such as the Pleasance, the Assembly Rooms, the Traverse, Calder's Gilded Balloon, boast a number of theatres within a single venue. At the Pleasance, a large beer garden teems with people from morning till night, performers and audience alike, schmoozing about what they've just seen, anticipating the next show. And of course this happens at other venues as well. There are so many places to hang out with other actors, you don't know which to choose. It's the rampant problem in Edinburgh: so many shows, so little time.
Edinburgh is a place every actor should perform at least once. For an actor, it's the perfect environment for networking, as well as researching new plays. Looking for a new monologue? And speaking of reading plays, many scripts that are just not available in the States are available here in their first-published form. A non-acting friend of mine said that the atmosphere here reminded her of fraternity or sorority rush week, and to some extent that's true. The players are young, enthusiastic, crazy, wild. But they're also serious about their work, and at the end of the day, it's the work that counts. Next time I come to Edinburgh, I'll know more about what I'm headed for, and prepare accordingly.
As for this year, because of our review, maybe because of some of our leaflets, our show played to enthusiastic houses, people who came to Edinburgh to see theatre. In a way, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe arranged the meeting, and we met them in box office queues and in caf s, handing them leaflets. We got up early for tea and toast, we walked through the park going over our lines. We transferred our American sensibilities about production to this Scottish landscape, regardless of the politics that followed us here, and like the piper on High Street that first day, we too learned to stay focused, and to keep on piping. BSW/D-L