Adventures in Edinburgh

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I am recently back from a trip to the Edinburgh Festivals, which offer what may be the richest, most varied and most genuinely international collection of common cold viruses in the world. Coming home with ‘festival flu’ is, apparently, all part of the experience. In five days we went to 15 events and 2 exhibitions; some were professional, some amateur; some charged for entry, others didn’t (interestingly, this is not quite the same division as pro/am); and covering comedy, music, theatre, visual arts and cultural commentary. I also came home with incipient artistic indigestion.

I’ll have some specific thoughts to tease out in response to some of these events (and/or in response to the peculiar juxtaposition of some of these events) in future posts. But in the first instance, I’d like to mull on some general points about the nature of the Fringe Festival in particular, and the effect it has on both the performers involved and the performances they produce.

If you don’t know much about the Fringe (I didn’t before this trip; excuse me if this is stating the obvious to everyone else!), it runs for the majority of August, alongside the Edinburgh International Festival, which is both older and more artistically prestigious. The International Festival, for instance, uses larger and more up-market venues, and actually puts together a programme designed to showcase high-quality artists. The Fringe takes all comers and puts them in any space they can persuade to host events.

So, you might think that a festival that has absolutely no filters on content might include a lot of embarrassingly unskilled performances. And, to be fair, there are some genuinely dire shows on offer. We experienced one in a fit of spontaneity, having found that the show we had intended to attend had been cancelled, so popped in to an adjacent venue that had something just starting. We could tell immediately that it was going to be terrible, but decided to stick it out as part of the overall variety and richness of the experience.

But, you know, even this truly grim offering had a certain something. It was fluently and confidently awful. It may have lacked originality, coherence, self-awareness and joie de vivre, but it was nonetheless fully committed to its unwittingly miserable dullness. And it brought into focus why this festival is so valued as a means for grass-roots artists to grow.

Fringe performers may not need to pass any vetting for their artistic skills, but it still takes a huge effort and financial commitment to get there. The logistical planning starts months in advance, quite apart from generating the material for the actual show. Most Fringe performers make significant losses: they shell out for travel and accommodation, venue fees and advertising, as well as losing income and/or using up their annual leave for all the time they are in Edinburgh rather than their day job. Returns from door-takings, meanwhile, are very uncertain. No wonder they perform with commitment; just getting there is already an expression of single-minded intent.

And once they are there, they perform repeatedly. Where else, in everyday life, does an amateur performer get the chance to do the same show day after day after day? Amateur dramatics or operatics groups may have a run of four or five performances, but rarely more than that. A Fringe performer can perform every day for 25 days; and while many come only for a week or two, many also do exactly this.

This builds up a sense of momentum, an intensity of experience, that makes sense of the willingness of so many performers to take such financial risks. Yes, you blow your savings, but you learn more as an artist than you are going to achieve the rest of the year put together. It’s not just the quantity of stage time, but the interval between performances is short enough that the last is still fresh in memory when the next comes around. You get to build.

And as a bonus, of course, you get to see other shows. For the 23 hours a day you’re not on stage yourself, you have a cornucopia of offerings from your peers on your doorstep. The sense of artistic enrichment I got just from visiting the festival is there as your basic substrate of experience. I suspect performers who are there for the month don’t go to quite so many shows every day as I did in a short visit or they would really burn out, but I can certainly see why some of the month-long performer friends I ran into looked rather punch-drunk with it all.

There are those who consider the Edinburgh experience to be over-rated, over-crowded and expensive. And you couldn’t say they didn’t have a point. But I also get why those people who come home completely lit-up love it so much. There is a particular tone of voice people use about ‘going to Edinburgh’, and now I see why.

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