The Ten Fringe Commandments

Originally published in TN2 Magazine as: Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Ten Fringe Commandments. A Heavenly Guide to Navigating the Holiest of Fringes

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Ask anyone interested in the arts what they think of when they hear “Edinburgh” and what will they say?

(Don’t say Trainspotting or Jean Brodie, you’ll ruin my point.)

Yes, that’s right, it’s the Edinburgh Festivals.

For four weeks every August, the city is taken over by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, though I have yet to attend that one). Both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were established seventy years ago in 1947 and, with the recent news that the Scottish Government has pledged an additional 10 million in funding for the Festivals; they are set to continue for a long time yet. The International Festival was founded in the wake of World War Two by Rudolph Bing and Henry Harvey Wood as a curated festival where high-quality theatre, music, dance and opera productions are brought from across the world to Edinburgh by invitation of the Festival Director. However, Fringe had a more interesting beginning (and arguably a more interesting future), and so it’s the Fringe that I am here to write about. The Fringe had a less official beginning in 1947 when eight theatre companies arrived in Edinburgh, uninvited, to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival. Though they were not there under the official auspices of the Festival, they made use of the already-present audiences and staged their work in alternative venues on…you’ve guessed it…the fringes of the International Festival. These performers set a precedent for others to imitate them in following years and the Fringe grew as a volunteer led event until 1958 when the Festival Fringe Society formed, formalising the Fringe’s existence and has continued to grow since then to become the World’s largest arts festival. To this day the Fringe Society follows the same basic principles of the original Fringe; though they will organise bookings, programmes and co-ordination of the thousands of productions that are staged, there is no vetting process like there is in the International Festival. As they say on their own website, the will include in the programme “anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.”

Despite that torrent of information I just delivered, and the fact that I am a massive theatre addict, until this year I had never been to Edinburgh during festival time, but with both the International Festival and the Fringe celebrating their 70th year in 2017, I chose the right year for my first visit. As I was over reviewing work at the Fringe with the Network of Independent Critics for the last week in August, I had a jam-packed week in which  saw twenty-two shows, wrote many words, and walked many, many miles. I dived in at the deep-end, programme clutched to my chest, and spent a week sprinting from venue to venue up and down the city’s many hills and steps, fuelled by coffee, baked potatoes and a wild enthusiasm for theatre.

It was fantastic.

However, with 3,398 shows running at Fringe this year (and probably as many if not more next year), and the streets filled with excitement, performances, posters and, well, Fringe, it’s easy to find yourself drowning a little in the deluge of flyers, choices and chances, so I have put together a wee list to let you learn from my mistakes and get you acquainted with Edinburgh and the Fringe.

 

The Ten Fringe Commandments:

 

  1. Thou shalt not plan thy Fringe to the very last minute.

(There are always a few gems you may have missed in the programme. Leave yourself time and space to discover new things.)

  1. Thou shalt not narrow thine options.

( Sure, you may not think you’ll like that Morris Dance show about Madonna and existentialism, but you might surprise yourself. The thing you take a chance on may be terrible, but you might just stumble upon the next Pythons.)

  1. Thou shalt sleep.

(This is the voice of experience. You feel invincible at the start and going to that breakfast show after going to that gig that began at 2am seems entirely reasonable, but remember to pace yourself. By the end of a week you’ll be glad you pencilled in time to sleep.)

  1. Man cannot live on hasty snacks alone.

(Same as above. Nature Valley bars are great, but have at least one decent meal a day. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, cook and freeze a few basic meals in advance, and remember that Edinburgh has a lot of delicious places to eat; leave space in your budget to explore a few of them.)

  1. Thou shalt remember to wear layers and comfortable shoes.

(Prepare for every season and lots of walking.)

  1. Thou shalt check and double-check thy venues.

(You don’t want to be left racing from Pleasance Courtyard to Pleasance Dome at the last minute.)

  1. Thou shalt leave thyself time.

(On a similar note to the sixth commandment, make sure you have time to get between shows and leave yourself some contingency time. I thought it would be no problem to trot the five minute walk between venues in the ten-minute gap between shows, but I forgot that the five minute walk was up a sizeable hill. I could have lit the whole show with the glow from my beetroot, breathless face.)

  1. Thou shalt talk to strangers.

(No, I don’t mean the scary ones down dark alleyways, but chat to the person next to you in the queue at box office or when you’re hanging around venues. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to discover exciting work you might not have heard of otherwise.)

  1. Thou shalt remember that there is more to Edinburgh than the Festivals.

(With all the festival-ing, don’t forget to take some time out to clear your head. Lots of people decide to climb Arthur’s Seat, but if you’re looking for a less strenuous escape take yourself for a picnic at the Botanic Gardens or have a wander round one of the city’s many museums and galleries.)

  1. Thou shalt enjoy thyself.

(The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world; throw yourself in, enjoy the unexpected, make memories and have fun!)

Now, my young Fringelings, you have a year to prepare. Go forth, write plays, save money, play “Yes, and…,” get excited for Fringe and let these commandments help you on your way.

Little Acorns

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Last month I went to Theatre Forum’s All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (APAC) for the first time and it was brilliant. I left Sligo having done the seemingly impossible and become even more excited about my career choice and even more enthusiastic about the arts. The spark for this was the torrent of ideas and that flowed over the course of the two days. There were myriad inspiring and interesting talks from practitioners and people such as poetician Brigitta Jónsdóttir and Sir John Tusa and, just as importantly, there was constant conversation flowing around the venue, in the hotel and even travelling to and from Sligo. The conversation made its way onto Twitter and Facebook and just a few days ago podcasts of the talks were published on Theatre Forum’s website, giving anyone and everyone with access to the internet a chance to engage. (The podcasts are available here. Have a listen to some of the fantastic speakers, and keep an ear out for yours truly!)

This sort of sharing of thoughts, opinions and ideas is invaluably important in the arts. All too often ideas are kept in little locked drawers until they are perfected, until the finished product has been completed, and I think this needs to change. I’m as guilty of hiding away some piece of work that I may love but can’t entrust to anyone else until it is finished. But it never is. Art is always evolving and changing. Take a show for example; does it stay exactly the same for every night of the run? Of course not; the performers and crew change it slightly each night whether consciously or unconsciously reacting to events and surroundings. A song will change with every performance, with every voice that sings it. A poem will never be read in exactly the same way by two different people. A painting will look different from every angle and in every kind of light. Just like this, an idea will never quite be the same for each person, and that is the beauty of it. As soon as you share an idea it begins to grow, it takes breath and energy from whoever sees it from a similar, but refreshingly different angle to yours.

So I say talk to someone about your grand idea. Read a friend that poem that you think is a bit rubbish. Tell your housemate what it is that you have been cooped up writing for the past three evenings, only emerging from your room to replenish biscuit supplies and refill your teapot. Release your idea into the world, like a kite soaring into the sky guided by the string in your hand.

As Goethe once wisely said:

“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward: they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”

Paved Paradise and Put up a Parking Lot

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I study English and drama at university. I read plays and novels instead of medical handbooks, I do practical classes and performances instead of placements, I use literary quotes instead of formulas to back up my arguments, and most of all, I don’t have a clear cut career path ahead of me. Therefore, I am perceived as doing a “soft subject.” We live in a society that is ever increasingly valuing productivity over interesting, balanced, varied lives. To do an arts subject is seen as foolish, the preserve of the privileged or a non-serious degree choice. They are the degrees that you will end up re-training after because, after all, can you really make a living from a drama degree, an English degree, or a music degree? The answer, to that question is yes, if only we allow each other to do so, if only the government and wider population change the way they think and act towards the arts sector.

We are not even half way through 2015 and already we have seen an 11.2% cut to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s funding, the loss of Queens Festival Belfast, 44% cuts to Tinderbox and Kabosh theatre companies, strikes by the underpaid staff of the National Gallery in London against the government’s plans for privatisation, an 84% funding cut to O’Brien press, and the move to “text-by-text” funding for a lot of publishing houses in Ireland, amongst other cuts and detrimental changes. Yes, the governments need to make savings, but we cannot continue to allow the arts to be a soft target for cuts.

We need to change the image of the arts sector. It is not just an occasional night out at the theatre that we could miss and not be too upset about, it is not just a gallery full of old paintings that really, we could just buy a €5 print of online, and it is not just the latest bestseller that you figure you will buy when the hype and price has dropped. The arts are a vibrant and essential part of our lives. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” If we continue to allow our arts sector to be driven into the ground by cut after cut, dismissing it as a disposable frivolity, then we will very soon find ourselves in a much less colourful world, a world lacking our greatest outlet for expression, a world without one of its major forces for change, and a world which has lost a part of what it is to live. As the quote from Bertolt Brecht (which lives on a post-it above my desk) puts it, “Every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living.”

We need to stop seeing the arts as a subject taught occasionally as a break from the “proper subjects” in primary school, as a soft subject in secondary school and university, as an expendable luxury, and as an easy target for cutbacks. It is time we recognised the arts for the powerful and valuable force in society that they are.

World Theatre Day

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Happy World Theatre Day! Today is a day to celebrate theatre in all its forms, to celebrate practitioners and audiences alike.

We are living in a time where the arts are facing huge funding cuts, where artists, companies and venues are struggling to continue, and where the arts are more important than ever. Theatre has the power to change lives, and yet it is all too often dismissed as a non-essential luxury. It is time to realise the true value of the vibrant theatre community we have in Ireland and across the world. We need to advocate, support and celebrate theatre today, tomorrow and every day.

Check out director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s inspirational World Theatre Day message at the link below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3fdXeALRzk&feature=youtu.be

Stories from the Front

Liberty Hall
14/1/15
First Fortnight Festival

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Based on Boal’s Forum Theatre method, “Stories from the Front,” one of the final events of First Fortnight, weaved together recorded narrative, onstage performance and audience discussion about the topic of mental health to create an evening of powerful theatre that informed the minds and emotions of the audience.

Boal developed Forum theatre as part of his concept of “The Theatre of The Oppressed.” In this form of theatre, the audience is free to stop the actors at any point in the production and alter the performance to make it better represent the situation (most often pertaining to a social or political issue) they are portraying. This idea came through Boal’s reasoning that an actor can only ever really perform their own ideas as even when they are supposedly performing the ideas of others; it is through a lens of their own subjectivities. This production did not follow the exact format of forum theatre but instead combined elements of it with its own particular style to create an individual, powerful piece of theatre.

The piece followed the stories of a number of people who have suffered with mental health issues and those who have cared for them. Each segment opened with recorded interviews which then informed the performances, which were carried out by the people interviewed. The fact that the people whose stories were being performed acted them was very effective. It meant that the performances were less polished; however, they were raw and honest portrayals of the people’s experiences. The experiences behind the stories lent a true passion and reality to the scenes that brought them to a new plane and heightened the audiences’ connection to the narratives.

Further engaging the audience, the opportunities provided to them to comment, make suggestions and share their thoughts made this show a truly moving and educating experience. New perspectives on mental illness and new ideas were uncovered at every turn, but the overriding thought behind this piece was that of the importance of empathy and human understanding.

This show was a valuable experience that taught me a lot. If it is ever repeated, I would highly recommend that anyone with any interest in theatre, social change, mental health issues, and essentially, helping other human beings, should see it.