Performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is like juggling fire while riding a 7-foot-tall unicycle in front of a crowd. If you know what you're doing, you won't get hurt. You might even entertain the "punters," as they call them here.
I'm at the #EdFringe as it's hashtagged, doing a 25-performance run of my solo play Sweater Curse: A Yarn about Love. I wrote it in 2012 and as I typed the words "end of play" on the last page I had the insane idea of taking it to the 2013 Fringe and performing it myself.
You may know me as a theater critic and as co-founder of TheaterJones. But I've also written plays on and off for years. And back in the Cenozoic Era, I did some acting. I wasn't good at it then. I'm better at it now, thanks to my director, Tim Hedgepeth, and from watching great actors on Dallas stages teach me with their performances for more than a decade.
Being onstage was never a particular dream of mine. But this little play about knitting, about Penelope's shroud, Madame DeFarge, Bette Davis and the boyfriends I tried and failed to knit sweaters for, means something to me. I want to tell these stories first. I hope other actresses will do it later, too.
Getting my 55-minute "gentle comedy" to this summer's Fringe took about a year of prep. There are thousands of details to attend to as a Fringe participant, including reams of paperwork to the U.K. promising you aren't moving here to take a real job and that you won't be earning enough money to be taxed. Nobody makes a farthing at the Fringe—it costs a LOT of American dollars just to bring a simple one-woman show to a 30-seat venue. Fundraising, oy. But I did it. A lot of it.
The toughest part of getting to the Fringe is getting to the Fringe. Doing all that stuff you do to get a show up and running, and doing it as many times as you can to polish the performance before bringing it to the audiences in Edinburgh.
The Fringe started in 1947 when nine theater companies showed up uninvited to the annual Edinburgh International Festival, which was launched after WW II as a way of boosting the arts and national pride. Glasgow was badly bombed in that war; Edinburgh wasn't. When a critic wrote that interesting things were "happening on the fringe," the name stuck.
The scope of the Fringe has grown every year. This summer's is the biggest EdFringe yet, with more than 800 plays in venues ranging in size from thousand-seat auditoriums to basements under pubs on tucked away off cobblestone lanes. Curtain times could be 8 a.m. or 1 a.m. (Mine is 1:15 p.m.) Most shows run an hour or less. Some venues are operated by professional teams with full box office, front-of-house and backstage staffs; others are slapdash let's-put-on-a-show outfits that charge nothing for admission and just pass a bucket for contributions, which they split with the performers.
There are dozens of top-name stand-up comedy acts here (Rich Hall is still a star in the U.K.; remember him from his "Sniglet" days?). Those are the biggest draws, plus cabaret shows, spoken word, dance, music, children's theater and other un-categorizable bits and bobs.
Here's what you can't learn about the Fringe until you're here: You don't just do your show. That's the fun part, the one hour of the day you can relax and breathe normally. The rest of the time, eight to 10 hours or mpouore every day, seven days a week for a month, is spent pounding pavement "flyering" (handing out printed postcards to people on the streets near your venue or up on the High Street), doing social media promotions, emailing reviewers to convince them that your funny little skit is worth an hour of their time, begging podcasters and on-the-street radio interviewers to let you talk on their air—doing whatever it takes to sell tickets. You're part huckster, part dancing monkey, charming the Charlies with a smile and a "Want to see a good show?" as you stick a flyer in their hand.
The competition for audience—and there are approximately 400,000 tourists here right now just to experience the Fringe—is intense. It's exhausting. It's expensive to advertise. And you can't stop promoting for a minute because you don't want to look out into an empty house. Last week's first few shows were sparsely attended, though at mine just having dedicated knitters clacking away on their needles on the front row was satisfying. Who needs five-star reviews when you have the knitting clubs booking as groups? I'm niche-marketing, which is proving more successful than flyering. I sat in a cute cafe with 20 knitters last week because I'd contacted them through Ravelry, the international online knitting community. They invited me to drop in. I did and stayed three hours. They're all coming to the Sweater Curse this weekend.
The Edinburgh Fringe Society, which you join to be part of the festival, is the support network that helps participants who need guidance. And they are dedicated, upbeat and available every day. They have to deal with such things as injured performers (the National Health Service offers a special clinic just for the Fringe acts), housing scams (a bunch of actors from abroad rented nonexistent flats through a website that took their money and disappeared) and other dilemmas, large and small. They also offer educational workshops and meet-and-greets with producers and bookers. Being at the Fringe, you can get insight into how to tour your show in the UK or elsewhere, how to get your script published, how to form your own theater company and how to get into drama school. It's like the School of Theatre Knowledge. All free for the thousands of actors who're part of this.
Fringe Central, located in the middle of the University of Edinburgh, is a hangout for media and performers, a place to grab wifi and a sandwich between shows. In these early days of the festival, it's the palace of shmooze. Media wear orange lanyards with their ID cards; actors wear black. We stalk each other warily, like hungry hyenas looking at zebras down by the waterhole. (You pick which is predator and which is prey.)
Among the best experiences so far were the Fringe's opening day remarks by playwright Mark Ravenhill (he had a 1990s Fringe hit, Shopping and Fucking). His premise was that the economic downturns in the U.K. and the U.S. should spur theater artists to take more chances, not fewer. After decades spent cozying up to financiers, politicians and hedge funders who might deign to donate or approve funding, now's the time for theater companies, playwrights and actors to get wild again, to reinvigorate theater with dangerous new work.
Here's part of his speech (you can read the whole thing here):
"Now is the time to ask the impossible questions and try out the wildest answers. What really is the value of love, of friendship, of work, of sex, of education, of gender, of ownership? Question them, destroy them, rebuild them. What is the value of money? And is capitalism as both practice and ideology the best way to live? The least worst way to live? The terrible but only thing we can come up with way to live? Something that we need to dismantle and start all over again to save ourselves and our planet? Questions, questions. No easy answers."
But at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, there are hundreds of creative artists working on them.
◊ Elaine Liner's play, Sweater Curse: A Yarn about Love, continues through Aug. 26 at Sweet Venues/Grassmarket Theatre, Venue No. 18, Edinburgh. Here’s the link for tickets.
◊ Elaine Liner is the co-founder and editor emeritus of TheaterJones, and is the theater critic for the Dallas Observer. She also leads a series of workshops called "Be a Media Darling" (look for the next one in September). She will send reports on her experience at EdFringe throughout the month of August. Cover photo by Daylon Walton.