Chapter 4: Finale at the Fringe
Here's how it ends: We take our leftover flyers, posters, scenery bits and whatever else we can't pack in our suitcases and leave it at Fringe Central for recycling. "It's Fraggle Rock in there," says Barry Church-Woods, the Fringe staffer everyone loves. He's the heart of the Fringe Society, the one who gives hugs and introduces you to people by mentioning your five-star reviews.
You can leave your stuff and take other stuff on these end-of-fest recycling days. It's a giant "boot sale" without prices. Among the items I've offloaded are the rainboots I bought at Target and never wore once here (it was a rare sunny August in Edinburgh), a heavy red raincoat and two of the five cans of green salsa I brought from home. I left a Post-It on the salsa saying it's good on scrambled eggs.
In the final 24 hours of the 25-day festival, it seemed as if everyone in the venues was on the verge of tears. Part of it is exhaustion. It's a tough schedule of 10-minute load-ins and 10-minute get-outs, and no days off. Of five-person audiences and then, suddenly, full houses. Of long queues for the stand-up comics well known in the U,K, and a small but smart crowd for an hour of amazing comedy by Tig Notaro, who did a week in a basement nightclub with bad lighting and no air conditioning.
Emotions also well up when you realize the end of Fringe is nigh and you might never again see the wonderful Scottish college kids who ran the lights, tore the tickets and fetched last-minute cups of tea before your performances. As show titles start to disappear off the chalkboards by the sidewalk, you begin to miss all those smartass, silly, intense actors who shared the cramped dressing rooms and never failed to say, "Good show" and "Break a leg" when the usher popped in to say "You're on."
It's weepy time, too, when you realize it's over, this experience you spent a year preparing for. Nobody here thinks about Fringe as the end of something, however. It's only the beginning. "What's next for you?" everyone asks. "Where are you taking your show?" It's assumed that Fringe is the launchpad, not the final destination.
People were nice here. A festival that lasts this long and draws this many tourists—the population of Edinburgh doubles during Fringe—requires cooperation and professionalism on every level. There's no time for anything else. So many shows, hundreds among this year's Fringe productions, were solos. But working alone requires a lot of help. And that's where the Fringe Society excels, providing assistance with media relations, professional development and contact with producers and bookers.
I attended one of the Sunday morning brunches where performers can mingle with producers from the U.S. and U.K. who are scouting for new shows to book in other festivals or on tours. There were reps from U.K. Equity and various British drama schools. It's valuable face time and good practice for the "elevator pitch" that means describing your show in 30 seconds or less.
My one-woman play, Sweater Curse: A Yarn about Love, is solid now. It's funnier, tighter. I'm looser doing it than I ever thought I could be. I'm comfortable working off the audience now. Nothing makes me giddier than asking questions and having the audience answer back (which I encourage). And thanks to a news story that aired on the BBC about a group of knitters kicked out of a library in Northumberland for being too noisy and for wielding "dangerous" knitting needles, I have a new bit in the show. With a killer punchline.
Unusual for some fringe shows, mine attracted a lot of local Scots. All of my promo materials included the invitation for knitters to bring their knitting and continue stitching during the show. There's a big knitting culture here (hey, it's the home of Scottish wool), with pubs and cafes hosting knit/crochet clubs all over town. At my penultimate performance, the sold-out house was all knitters, local men and women I'd met my first week at Fringe when I was invited to knit with a group at Edinburgh's Purple Pig Cafe. I was jet-lagged and sweaty that night, but I went and knitted and gabbed for a couple of hours. They all came to the show and Tweeted and Facebooked about it afterward.
Of course, I saw a lot of theater at Fringe, too. Crazy-creative shows were my faves, like Long Distance Affair, performed individually for each patron via six laptops with Skype hookups to six actors located all over the globe (the logistics of that are mind-boggling). One-to-one productions and site-specific shows got great buzz. You Once Said Yes, done by a British theater troupe, took each person lucky enough to get a ticket on a 90-minute adventure on foot and by car all over the city, into a church, a bingo hall, a charity shop (where you had to try on clothes) and finally, a pub. One by one, 11 actors took turns handing off, texting info to the next "guide." At the end a pianist sang a song composed just for each ticketholder, the lyrics based on information gleaned from conversations during each person's walk and texted ahead. Mind-blowing.
Critic Mark Fisher, whose book How to Survive the Edinburgh Fringe is the bible of every newbie here, recalled his favorite production from the recent past, a Tempest performed via special delivery. It had actors showing up in ticketholders' apartments, doing an hour of Bard and then, like such things as dreams are made on, disappearing into the night, leaving a tiny boat floating in the residents' bathroom sink. (Isn't this better than sitting on the ground in 100-degree heat to watch it?)
One of the best hours I witnessed at this Fringe was Riding the Midnight Express, a monologue by Billy Hayes, the real-life Turkish prison escapee whose story was turned into a hit 1975 film, Midnight Express, by Oliver Stone. Hayes, now 66 and free to travel internationally after a 20-year Interpol warrant was lifted, told the real tale of his arrest, imprisonment and escape. Beautifully written and performed with such passion it felt like he was physically reliving some of the more harrowing moments, Hayes' truth is better than Stone's fiction. I hope Hayes tours it to theaters and college campuses in the States.
At the goodbye gatherings this weekend, the top question among participants was "Are you coming back next summer?" If a new show does reasonably well its first time out here, you're encouraged to bring it back a second and even a third time. Critics and audiences who missed your debut will be likely to make an effort to see you the next go-round.
August 2014 seems like a long way away. But as the fireworks go off for the last time over Edinburgh Castle, you start to think about it. Being in the Fringe has sparked so many new ideas.
◊ Elaine's play, Sweater Curse, will be produced later this year in a North Texas venue. Watch TheaterJones for more info about where and when.
◊ Read her five-star review from BroadwayBaby.com
- Click here for the first chapter of Postcards From the Fringe
- Click here for Chapter 2
- Click here for Chapter 3
◊ 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 Mark Oristano.