Highlights of My Edinburgh Fringe 2017

My first Fringe experience was as a flyerer and sometimes performer in 2014, so it was a different thing to go up as a paying punter this year. Liz and I went up with a friend of hers from college; the three of us each had our own bed in our own room in a flat we rented — such luxury! We bought our meals out and didn’t make any ramen noodles — such decadence! It was definitely a pricier way to do the Fringe, even for only three nights. But it was a lot of fun. I managed to see 14 shows in 3 days, as well as many street performers. Here are my highlights. Check out these acts if you can!

Edinburgh Castle scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The stage for the Two Plus Ones show

Comedy

The three young guys of the Two Plus Ones delivered nonstop, silly sketch comedy in “Huge Night In.” Luke Sumner’s characters in particular were all the more hilarious for being so wholly conceived. They had a sketch about a canon support group that had me in stitches with its utterly stupid brilliance.

We met Roisin and Chiara while queuing for their show “We Are Not Afraid”; they handed out candies and made conversation while in character as red jumpsuited oddballs. Inside, they did what seemed a hybrid sketch/improv show, including lots of audience involvement, a disco soundtrack, surrealist humor, and at one point, a wolf mask.

The 1st Annual Black Comedy Showcase was brilliantly emceed by Che Burnley, who asked white male audience members where they were from, then no matter what they answered (London, Manchester), followed up with, “No but where are you really from? What’s your heritage?” (“Germany, maybe? My girlfriend went there, she said it’s really beautiful and the people are so nice”). I hope the few confused people in the audience eventually got that he was pointing up the offensive and ridiculous nature of the same question when it’s posed to people of color on the regular. Che was a warm and friendly host, but make no mistake, he had clear intentions with this showcase. I loved it.

The standout act from the showcase was Athena Kugblenu, a London-based comedian who had one of the Jokes of the Fringe. She has this droll delivery that just kills me, and it doesn’t hurt that her mix of the personal and the political hits my sweet spot for stand-up.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Some of the lovely old buildings in Edinburgh

Spoken Word/Storytelling

The Banshee Labyrinth is one of the main centers for spoken word at the Free Fringe, and it was kind of a trip to go back there and see a show in the same little room that I’d performed in three years ago. We watched four young poets perform “A Matter of Time,” an interconnected group of poems told from the point of view of one person, at four different points in their timeline. It was a neat concept, and beautifully executed. If you like your poetry heartfelt but not sentimental, reflective but not navel-gazing, check out Ellen RentonShannon MacGregorRoss McFarlane and Bibi June.

Liz has seen Theatre Ad Infinitum shows before and wanted to see whatever they were putting on at the Fringe this year. We went to see Homer’s “Odyssey,” and were thrilled to find it was a spellbinding one-man storytelling hour. Spellbinding is not hyperbole here: I was fully immersed in the story from the first word, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment at the end.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The Big Top Circus Hub on the Meadows

Dance/Circus

The circus is the place to go when you want to be reminded of how amazing the human body is, and Bibi and Bichu‘s “Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” provided myriad reminders. I actually gasped in awe several times and applauded wildly every time they held a pose or finished a tumble.

I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience cried during 201 Dance Company‘s “Skin,” a hip hop dance show about a kid growing up and coming out trans*. The dancing was urgent and emotional, especially from the protagonist and their mother. Including a child dancer to mirror the adult protagonist was a great choice, and it’s good to see an FTM transition, which is a story not told as often as an MTF one, I think.

Theater/Cabaret

One of the most perfect play-within-a-plays I’ve ever seen, Willis & Vere‘s “The Starship Osiris” made me laugh for the entire show. A self-obsessed man puts on the most ridiculous sci-fi show glorifying himself, and everything breaks down spectacularly when the cast rebels. The details in the performances were spot-on, from the particular preening of the director to the facial expressions of the babed-up female crew members.

Pollyanna is the queer cabaret we all need in our lives. Polyfilla hosts, and the night we went we saw several excellent acts, including a drag king performing to a clever medley of songs about being a boy/man and Pollyfilla leading the audience in a participatory musical about Theresa May that made you laugh through the horror of the current political climate.

Nearly all of these acts are UK-based, so if you are too, be sure to check out their Twitter/FB pages in the links I’ve provided and see when their upcoming shows are. Even if you aren’t based in the UK, art travels, so why not follow them anyway in case they come to your town. If you get a chance to see any of these, I highly recommend that you do!

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

St Giles Cathedral

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Street performance on the Royal Mile

 

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My Edinburgh Fringe Fest Experience

Before this year, I didn’t even know “perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest” was on my bucket list, and now it’s been checked off. Edinburgh started its international arts festival in 1947, and right away, a fringe festival sprung up to feature more experimental works, for a more affordable price. I’d wanted to go to the Fringe ever since I learned about it, and I got the chance when my friend Liz invited me up for the show she helps produce.

Live from Edinburgh, tales of woe and recovery

Live from Edinburgh, tales of woe and recovery

I stayed with the crew of Stand Up Tragedy, and flyered for my keep. I would guess at least half of the comedians at the Fringe mention the pain of flyering in their sets, since it’s a thankless job that must be done in order to get butts in seats. I didn’t mind it too much at first–I liked checking out who might enjoy the show, and telling them about it while handing them a flyer with all the pertinent info, then seeing them after the show and hearing how much they liked it. But since everyone is flyering, it can get overwhelming, and most people rushed by without another glance; and when it started raining on top of that, it wasn’t quite as fun.

Would you like a flyer?!!

Would you like a flyer?!!

But then the shows! Stand Up Tragedy runs in East London throughout the year, but since it’s a variety show, there’s nothing specific to rehearse when bringing it to Edinburgh. The core team of Dave, Liz, and Harv keep it running smoothly, guiding five different acts through the show every night. The idea is that there’s a lot of comedy out there, but not as many shows focusing on the darker side of things, and there’s plenty to explore. So every night is a mix of comedy, spoken word, storytelling, sometimes music–all about something on the spectrum of sad, from bad dates to some truly tragic themes, like abuse or death.

Ads for shows I couldn't afford lined most walkways

Ads for shows I couldn’t afford lined most walkways

Flyering beforehand and holding the hat for donations afterward meant that I got to hear a lot of different acts, and it was humbling to hear the talent up on that stage. Many people had their own shows, so after a 10-minute sample of their work, I could decide to go see the rest of their act later on in the week.

So it was intimidating to get up on that stage myself. I was in the chorus of the spring musicals in high school, and I gave several speeches to crowds in college as the leader of activist groups, but I haven’t been on stage in any capacity in about a decade. (Karaoke doesn’t count, right?) I like being the center of attention and I have a lot of stories to tell, but that’s not the same thing as performing a spoken word piece. I wrote the piece over the course of a week, and spent another week rehearsing it to myself and once for my cousin (an appreciative, if biased, audience). But getting up on that stage, finding out five minutes before curtain that I was going first, I was a little nervous.

The Banshee Labyrinth, home of most spoken word acts of the PBH Free Fringe, friendly bartenders, good fun

The Banshee Labyrinth, home of most spoken word acts of the PBH Free Fringe, friendly bartenders, good fun

I remembered what I’d learned in theater classes–speak more slowly than you think you should, talk to the back of the room, make decisive but not jerky movements. I say I remembered these things, but I’m not sure I actually did them properly. I’m pretty sure I talked too fast, and since I’m not used to audience interaction, I talked over a few laughs that Liz reminded me I should let have their full time.

I was slated to perform three times, and although I felt generally good about my first two performances, something felt a little off. I had to glance at my notes too often, and some of the sentences felt forced. So I rewrote the second half two hours before my final performance–and it was much better. Even though I’d just written it, I consulted my notes less frequently than the version I’d been practicing for weeks, which just goes to show that the changes were the right ones to make. I stopped forcing a theme and really dug into the deep loneliness of being hit by a car in a foreign country, which was truer to my experience and better for the gig. That’s probably the version I’ll try submitting to various publications (which is why I haven’t written a blog post on it yet–I’m trying to get it published).

The Banshee in the calm before the storm--shows are about to end and the people are about to have a drink between gigs

The Banshee in the calm before the storm–shows are about to end and people are about to have a drink between gigs

I got a rush from being on stage, and feeling the audience respond. One of the reasons I enjoy writing true stories is that it helps me look at my life a little differently, and performing one of those stories added another layer of perspective. I might have the bug–who wants to put me on stage next?

Being in Edinburgh for the Fringe was great for seeing people on top of their game, too. Aside from the wonderful performers at Stand Up Tragedy, I saw the shows of the following: sketch comedy group Casual Violence, storyteller Tim Ralphs, slam poet Sophia Walker, performance poet Lucy Ayrton, playwright Megan Cohen, a couple members of the sketch comedy group The Beta Males, comedian Brydie Lee Kennedy, character comedian Samantha Mann, comedian Tom Webb, weirdo rock opera gods The Mechanisms, cabaret duo The Ruby Darlings, and comedian Tamer Kattan. I recommend seeing whatever any of them is involved in, if you ever get a chance.

Cowgate was the big nightlife part of the city

Cowgate was the big nightlife part of the city

Being in Edinburgh for the Fringe meant being on a different schedule from most of the working world–getting up late, seeing shows or writing blog posts, flyering, running the show, seeing more shows, home late, wake up and repeat. But that’s the schedule I’m best at anyway, so I did just fine. Also, I drank a lot of Deuchars beer and ate a lot of chips from the chippie up the street. Liz and I befriended a few young Scottish kids, who wanted to hear about life in America. I befriended a woman on a bus who said every time she visits her family she buys a round-the-world ticket: South Africa to see her mom, Australia to visit one son, New York to visit the other son, back home. I stumbled upon a few places that feature in Ian Rankin’s novels, including the actual police station DI Rebus is based at, which pleased me greatly.

Right outside the police station where John Rebus, Scottish detective of my heart, works

Right outside the police station where John Rebus, Scottish detective of my heart, works

Dave has podcasted a few of the shows from the Fringe. A clips show with my third and best performance should be ready to go in late November, so I’ll let you know when that’s up. In the meantime, you can hear some of the acts I mentioned here if you head over to the Stand Up Tragedy website. Enjoy!

And who knows, maybe I’ll head back to the Fringe another time, at least just to see the incredible amount of creativity on display in one small city for three short weeks every year.

The first thing I heard upon arriving in Edinburgh was buskers singing The Proclaimers' "500 Miles." The last thing I heard was the sweet whine of bagpipes as I boarded my bus.

The first thing I heard upon arriving in Edinburgh was buskers singing The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles.” The last thing I heard was the sweet whine of bagpipes as I boarded my bus.

I Climbed Arthur’s Seat and All I Got Were These Amazing Views

On my second to last day in Edinburgh, I climbed the volcanic hills that loom over the city. Arthur’s Seat, the craggy bit at the very top, is maybe named for King Arthur, or is maybe a corruption of Gaelic for “Archer’s Seat,” but since I’ve scrambled up it, I think it’s maybe a rough translation of the heavy breathing noises you make when you reach the top: “ah…dur…hee.” It’s steep, y’all.

Panoramic Edinburgh

Panoramic Edinburgh

Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park

Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park

There are several different paths to the top, and when I approached from the southwest, I was met with three of these. As in fairy tales, the paths seemed to offer clear choices: the first led downhill, away from the goal; the third went nearly straight up, via steep stairs; and the second sloped gently up, though the path was lined with thistles. My path was clearly the middle way, so up I went, encountering a few rocky stairs but mostly just a steady gravelly incline.

Taking the middle path

Taking the middle path

Going basically straight up

Going basically straight up

The final part of the ascent is rock scrambling, which is a lot of fun going up, and not any fun coming down. About thirty people milled around up there, taking selfies while taking care not to get too close to the edge (except for the guys wearing Men’s Fitness Test t-shirts, of course, who actively sought out the steepest route to descend by).

A scramble to the sunny peak

A scramble to the sunny peak

Wild heather on the hillside

Wild heather on the hillside

The whole city is spread out around you–there’s the Royal Mile with the castle at the end, the Ferris wheel by the train tracks, the Meadows, and over there, the North Sea, golf links, a few fields of grain. It was beautiful up there, and the wind only picked up as I started to head down, so I didn’t have to fight that on my climb.

Crow? Raven? Lovely black bird surveying her domain, anyway

Crow? Raven? Lovely black bird surveying her domain, anyway

View from the top

View from the top

I took tiny steps on the steeper part of the walk down, so that I wouldn’t put a foot wrong and twist my ankle or go tumbling. I chanted to myself, “step like a goat, like a delicate little goat,” which got me a few stares until I stopped saying it out loud.

Look, Ma, no worse ankle sprains than usual!

Look, Ma, no worse ankle sprains than usual!

I can't believe it didn't rain on me once the whole climb

I can’t believe it didn’t rain on me once the whole climb

I loved visiting the wilderness in the heart of the city, and I can see why Liz does it every time she comes to Edinburgh. It’s a little challenge, and a lot of reward.

Breathtaking

Breathtaking

Awesome August

Just a short update on how my August is shaping up (spoiler: it’s going to be great). Tomorrow, my 16-year-old cousin and goddaughter will join me on a short trip to Belgium. Neither of us has been before, and we’re excited to spend a couple days in Bruges and three days in Brussels. I figure I’ll eat and drink my weight in chocolate and beer, wander around the medieval squares and old canals, and check out some museums. I haven’t seen hostel lockouts in a long time, but all the places I looked at in Belgium seem to have them as a matter of course–from 11am to 3pm, you have to leave the hostel so they can clean. Most other places now are just cleaning around people, but I see why that would be annoying. Obviously, those are times you’d plan to be out sightseeing anyway, but if it’s a cold, rainy day, that’s less appealing, so wish us good luck with the weather.

On August 11, I fly from Brussels to London Gatwick airport. I have a seven-hour layover and then fly from Gatwick to Edinburgh. I’ll spend a week in Edinburgh, helping out at my friend’s Free Fringe show, seeing as many Edinburgh sights and Fringe shows as possible, and even performing! For three nights, I’ll be part of the Stand Up Tragedy lineup, telling the tale of how I was hit by a car in Vietnam. It’ll be funny and sad, so if you’re in Edinburgh during that week, stop on by. I’ve wanted to be in Edinburgh for the Festival (opera, theater, highbrow stuff) and the Fringe Festival (all types of performance art, much of it experimental or emerging)  for years, so I’m excited to be there, and it’s a bonus to perform. Stand Up Tragedy is run by my friend Dave, who interviewed me for his Getting Better Acquainted podcast last year.

Incidentally, if you have a few coins to spare, you can help Stand Up Tragedy keep afloat at the festival by going to the right-hand column on their website and donating via PayPal. Free Fringe came about as a response to the high costs performers had to pay to get a venue at the Fringe, so while performers don’t pay for their venue at Free Fringe, they still have to pay travel and accommodation costs.

After August 18, I’ll be back in London, job searching in earnest, keeping Stowaway updated, visiting with friends and family, and working on some longer travel pieces. The amazingly sunny weather I’ve experienced in England this year can’t last forever, but this August might be awesome enough to give me some warm days to close out the summer. Hope your August is full of fun and things you love as well!