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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!