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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Letter from Edinburgh

At first glance, it appears that the entire city of Edinburgh is made out of the same gray building stone. But upon closer look, this is not the case. Some of the buildings are sandstone, others are more of a sandstone-shale mix, and still others are made from the igneous rocks that define the city’s bluffs. Some of the sandstone is a light, nutty brown; some of it foggy gray. The igneous rocks can have an iridescent shine to them. On top of this, centuries of harsh Scottish weather – wind and rain that sweep in off the chilly North Sea – have weathered the stones with a silvery patina that obscures the subtleties of the stone beneath. In short, the building stones of Edinburgh are deceptively uniform; look beneath the surface, and an infinite variety of hues and textures can be found.

Much like the city itself.

This was my second time visiting the International Festival Fringe – the official name for what the locals simply call “the Festivals.” It began over 40 years ago, when the local arts community decided it was time to push beyond the traditional, mainstream programming of the Edinburgh International Festival (which still is very much in existence, booking the world’s top performers for a wide array of offerings in music, dance, theatre, and other genres). And so they created the Festival Fringe, a grass-roots enterprise committed to the experimental, the edgy, the avant garde, and pretty much anything that goes against the very center-of-the-fairway offerings of the EIF. Now, the Fringe is far larger than the festival that spawned it, occupying over 500 venues city-wide and presenting more than 10,000 performances every August. It is the largest arts gathering the world, and has inspired Fringe Festivals large and small in cities across the globe. But none approach the almost mind-numbing size and scope of the original.

A teaming section of the Royal Mile

Describing Edinburgh during Festival season to someone who’s never been is a difficult task. We simply have nothing to compare it to. While a central hub of activity like the Royal Mile (the cobble-stone “main drag” of the old city that runs from Edinburgh Castle down to the Queen’s official residence, Holyrood), closed off to traffic and filled with teaming crowds, busking street artists, and artisan booths, might resemble an arts fair anywhere, it’s but one tiny sliver of the Edinburgh scene. What can be seen along the Royal Mile is replicated throughout the city center in every square, corner, and park, and spreads outward over the entire city like ripples on a pond. Pretty much any space capable of seating a group of people (it needn’t be a large one) can be a venue. The city’s existing arts venues expand their capacity by opening up rehearsal spaces, spare rooms, and lobbies for additional offerings; churches have temporary stages and platforms of seats built within their sanctuaries, as well as opening up rooms that have not likely seen regular gatherings of people in many years – perhaps centuries.

(One show I went to was deep down in the rocky vault of an ancient church, the 30 or so seats butting up against a tiny stage and boxed in by a stone foundation – it was perfect for the minimalist, dystopian setting of the 2-actor show being presented.) No space is off limits: one pub had a small stage for music but also hosted a comedy club 3 stories up in a tiny attic space (cramped and hot but perfectly edgy).

The artistic offerings of the Fringe are similarly diverse. As I like to put it, the things you’ll see run the gamut from “That show changed me forever” to “well that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” You can do your best to read descriptions, see what people are talking about, and learn what venues tend to present work you like, but in the end it’s simply impossible to either see everything or guarantee that everything you see will be worth it: there’s simply too much going on. This sort of pot-luck aspect of the Fringe is part of what makes it special, though: it’s an adventure, a constant quest for discovery and wonder. Sometimes you miss the target – spectacularly – and other times the most extraordinary experience can take place in the most spontaneous and unexpected ways.

Quintessential Fringe: "Arthur's Seat," a volcanic outcrop that towers over the city, an ancient stone church...and posters for some of the Festival's more adventuresome programs.

Another aspect to the Fringe that’s so extraordinary is the sense of community. Go into any pub, coffee shop, or restaurant in the city and people are talking about the Festival. You can regularly strike up a conversation with a stranger while queueing for a show with the words, “So what have you seen that’s good?” I’ve never been to a city where there is such unanimity of purpose on the part of so many people. It’s not just that there are venues throughout the city; the city itself is given over to celebrating and experiencing the arts in all its glorious, messy, challenging diversity.

This trip I took in somewhat fewer shows than I did during my first trip here in 2015. It’s quite easy to see up to four shows a day (or more, if one is particularly intrepid), not counting whatever street entertainment or live music you might take in along the way. But I find that to be rather exhausting – not so much physically, but in terms of what my brain can process. This time I generally limited my days to two shows, which both felt more manageable mentally and freed me up to explore this wonderful city a bit more. And there is much to explore.

Edinburgh has been inhabited more or less continuously since at least 8,500 BC, from which time evidence of a Mesolithic settlement has been uncovered. The Romans arrived in the 1st century C.E and found Celtic tribes well established there (which is perhaps why they elected not to stick around – the Celts were notoriously fierce), and in the 12th century Edinburgh became the royal seat for Scotland. When Scotland and England united in 1707, the city nonetheless remained the political and economic center of Scotland. I found it interesting, though, that during the Industrial Revolution Edinburgh was less transformed by industry than its neighbor Glasgow; the city’s economy remained focused on trade, finance, and education – traits it has maintained to this day. During the Enlightenment, Edinburgh was a leading center of thought for all of Europe, being dubbed by many the “Athens of the North” for the rich concentration of intellectuals and centers of learning in the city.

Given this history, it seems appropriate that Edinburgh should have first hosted an international arts festival of the highest order, and then built on that with an even larger festival devoted to continuing to expand and challenge artistic boundaries. It’s a natural continuation of the ethos of the place, one that has been brewing and developing for over 800 years.

It’s possible to see theatre or dance at the Fringe that is not revolutionary or shocking or edgy, but the real joy comes from seeing extraordinary things of which you say, “Only at the Fringe…” (That said, I was devastated when Simon Rattle’s appearance at the International Festival with the London Symphony, performing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, was sold out. It may have been “mainstream,” but it’s not every day you get to hear that conductor with that symphony performing Mahler’s crowning masterpiece. And that’s another joy of the Festivals: when the opportunity arises, you can step away from the edgy Fringe and just take in something established – but wonderful all the same – at the EIF. In fact, I also missed my friends in the Takács Quartet performing on Friday night – in favor of an absurd and hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable act that was part burlesque and part cabaret. The starkness of that choice – Takács or burlesque cabaret – is the very essence of the Edinburgh Festivals. The entire festival is, quite literally, your oyster.)

One breathtaking and utterly unexpected show was Irina Titova, the “Queen of Sand.” She’s a sand artist, painting pictures on a light board that is projected onto a huge screen, accompanied by music and narration to fill out the story she tells pictorially. It might sound hokey, but I assure you it’s not. It’s hard to describe how incredible she is – go ahead and find her on YouTube, though I guarantee the video will not hold a candle to the actual experience. The speed with which she works, the incredible subtlety of shading and light and her use of negative space, and, perhaps most of all, the clear planning that is required for one image to gradually morph into the next picture in the story…it was completely mesmerizing.

We also saw three extraordinary shows at Canada Hub, a showcase of shows from across Canada. “Daughter” was one of the most unusual and gripping shows I’ve ever seen, where a single actor tells a story with such personal authenticity that it’s hard to believe he isn’t just a person telling his own, real, story. Never have I seen such difficult material presented with such complete honesty – an honesty that forces us to consider our own values and propensity to judge others we perceive as falling short of them. As dark as this show was, it was nothing compared to the brutal journey of “Huff,” about the desolate lives of a Native American family on a reservation in Ontario. Those of you who know me know that the loss of innocence and the destruction of youth are themes that will push me into the abyss every time – and this show definitely did that. The sheer power of the experience – portrayed by a single actor with no set and minimal props – overwhelmed some dramaturgical problems in the script. I didn’t care about the problems; my heart was pierced by the emotional wallop this play delivered, and the excruciatingly beautiful ray of hope we get at the end.

And then there was “Famous Puppet Death Scenes,” a wonderfully imaginative show that began with dark hilarity (how many ways can we watch puppets meet their demise?) and ended with poignant beauty.

Add to these an all-nude dance troupe (exploring – unsuccessfully, in my view – the nature of embodiment), the aforementioned burlesque cabaret, another puppet(-ish) show (an interesting premise but ultimately it just didn’t deliver), a gay stand-up comic (who brought me up on the stage at one point to interrogate me as a potential husband), a new play by a young American playwright (it was the play of a 25-year old, but a damned talented 25-year old), a magic show where the poor guy had his last two tricks go bust, and another comic who brilliantly achieved no-holds-barred comedy while conveying a progressive message.

And I was only there for a week!

I’m always struck by how every great city has a personality. I suppose that’s a pretty good way to separate a great city from just…a city. Great cities have personalities. I’ve been privileged to visit some great cities: London, Vienna, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Oslo, Budapest, Copenhagen. One thing they all share is that they have unique, distinctive personalities.

Edinburgh definitely has a personality. But putting that personality into words isn’t easy. Unlike a place like London or New York, it doesn’t feel worldly or even cosmopolitan – and yet it is certainly one of the most open and accepting cities I’ve ever been in. It doesn’t have the historical self regard that a city like Vienna has – and yet it has nearly 10,000 years of human habitation and plenty of human drama to mark its annals. The architecture is remarkably uniform – yet oozing with subtle character and grace. And the Scots themselves are a unique lot: warm and friendly to strangers, but reserved one-on-one – all the time modifying their vowels to such an extreme that sometimes I wasn’t sure we were all speaking the same language. But somehow all of these apparent contradictions makes sense, and coalesce into a distinct identity: simultaneously reserved and adventurous, fiercely proud of their national heritage but open to the world, stoic in the face of the harsh landscape and the brutal weather, but warm beneath the soothing light of a wood-paneled pub. Perhaps the best way to express the essence of Edinburgh is that it’s authentic. It is a place without pretense. And that seems to me to be just the right sort of place to present the new, the innovative, the provocative, and sometimes the downright whacky: a place able to celebrate the act of presenting it all, without judgment or equivocation. The spirit of Edinburgh calls us to simply come and celebrate the thrill and adventure of encountering the new, the unexpected, the baffling, the disturbing, the revelatory, the transformative. In the end, Edinburgh calls us to immerse ourselves in the sheer joy of human beings coming together to make something…and to share it with each other.

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