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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Letter from the Edinburgh Fringe 2019: First days - July 25-30

Getting Settled In

The first few days in Edinburgh have bounced between manic and relaxed, a cycle I hope and expect will relax a bit in the coming days. Back on the 24th we wrapped up the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s regular home concerts with a workshop on binaural sound design for live music and electronics with composer Stephen Bryant. A completed work by Bryant will be premiered next summer at PNME.

That seems like ages ago!

As soon as the concert was over we began packing our gear. See, in order for a concert audience to experience binaural sound everybody needs to be wearing headphones – and the infrastructure for that is considerable. While we could have gone with wireless headphones, there were simply too many ways for that to be compromised by a bad signal or interference or any number of other things. So the theatre must be hard-wired with cables that are durable and reliable. It takes hours to set up and take down, and in this case all that gear also had to be packed up so it could survive a trans-Atlantic trip on an airplane. But eventually the job was done, in addition to props, the set for a shadow puppet ballet, and other miscellany: a combination of 16 boxes and suitcases of gear.

After an uneventful flight we landed in Edinburgh on Friday morning – a hot, sunny morning that was warmer than Pittsburgh was when we left! (Alas, that was the last day of warmth and sun; it’s been 60s and damp since then.) And then we went straight to the venue to drop off our gear. Thankfully, after that we were able to disperse to our various apartments and get settled in a bit before returning to the venue that night to begin the arduous task of unpacking our gear and wiring up the seats with all the cabling required for the sound – cabling that needs to stay in place for the whole of the run and also endure multiple other shows that will be using the space along with us.

Then, at 11:00pm Friday night, we were done. I went back to my place (blessedly close), slept for nearly 12 hours, and returned the next day for a double shift from 2:00-6:00 and 7:00-11:00, during which we tech’d the show and practiced the pre-show and post-show setting and striking of the set and headphones. (Though the cabling and connections stay in place, the headphones need to be put out and connected before every show and disconnected afterwards - 176 of them. We also have to load the stage with our instruments, props, and on-stage equipment and then remove all those items afterwards. All of this must be done in a matter of minutes, because venues at the Fringe are booked continuously: we’ll have about 15 minutes to accomplish our load-in and load-out, which means we have to have a well-planned-out and well-executed plan. And that requires practice.)

As the first two days came to a close, I think everyone was pretty much wiped out. Thankfully, we had the next two days off to get further settled into our apartments, get groceries, explore our neighborhoods, see some of the city…and sleep.

The Fringe has nearly 300 venues spread throughout the city. In fact pretty much any space that can seat some people qualifies: everything from an extra room above a pub to a converted church to classrooms at the university. Last year I went to a stand-up act in a tiny attic room above a pub that sat about 15 people and had a stage about 2 feet deep and 6 feet wide. Quintessential Fringe.

Most of the Fringe venues are these hodgepodge sort of spaces, but there are some larger presenters who manage the bigger, higher-profile venues, most of which are in the central zone of the Festival in and around Old Town and Edinburgh University. The largest and highest-profile presenters -- the "Big Four" -- are Gilded Balloon, Underbelly, Pleasance and, largest of them all, Assembly. Each of these has multiple performing spaces (Assembly has nine spread out over the city). The epicenter of the Fringe is the St. George Square Gardens, run by Assembly and containing several venues and a myriad of concessions, and the St. George Studios across the street (of which there are three). To get into one of these venues is a Very Big Deal, and it puts you on the A-list for reviews, awards, and media exposure. You generally can’t get into one of these places unless you have a production company representing you and who will manage your relationship with the venue, take care of marketing & PR, and help connect you with industry insiders.

I say all this because I want to explain how amazing it is that we’ve been taken on by Civil Disobedience, one of the top production companies at the Fringe, and that they in turn got us into Assembly's St. George Studio One. So our little scrappy company from Pittsburgh is performing at one of the top-of-the-top venues at the world’s largest performing arts festival. I keep pinching myself because I can hardly believe it!

During my days off I didn’t do a whole lot. I needed to get over my jet lag, stock my kitchen, and just feel nested. I did get out and walk about; found a cozy pub with good food a block away; explored a few new areas of the city I hadn’t been to before; went to the Scottish National Gallery. Then yesterday we had our Dress Rehearsal; today and tomorrow we have previews and then fully open on Friday, Day One of the Festival! Here are some pictures from walking around the city:

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