Letter from the Fringe, 2019: Reflections on the experience...
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
It’s hard to know how to summarize the experience of spending an entire month in Edinburgh performing at the Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. To say that it was the experience of a lifetime would be a start, but it’s insufficient. It wouldn’t capture the almost overwhelming energy of being in a city entirely given over to a festival. It wouldn’t address the enormous physical and emotional energy required to perform 21 performances straight – with only two days off along the way. It wouldn’t express the sense of history one has spending time in a place that has been continuously inhabited since the Bronze age. And it wouldn’t express the deep humility – and indeed, the joy – one feels upon watching hundreds of patrons leave the theatre in tears, deeply touched by the experience we’d given them.
I suspect I will be digesting this experience for a long time, but here are a few random observations (in no particular order):
When an entire city is given over to something…
I have never been in a place so completely saturated with a single event (or, in this case, over 10,000 individual events). The only analogue I can think of would be the Olympics, when every aspect of a community is somehow connected to The Thing Going On. But I can only guess, since I've never been to the Olympics. But I imagine it's a similar feeling: the population of Edinburgh is normally about 500,000; during Festival season is swells to 2 million. Many of the locals leave town and rent out their flats to visitors; those who remain are often working long hours in restaurants, pubs, venues, and cabs/rideshares. I’m sure that normal commerce continues in the city, but to the extent that’s true it’s certainly not evident to the casual observer: it really does seem like everyone and everything is geared to the Festival. And that changes the feel of a place. When it’s assumed that we’re all here for the same thing, it binds people together in an interesting way. You can be standing at the bus stop and strike up a conversation with a total stranger by simply asking, “So what have you seen that’s good?” And this shared understanding within the context of a place is even stronger, I believe, when we’re talking about the arts, and even more still when we’re talking about an arts event that is all about exploring the new, the novel, the experimental, the boundary-pushing, the provocative. That brings a certain vibrancy to the energy of a place, a safety, if you will, for humans to express themselves. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this combination of unity of purpose and safety of expression before, and I’ve certainly never experienced on a city-wide scale.
This took more mental bandwidth than I expected
Despite the preceding paragraphs – or perhaps as a result of them – spending an entire month immersed in the Festival is tough on us creative sorts. After all, creatives tend to be introverted and extraordinarily sensitive to the energy of places and people. Even when that energy is positive and energizing (or perhaps especially when it’s those things), the introverted creative is drained. I found myself needing much more time alone to decompress and process (not to mention simply rest and recharge) than I anticipated I would. I generally saw one show a day in addition to performing our own show, but based on the schedule alone I could have seen far more. But I simply didn’t have the mental bandwidth to absorb something more. Taking a walk is normally a go-to way for me to unwind, but when taking a walk involves swimming in the crowds of Festival-goers it would have the opposite effect.
As I started to explore this issue a bit further, I discovered that the mental/emotional health for performers at the Fringe is actually a rather hot topic. Apparently I was hardly alone in struggling to navigate the contradictions of performing at the Fringe: simultaneously exalting and exhausting; the vulnerability of putting yourself out there for an audience every day and the need to insulate that vulnerability the rest of the time; the feeling of loneliness and isolation as one tries to understand these opposites living in such close and intense proximity.
How did I cope with all this? I’m not sure I did, not very well anyway. I certainly tried to exercise standard self-care: get enough sleep, hydrate, eat well, and so forth. But it was still a challenge, and by the end of the run I was struck by how truly wiped out I was, both physically and emotionally. [And I had a mere 48 hours to get over that and dive into the semester, but that’s another story!]
The day we arrived in Edinburgh, our production company (the fabulous guys of Civil Disobedience) sent us a blog they had written about how to cope at the Fringe. In addition to the self-care I was already practicing above, they provided another piece of advice that was particularly helpful: don’t succumb to “FOMO” (“Fear Of Missing Out”). The Fringe is prime territory for FOMO: there are so many cool/interesting things going on, so many folks telling you, “You MUST see this…,” so many reviews and posters with “FIVE STARS!! DON'T MISS!!"and you can't possibly see them all. And so you start to worry that your choices may not be good ones, that you’ll spend that precious hour seeing a dog of a show rather than the life-changing experience that’s going on that same time across town. The desire to not miss something great becomes a stressor in and of itself.
Fortunately I’d been to the Fringe before; the first time I went I was determined to see as many things as I possibly could, and make sure they were all mind-blowing shows. I saw 3-4 shows a day every day for a week – and absolutely fried myself to a crisp. Then last year I still saw a lot of shows but gave myself permission to miss some things if I wasn’t feeling it. So that was progress, but I felt guilty for doing so: “Seeing shows is what you’re here to do, Jeff!” This time around I had the benefit of experience: helped by that blog, I resolved at the outset that I was going to remember two things. 1) My primary purpose is to deliver the best performance I can every time I go onstage. 2) I won’t fall into the FOMO trap: it’s impossible to see even the tiniest sliver of what’s being offered, so I will only go and see the shows I feel like seeing and no more. I will accept that some of the things I’ll see won’t be great, that there are inevitably great things I'll miss, and I’ll try to embrace – even celebrate – the “pot luck” aspect of the Fringe, where you don’t know what you’re getting and that’s part of the fun. No pressure, and absolute permission to not go out, to hide in my apartment or hang out at the cute pub around the corner instead of seeing whatever everyone else is all excited about. This was liberating – and I still saw some extraordinarily good things. With no FOMO.
Edinburgh is now officially under my skin
I’ve been to a lot of cities that I love: Seattle, Chicago, New York, London, Prague, Vienna, Madrid, to name but a few. But I don’t think there’s a single city that has gotten under my skin the way Edinburgh has. It would be interesting to experience it outside of Festival season, of course, but I’m pretty sure my basic love of the city would not change. There’s something both enchanting and gritty about the place, and unlike London or Vienna it doesn’t hold itself in too high a regard. I like that. It’s a city of contrasts – the coldness of the gray stone that’s everywhere, and the warmth of pubs and restaurants and shops; the deep history and its embrace of the new. It’s a city of subtleties, which reveals it secrets only to the carefully observant. It’s not in-your-face the way, say, Vienna or New York are. You have to come to it, to seek it out. That’s a dynamic that suits me well, that creates a sense of belonging in a way I could never belong in most other cities.
So next up: formulating a plan to keep coming back. Because I will be back, again and again. I'm sure of it. As I said to some of my Scottish friends regarding my and Jeffrey’s shared love of the place: “Don’t worry: you’re stuck with us now.”