In August my wife, Debbie, and I followed our daughter, Sara, to the Edinburgh Fringe, which by all accounts is the “world’s largest arts festival.” Sara was performing in Alice and the Blackhole Blues, a play concocted by her high school theater group, which, over the course of its opening night in San Francisco to its final show at the Fringe, evolved from being as compelling as waiting in line at the post office to something quite delightful. Of course, the transformation may have been helped along by the many tasty scotches I imbibed during its weeklong run in Scotland.
From a Burning Man perspective, the Fringe is only fringy in relationship to its dour setting. Edinburgh has the feel of a popup book designed as a Hollywood set for Harry Potter, which, it turns out, was originally imagined there. Large, dark, stone buildings, grey pavers, with matching ever-cloudy skies and a looming castle that can be seen from everywhere creates an air of stubborn menace. The gloomy built environment is etched into the sour resting faces of the City’s giant inhabitants – everywhere we went we encountered basketball player-tall Scots – which would require a new level of frowny-faced emoji to properly capture. Call it “sun-deprived-beat-by-the-British-miserable-faced emoji”
During non-Fringe months, I wouldn’t be surprised if Edinburghers turned into stone themselves, reanimating to participate in the Christmas markets and New Year’s festivities, only to harden once again until a few hours of sunshine unglues them in the spring.
The Fringe itself is a happy, triumphant, desperate, mishmash of comedy, music, theater, spoken word, street performances, food stalls that all sell the same lumpy mix of potatoes sprinkled with tasteless rubbery items, superlative beer and whiskey, tied together by a constant flow of postcard-sized flyers advertising the next show, often handed out by the stars themselves, who, if you let them – which I advise you don’t – will perform their piece right there on the spot. Some three thousand performances, tucked away in re-purposed basements, classrooms, and, in one case, a veterinarian hospital, vie for the attention of a half-million visitors. A few sell out; others play to nobody; most are somewhere in between.
The fact that most shows last no more than an hour gives great comfort to performers and audience members alike, in a “that’ll/this’ll be over soon” way. There’s something deeply satisfying and happily optimistic about knowing that within less than 60 minutes whatever’s happening on stage will stop. Everyone involved can then step back out into the greyness and stumble their way to the next show, alcoholic beverage, or historic tour, a festive game of musical chairs in which there’s always a seat for everyone.
The shows exhibit a cheerful anxiety, silly tomfoolery, and unique and shared concerns from around the world. Two different Australian comedians complained, to lesser or greater laughs, about the challenges females face breaking into the funny-business. One theorized that comedy was based on word tricks, and that audiences don’t appreciate being tricked by a woman. A South Korean troupe performed a martial arts-soaked dance piece that seemed closer to anomie than live action, whose central premise was that only true love – and an excellent karate-flip – can conquer evil, something they may want to take on the road to their northern neighbor. A fantastic South African choir ended their standing-ovation performance with a sublime rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The children of Apartheid singing a song written by an America Jew grasping to be closer to God.
Debbie did her best to get into the Fringe spirit. She attended all nine performances of Alice and the Blackhole Blues, here and in Scotland. If any of the actors had been incapacitated – felled, perhaps, by a starchy blockage caused by one too many portions of street food – she could’ve stepped in, having learned their lines by sheer, exhausting, repetition. In fact, it would’ve been perfectly in keeping with the Fringe if she’d mounted her own production, playing all dozen or so of the parts, perhaps staged in the women’s room of the Edinburgh airport.
She adopted a persona – Wizard of Oz munchkin, with a dash of mentally-challenged elderly pensioner thrown in – when accepting flyers and congratulating performers. “Thank you very much,” she croak-warbled, to a busker pitching one of the many shows lampooning our President. “I love Trump, he’s the best comedian ever!” A Norwegian comic who she enthusiastically congratulated on his absurdist performance – “Awesome, just awesome!” she squeaked, like a balloon fast losing air – eyed her with amused confusion.
At what we dubbed the “less than adequate café” – a type of restaurant we’d inevitably encountered in every country we’ve traveled to in the world: located adjacent to a small parking lot, serving mushy food piped in from a large vat bubbling deep underground – we compared notes on the “best of the best” and “worst of the worst,” all of which were enjoyable to experience in different measure. Vying for most awful was a smug one-woman Scottish musical-monologue performed in a Berkeley Rep theater-like venue – audience members took their shoes off during the show – and a two-actor Australian theater piece about pirates marooned in the modern world. As they took their bows to tepid applause from a double-handful of audience members, the Australian actors’ faces were even whiter than sun-starved Scots. They knew they’d bombed, but didn’t understand exactly why – their down under mates thought they were hilarious! – a piece of humility that edged them out of first prize for worst of the worst by the self-satisfied soliloquist.
The best piece we saw was by American Nilaja Sun, who created and performed a brilliant Anna Deavere Smith documentary theater-style multi-character play set in New York. By inhabiting a diverse set of characters – Puerto Ricans, a Holocaust survivor, an elderly Yemenite, an Iraqi War veteran – each with their own peculiarities, all deeply human, Sun summarized the Fringe in one 75-minute tornado of feelings and physicality.
At Alice and the Blackhole Blues, which tucked into historical sexism in science with gusto, the high schooler next to us, from Hawaii, gasped, laughed, and cheered through the final performance. That, too, was the essence of Fringe. People having a good, appreciative, time, expressing that energy back to those around them, especially the players. In today’s world, full of dour worries and dark terrors, that’s indeed fringy.