Fringe Activities in the Athens of the North – by Calum Campbell

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Theatre Thoughts Blog is pleased to bring you the report of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe from our intrepid Scottish correspondent, Mr Calum Campbell:

Calum Campbell - Edinburgh Reporter

Fringe Activities in the Athens of the North

Semioticians would have a field day with Edinburgh. The grey buildings of Scotland’s capital city, lacking the warmth of the red sandstones of Glasgow, allied to the endless chill breezes from the North Sea, suggest a cold and unfeeling city.  Symbols of power and control rise high above. The seat of Calvinistic authority, the Assembly building of the Church of Scotland, is only upstaged by the majesty and threat of Edinburgh’s Castle dominating the inhabitants below.  From atop its 120 metre doleritic pillar and plinth the castle acts as a threatening reminder to conform whilst also warning off visitors.

And this is how Edinburgh is often viewed, austere and conformist, where only high art and control are acceptable, but for three weeks beginning in August each year, this reading is proved false.  Scotland’s elderly aunt, spinster of the parish, upright and severe, a pillar of the community full of restraint and sobriety, discards her straight lace revealing colourful lingerie, suspenders and stockings and shouts to the world that there is a party at her place!

When listening to holiday reminiscences I’ve often heard people say “you have to be there to understand what it is like” but for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe it is more than that, it is a vibrant, amorphous mass, constantly changing and interfering with the accepted laws of time and physics.  No one day, second or instance is the same.

Formed as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival and its high art values, the Fringe lives and breathes an equality and opportunity for all: if you can find a space, you can put it on.  It is this ethic that has resulted in the Fringe becoming the world’s largest arts festival, far outgrowing its International counterpart. With this year’s figures still awaited it is worth noting that in 2009 there were around 34,265 official performances of all types, comedy, music, dance and physical theatre, music theatre, opera, children’s shows, events and exhibitions, with box office sales of over £1.8 million.

The Fringe never fails to amaze me. The best advice is to leave your preconceptions, likes and dislikes behind and just experience. This is where the good, the bad, and the outrageous are celebrated. Be proud to say that you have attended something that you have found awful, and laugh, because there will be so many other shows to visit that night! The abject failure is as valued as the artistic triumph and a culture of support for the arts has developed, where making an attempt or taking a risk is applauded allowing for continuing development and creativity.

Production, out with the rich and highly sponsored companies, provides exceptional challenges. The limitations of venues (from cupboards to church halls, courtyards to toilet cubicles), finances and limited time slots mean that performances are stripped back to the bare minimum encouraging acting skills and audience/performer relationships to be to the fore.  Theatre is exposed, extracted from its flim-flammery, padding and camouflage and for me it becomes more engaging and meaningful.

The Fringe, as its name suggests, has an edge and the festival’s encouragement of experimentation sets the stage for challenges to societal and artistic norms. Controversy this year was certainly found with Martin Creed’s Ballet Work No. 1020, encouraging a variety of responses from the ‘disgusted walk’ out to uproarious laughter.  The audience viewed dancers limited to 5 repetitively used positions, listened to music and songs from a post punk band, and watched as a stylistically uncomfortable Creed narrated while films including defection and vomiting were projected behind.  Challenging? Yes.  Uncomfortable? Yes.  Entertaining? Yes.  Shocking? Yes.  Amusing? Yes.  Did everyone agree whether it was good or bad? No.   I find this ability to shock and encourage discussion invigorating and a true element of art.

Don’t begin to think that the Fringe is all shock and ‘horrific’: it is not..  Quality abounds and in quantity such as the site-specific Threshold by 19;29 where the audience explores the story, gathering clues from performance and experiences in under-explored places in the city.  Threshold is emotional, poetic, imbued with meaning, and with the responsiveness and quality of its actors creating believability within the interactivity of the process.

The classically trained Bala Brothers from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, who challenged the restrictions of the apartheid era to follow their dreams of becoming trained singers, through their mix of classical, jazz, r ’n’ b, traditional African (backed by members of the Soweto Gospel Choir) and flawless performance created an anthem of freedom of expression and the beauty of life to which the Fringe allies itself.

An air of ‘festival’ abounds with food, drink and entertainment encouraging those who would not normally choose to attend traditional theatrical events to experience the atmosphere and be exposed to the performing arts.  ‘Happenings’ suddenly appear before you in the streets, full shows, excerpts, publicity, show selling sales pitches and stunts to rival any ‘quack doctors’’ claims for efficacious remedies.  This subtle educational snaring is a springboard to future and continued engagement, whilst stimulating interest, and encouraging new sources of performers and audience.

Watching the watchers in this colourful explosion of street theatre becomes a pursuit in itself.  There is realisation that boundaries between performer and audience are so reduced that the interaction is more than symbiotic, it is almost as if there is a truly common goal and experience and they are merging to become a single entity.  The Holy Grail of theatrical communication?  Not completely but there is an apparent absorption of the unsuspecting observers into performers themselves.   By attending the Fringe you don’t even have to see a show… you are part of one.

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