Life off the Fringe

I should be in Edinburgh now, bracing the challenge that is Week Zero at the Festival Fringe, preparing the ground for a 3 week run at Summerhall, hijacking the best spots for posters and flyers, before the latecomers arrive to discover no space left and a fight to the death to defend your patch. I exaggerate of course, but the Fringe is a battle – a messy, competitive, unrelenting, challenging but ultimately glorious battle….and I miss it!

We had been invited back to Summerhall to celebrate the venue’s 10th anniversary after an award-winning run last year with Everything I See I Swallow, a Lowry commissioned aerial drama for their Week 53 festival. We being Shasha & Taylor Productions and this being our very first show. When the lockdown happened in March I was at the point of paying the deposit for a 4 week rental on an Edinburgh flat and it is only in the last few weeks that I deleted the Summerhall dates from my diary, for whatever reason, perhaps imagining a parallel universe where I could be back in that courtyard, free pass in hand, running from Roundabout (Paines Plough’s glorious portable performance space) to any number of performance rooms at that wonderful venue (not to mention the delights that beckoned across the entire city).

Edinburgh Fringe is by far the largest and most ambitious arts festival in the world. The showcasing opportunities for both international and home-grown talent are second to none. The biennial British Council showcase due back in 2021offers a supreme platform for a diverse range of cutting edge new and existing work. We had applied in 2019 and although we were not selected we managed to secure performance dates at a festival in Berlin because of the show’s profile on the fringe. With the festival cancelled I worry about the impact this will have on new work and what opportunities audiences will have to see such work and in what format. Ye more Zoom?! With Brexit looming how will this impact forums like the British Council showcase and will it still be as ambitious in its scope? As if we haven’t had enough uncertainty already!

The Edinburgh Fringe of course is always full of uncertainty and if I were to say that I loved every bit of being in Edinburgh last year (or any previous year) I would be lying. It’s a rollercoaster like anything that requires you to put yourself on the frontline, expose yourself to either criticism, adulation or something in between. We were lucky. We had a strong show, good support behind us, a PR company with a proven track record, an excellent publicity image, a USP (an aerial show about female sexuality and rope bondage!) and were part of a curated programme at Summerhall. What could possibly go wrong? Our first preview went well and no reviewers. Our second preview on the other hand, although not an unmitigated disaster was a technical nightmare (or so it felt on stage) as the projector failed and along with it all of our carefully integrated music and imagery. We had 2 reviewers in and I have no idea how we managed to get away with 4 star reviews but one of them (Broadway Baby) ended “With a bit of finesse in and out of movements, this performance will easily be elevated to five stars” which offered me no solace whatsoever. In my hyper sensitive, preoccupied state ‘That was it!’ I thought. We’d had our chance and we’d blown it. It might seem melodramatic to someone not in the business but when you work so hard toward getting something just right, when it goes wrong it feels desperate. I’m not exaggerating when I say that after that show I thought we now had to just get through it. Keep on ‘til the end. Hone the show as best we can but any chance of anything more, awards, etc, forget it. I really felt that deflated and after a heart to heart (and a healthy dose of Merlot) with our sound designer Matt Eaton I cried myself to sleep. That feeling of self pity is far from productive and didn’t last long and from then on in we did indeed hone the show and OWN the show, my co-performer Maisy Taylor and I finding a natural rhythm of performance, rest and recuperation. It was a physical show in a hot and sweaty space performed at height and in the height of summer so we needed to look after ourselves. We also found time to relax a bit, really enjoy the rest of the Fringe and Edinburgh itself. Walks to Leith and the coast, runs to Arthur’s seat, visits from family and friends, invitations to events and networking, just hanging out in the wonderful courtyard at Summerhall, etc.

It was during the third week that I got a call from our PR guy Steve Forster to say that we’d won a Scotsmen Fringe First, awarded for innovation and outstanding new writing. I probably burst his eardrums with my shriek of delight and I can’t tell you the pleasure that it gave me and the rest of our creative team. We were also in the running for a Broadway World award for Best Circus/Physical Theatre production which we subsequently won. I felt elated, relieved and vindicated all in one. All of that work. All of those rope burns. Those tears. Rewarded.

The Edinburgh fringe can be punishing, exhausting, debilitating but I can’t think of a better platform in which to showcase new work. I honestly can’t think of a better venue than Summerhall. Having seen a myriad of shows there (as many as I could fit in to be honest and the free pass helped!) the quality and diversity of performance work was consistently high.

We found a voice that year, in that vast sea of creativity, and for that I feel very proud.

Swallow 2 Edinburgh 2020