Behind the Scenes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019

Author: lisa

Featuring Fringy Female Graffiti Artists

Craving an off beat art experience, I bussed across town thirty minutes to Leith in search of the 360 Wraparound Street Art Courtyard and Urban Art Exhibition.  Spying a spray-painted Asian-looking cat on a large metal industrial door told me I was probably close.  A brick and stone arched tunnel about fifteen feet long covered in more painted art marked the entrance into an open-air parking lot space enclosed on all sides by high walls now covered in murals with a small indoor gallery space to my right.  

A lanky, fellow bent over his painting project in the yard looked up and smiled.  David welcomed me in to the parking area and introduced himself jokingly as the “curator” of the urban art project, and the landlord.  Another gal painting away on a 3 x 3 foot wood cube, offered a friendly Hello too.

David in front of Elph’s mural

“So what’s the impetus for this project?” I asked David.  He explained that initially he wanted to feature female Scottish street artists and invited as many as he could find to cover the outdoor space.  Most of the art was created a month before the Fringe Festival during the Leith Festival, but David showed me a few new works that were done during the Fringe – including an incredible work by Elph (@elphone).   David offered that Elph started out as a graffiti artist, then went to art school, and has returned to his street art roots by creating a new original graffiti work every 24 hours! Upon closer inspection of his painting, you see his lovely lightly painted touch in striking contrast to the other wall art with bold thick layered paint.  The Elph of Edinburgh is like the new Bansky of London. Now I’m on the hunt for his work!  How long has he been doing this? Anyone know?

Only three of the woman artists and one male (Elph) regularly do graffiti art as their primary art form.  Zoe Atherfold (@zoeatherfold), the gal I met when I walked in is a very talented screen print artist (I mention as I ended up purchasing a print), although she contributed to the 360 urban art project by painting a cool pigeon art mural high on the wall above the arch of the tunnel. 

David explained that inexpensive art studio space is hard to find in Edinburgh.  His indoor gallery and workshop space is a former refrigeration storage facility (that failed to pass a cheese inspection – not cold enough!).  I entered through an industrial roller lift door into a small gallery space with a variety of different artists’ works displayed.  Zoe invited me into her work space.  What work space?  Voila … A secret door opened amidst the displayed art, and we entered into a myriad of tiny work spaces with artists buzzing about.  She showed me her small print shop area.  David commented later how artists are great tenants because they don’t need much.  “Just a space to create and a toilet. No need for high speed wifi, etc,” he joked. 

I asked about other graffiti art I had seen around town. He explained that there’s a group of graffiti artists located not far away who do only spray paint mural art.  He showed me their “tag” of approval on this space – a show of urban art respect.  

Monsters Within

Traversing slowly through the foggy room to find my seat, Taiwan Season: Monster by Yen-Cheng Liu was an experience from the onset.  Creative, evocative, uncomfortable, boundary pushing – This is the kind of work I came to the Fringe to experience. 

Afterwards, Liu was very approachable and open to share about his art.  Although created in 2017, this is his first time touring with this piece.  Liu, an acclaimed international dancer, explained that he reached a point in his dance career where he began to seriously question why he was dancing?  “What was the point of dancing?”  This work reflects those explorations as he experiments with space and time in unusual and interesting ways.  He says that this is a “movement piece” versus a dance piece.  Liu explained how he likes that in some Chinese landscape paintings you see mountains on each side of the picture and a big open space between.  The concept is reflected in his work. His actual dance movements were captivating. I walked away wanting more! MORE!  And needing to think and take it all in.  I love that.  I love that the Fringe is the place he decided to allow a very non-traditional piece the space.  Isn’t that what the Fringe should be about after all?

About that Snail in My Shoe: Tent Camping at the Fringe

My new blanket and pillow.

Huffing and puffing, I arrived with my heavier than hell backpack via bus to Mortonhall campground and crematorium (not joking) about 40 mins away from the center of Edinburgh where most of the Fringe action takes place.  I thought I would try to cut my expenses at the Fringe by going cheap on accommodations and tent camp.  Surely this is what artists on a budget must do, right?  I envisioned camping amidst all sorts of creative sorts and getting a really behind the scenes glimpse into performers’ lives at the Fringe. 

The long walk past the cows to reception.
None of these deluxe setups are mine…

It was hot and sunny when I arrived, and I found myself sweating the 15 minute walk from the bus to reception.  I had pre-booked into the extra cheap “Fringe Festival Camping” area which proved to be another 15 minute walk to a back field.  With limited bathroom access and a location way too far from the campground amenities, I rather quickly surmised that it would not do for a month.  I resolved to pay the difference to be closer to the front.  With sweat now dripping down my face, I trudged back to reception.  The helpful gal kindly allowed me to camp in the regular tent camping area only a three minute walk away.  Thank you sweet woman!  My new spot was under a fine shade tree.  Score! Maybe this was going work out after all! Heck the campground even sports a nice restaurant and pub.

This is my tent, and this was the last day I saw sun!

That was pretty much the last I saw of the sun for the next 13 days. It poured seemingly non-stop.  Rain makes a few things I intended to do much more challenging – cooking and drying clothes being the two biggies.  Fortunately, the campground had a kitchen, as do most campgrounds in Europe.

Kitchen, laundry, and recreation room.

I depend upon the plugs in their recreation room with inconvenient hours to do my charging, or hopped the bus to town to enjoy a coffee and recharge.*

Adding to the challenge, there was simply no way to dry clothes – not even my quick-dry towel would dry with the constant rainy damp weather. 

The welcome mat.

With the rain, came the mud.  My lovely little camp area turned into a mud pit.  I purchased a mat that said “SMILE” for outside the door to put my shoes on and make getting in and out less messy.  That helped.  Another challenge was keeping warm.  I erred in bringing my lightweight sleeping bag.  It’s summer after all, right?  I froze for the first few nights until I finally broke down and bought a blanket and a pillow, and another pair of pants.  I only brought one long pair – jeans, all the rest were shorts and a pair of capris.  Fortunately, Edinburgh has fabulous secondhand stores, “Charity shops” as they call them.  I got some fine pants for just a few pounds.  I went new retail on the blanket.

The break in!

Then came a new challenge — one I had never encountered in all my years of camping.  A break in!  I arrived back to my tent one evening to find a large hole, approximately 4 inches, chewed through the wall of my tent and into my bag of bread! Thank goodness it was not through my rainfly!!  I have no idea what critter broke in, just that I no could no longer keep any sort of bread product in my tent. 

On the bright but pricier side, the weather prompted lots more dining out, which is a bit of a treat in an international city like Edinburgh.  I am also taking in more shows (which have been amazing) than I anticipated because it’s just too miserable to wander outside.  I bought a monthly unlimited bus pass, so I spend a lot of time on it too. Plus, all the wet weather has been great for my skin and hair. 

About those artists camping … Yeah, not so much.  I didn’t notice very many folks camping, not “fringe” tent camping anyway.  Those that were in the field had much larger, more deluxe tent set-ups – so presumably they’re from Europe and not trying to pack small and light for flying.  Also, one should note that the night busses run much less frequently.  

One more little unexpected issue: bees!  At first there was an occasional one buzzing about my tent, but yesterday there were more like five making efforts to get in.  Did I park myself on a nest? Are they too over the rain?  Another first for me camping.  Wait … maybe it’s the banana peel! I think I got that one figured.

And about the snail I found in my shoe? At least it was not a slug. The slugs really like sticking themselves to my tent as well. Needless to say, when my friend arrives in a couple of days, I’m moving indoors.  Of course, it will probably stop raining thereafter! Ha!

*No free wifi, so I opted for a $20 sim card for my phone with 12GB of data for the month.

Only 15 Minutes to Set Up!

Phil Poole, Set Designer

Director, Claudine Sinnet, likes a challenge and has big ideas.  While most shows bring a suitcase full of props to the Fringe, not Claudine.  “She wanted a proper set for her first show at the Edinburgh Fringe and her new production company, Cry Havoc,” says Phil Poole, her set designer. Approximately fifteen minutes is allotted to erect the set for the 50 minute new play, Devil of Choice, by Maggie Bofill, a playwright from NYC. Phil explained that they must wait for the previous show to clear out before they set up — and everyone always runs late. Go figure.  Phil, an experienced professional set designer, worked with Claudine, also an experienced theater professional, to design a set that could be put up fast! He created what are called “bookend” flats.  These mobile walls are approximately 8’ x 3’, open like a book, and are self-standing without weights.  The three actors in the show engage in quick costume changes behind these bookend walls.  The 15-minute stage set up by the cast and limited crew includes erecting the bookends, plus setting all the props and costumes. Whew! 

So surely they had plenty of time before the actual performance to work out the techy bits, right?   Nope.  Two weeks earlier, they had a four-hour technical rehearsal where none of the actors were present.  Claudine and Phil and rest of her theater crew live in Brighton, UK while the actors reside in the United States. The Thursday before the show opened, the full cast had a one-hour dress run-through.  Only one hour! They engaged in what they call “top and tailing” the scenes.  The cast members would do a line or so at the beginning of each scene and then skip to the end of it in order to get lighting and sound clues right.  Then show time baby!  That’s it! I’m excited to actually go see the show now. 

UPDATE: The very adult themed drama was quite good. It was a small audience, and I believe I ended up chatting afterward with everyone who attended…and everyone liked it. Interesting story, well directed, good acting, nice set design, and great music. Definitely a solid show worthy of attending.

Puppet Busking: Not Your Average Honeymoon

As I’m cooking breakfast in the kitchen at my campground, I get chatting with a young couple from the United States,  Philadelphia specially.  Leah Holleran and Aaron Roberge decided to create a shadow puppet show, The Dragon and The Wanderer, and busk tour it around Europe as part of their three month honeymoon.  I immediately liked these folks.  Both actors, both new to creating a puppet show – let alone a mobile operation. Did I mention that they are camping too?  And it’s been pretty much non-stop rain since I arrived.  They’re traveling with two suitcases full of show materials and two backpacks stuffed with camping gear.  Sounds like a logistical nightmare to me. Oh boy, did I have questions.

Leah explained that they were admitted into the Edinburgh Fringe to perform on the Royal Mile, but opted out.  Their show runs 29 minutes and they would only be allotted 25.  Plus, it’s quite complex to set up and break down the set.  While they both handle the puppets and Leah is a character in the show, she shared that Aaron is the engineering force behind the show.  The entire puppet theater set is made up of 28” sections, with Leah emphasizing that it’s a time-consuming puzzle to put together.  However, the setup process has proved to be good marketing.  So WHERE are they performing if not the Fringe?  In our campground! –plus other campgrounds, restaurants, and venues where they’ve been invited while traveling.  The campground kids look in wonder and spread the word as the couple builds their stage and their audience.  Ours is the largest campground nearest to the Fringe and they are the only folks that I’ve seen perform here. Brilliant! They shared that their big aim is to participate in the World Puppet Theater Festival in France next month where they are official participants. Oh man, now another event I’d love to check out.

But let’s talk more about set design.  What were the challenges with taking their show on the road?  Aaron explained that the set had to be light and durable enough to fly, yet not blow over nor be destroyed in weather when busking.  The shadow puppet screen is the most delicate part and takes a full day to make.  They brought 3 screens and are already down one.  Also, they had to make it easy enough to set up with limited tools as tools are heavy to ship and expensive to re-purchase.  Six tools get the job done.  Aaron had a vision of the entire set actually turning into a dragon puppet, so that complicated things a bit too.  But he adds perspective by sharing a quote, “I learned 999 things not to do before getting it right.”  Then there’s lighting and sound.  Two lightweight photography lights and two small, but mighty, blue tooth speakers connected to a phone do the trick.  Don’t forget the puppets and the costumes.  The puppets, both shadow and hand puppets, are all original creations and by original I mean the couple invented various puppet concepts that have not been seen before one of which involves a glove with rods sticking out from each finger.  I mention it’s shadow puppet theater, right?  So the ideal timing for a show is early evening.  Too much light can be a problem, but they seem to have worked that part out. 

One final important nugget of info for acts coming from other countries to the Fringe — Leah shared that they were supposed to perform at the Bedford Fringe Festival, but found out when they got to Europe that they did not have the correct work permits.  She had read carefully the information on the Edinburgh Fringe website and presumed it would be the same for Bedford  It was not.  Here’s their detainment story: Yikes. Thanks for the heads up. 

We’re Moving! Putting on A Mobile Performance at The Edinburgh Fringe

It’s pretty fun when the nice young woman, whom you are sitting next to and chatting with, suddenly gets up and begins performing in the show.  I was particularly curious to experience Back of the Bus by Java Dance Theater as I have a “thing” for mobile shows. What do I mean by mobile?  I mean Back of the Bus is a musical dance performance that takes place both on and off an old-school double-decker bus as it travels throughout Edinburgh.  We wandered into various non-traditional settings at least three times.

I spoke to Sacha Copland, Artistic Director, after the show and asked about some of the challenges and problems she’s had with presenting on a bus.  She offered that to begin, there is the challenge of securing a bus!  It is peak season in Edinburgh after all.  Java Dance Theater company is based in New Zealand, but Back of the Bus has been produced around the world including Tokyo so that’s just a small hurdle.  

Another challenge I saw firsthand was trying to gather your flock of audience members in the midst of Fringe chaos.  It’s certainly more difficult than having people meet up in a theater, eh?  Sacha emphasized that for anyone thinking to try a mobile show, the number one priority should be on safety — especially among the cast.  The bus is moving, taking corners, and stopping while the performers are dancing about.  From time to time they run into logistical problems too.  She mentioned that last night they hit rush hour traffic and so the show ran about 20 minutes long.  They have back up material for such happenings. Other times, a bus has taken a wrong turn or broken down.  The key Sacha says is trying to anticipate all the possible things that could go wrong and have backup plans.  Our show seemed to go off without a hitch. 

I know what I got out of the show, but I was curious about Sacha’s vision for her audience experience.  She sees Back of the Bus as an opportunity to break down boundaries and bring people together, which she notes is pretty much opposite of what normally happens on a bus.  The show does do just that.  Audience members find themselves on an hour-long romp around Edinburgh and ultimately become part of the show.  I found myself laughing and singing alongside new friends by the end.  The gal I locked arms with exclaimed, “Oh I just love not knowing what’s going to come next!”  Thanks for the fun Java Dance Theater.   

Tips & Words of Advice from Fringe Leaders 2019

This year the Edinburgh Fringe Festival offers over 100 programs aimed directly at helping Fringe participants, not to mention Fringe Central, a large central locale offering more participant services and respite.  I caught the “First Time at The Fringe: A Newcomer’s Guide”, a panel discussion where eight key Fringe employees representing various areas from music rights to marketing to ticketing provide all sorts of helpful information.  Here were the final take away key nuggets of advice from the eight:

  1. Be sure to take a step back – that is “get some perspective, by getting away.”
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  3. Make the most of the diversity at the Fringe – from programs to people.
  4. Be kind – to others but also to yourself.
  5. Go to the Fringe Welcome Address.  You’ll hear an excellent Key Note speaker who will inspire and remind us all what the Fringe is all about.
  6. Be sure to use one another for support.  Help each other out as much as you can.
  7. Don’t become obsessed with ticket sales (don’t drive yourself crazy hitting refresh on your phone to see about sales).
  8. Build genuine relationships (that’s the best networking you can do).  A few genuine relationships will go further than a ton of quicky acquaintances. 

Note that two main focuses of the Fringe programming this year are diversity and self-care.  Lots of Fringe Central programs are specific to those topics.

How to Create a Pleasurable Show about Grief

Can a show about grief be pleasurable?  The answer is yes! As a first time producer at the Fringe (but a long time actor), Liz Richardson collaborates with fellow performers Josie Dale-Jones and Sam Ward, and musician Carmel Smickersgill to create a very interesting, engaging, and entertaining work called Swim.

Left to rightL Liz Richardson, Sam Ward, and Josie Dale-Jones

At the show’s onset, it is explained that this work is not about grief, but rather a show for the person who was grieving – a friend of Liz’s. This becomes a thought-provoking aspect of the show. By the end, the audience begins questioning their original assumptions about who is grieving.  The show offers a very clever concoction of mixed media, interesting “real” characters, original live music, dance, quality storytelling, and the opportunity to learn about wild swimming.  As a bonus, you get a behind the scenes look at making the show while enjoying the show – how perfect for me and my blogging.

Swim at the Edinburg Fringe 2019

In speaking with Liz after the show, I was most interested in understanding what the experience is like to produce and continue performing in a show that’s so personal and a continued reminder of a very sad time.  She explained that she is is no stranger to creating and presenting work of an intimate nature. However, she added that it’s been quite a different experience producing at the Fringe versus in Manchester, England where the show debuted. Back in Manchester, the show is connected into a grief organization, Cruse, which supports her work and vice versa.  Creating work that is helpful to others appears to be an important, recurring theme for Liz.  She shared that after shows in Manchester, audience members often approached her to share their grief.  She confessed that after about 3 days of shows and lots of crying, the theater realized the emotional toll it was taking on her and brought in support for her.  I asked her if she had any coping strategies with the prospect of the show being picked up for more runs elsewhere.  She smiled and shared her mother’s advice which was that she, Liz, needs to distance herself and attempt to “act” more.  It sounds like she is working out how to navigate that moving forward.  With the quick set up and breakdown of a show at the Fringe, who has time to grieve?  The show must go on…and out!  Next!

Swim plays at the Fringe through August 26 at 15:30.

Chaos Costume Designing for the Fringe

The Fringe offers opportunities for a variety of behind the scenes folks that are a part of making shows happen.  I met Si Chen on the train to Edinburgh.  She is from Northern China but currently a fashion design student in a graduate program at the University of London.  She designed and sewed beautiful costumes for a small group of dancers performing an original dance and storytelling show at the fringe called Chaos.  Her friend who created and choreographed the experimental piece chose to use dance as the international language to share traditional Chinese stories. The show only performs a couple of days with today being the last day (today at 18:30).  Si explained that space is expensive, especially as a student, but the experience is still worthy.  

Like the show, her designs of the long flowing lavender colored skirts add a contemporary look to traditional Chinese designs.  This is a perfect fit for Si as her personal interest in fashion is creating modern twists to traditional Chinese dress.  She showed me a photo of a luncheon with friends who share a similar interest and each woman was wearing beautiful dresses that reflected six different Chinese dynasties and their stories.  For Si, the Fringe provides her a professional opportunity to share and display her designs with an international audience, and help her student friends with their artistic projects. 

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