Behind the Scenes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019

Category: Directors

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?

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.   

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.

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