Monday, 8 September 2014

What I Got from the Fringe

It's not uncommon for performers at the Fringe to experience a come-down once the Festival is over. That makes sense to me. A great deal of energy goes into making an Edinburgh show. This energy consists of well-spent creative and emotional effort, as well as the physical work of dashing around the city, flyering, organising props and publicity and performing every day. It also consists of wasted energy: getting emotional about practical matters, and attempting to fix creative problems by running about.

But once the shows are finished, once all that energetic self-promotion and self-hype has died down, it can be hard not to feel slightly empty. It's in the nature of performance that the prizes are fleeting. The show ends, the audience goes home, the venue is dismantled, the flyers are thrown away. What are we left with?

No wonder that performers chase after whatever substantive rewards are available in Edinburgh. For some, this will consist of relationships with agents, promoters and other professionals likely to advance their careers and allow them to do more ambitious shows. Others seek out the stars. The star-system turns the complicated, infuriating, ambiguous language of show reviewing into pure currency, which can be weighed up, quantified and calculated.

A few comedians I spoke to said that the reason why they wanted to do the full month of the Fringe was simply in order to prove to themselves that they could. This "because it's there" reasoning appeals to me. Performing at the Fringe is akin to running a marathon. There is something fundamentally ludicrous about the challenge. I decided to do only ten shows, because I thought this would be my emotional and physical limit. In order to run a marathon, one must first be able to run 10,000 metres. If I do the Fringe again, I will do a bit more.

It's certainly the case that shows that are performed more than twenty times undergo a much more vigorous testing than those that are just done ten times. They are forged into much stronger shows through their repetition. On the down side, the work is intense, and at times becomes a feat of purely physical stamina rather than of creative honing. It is almost inevitable that a few of the performances will be sub-par.

One of the clearest advantages to doing a shorter Fringe was that I barely underwent any of the crashing lows that are typical of the full-run performer's experience. The shows were all enjoyable to do, and they all went more-or-less "well", despite a few obvious glitches, lapses in memory and concentration and poor choices. If I had done more performances, I would have made more mistakes and done a few more shoddy shows, but I would have made more discoveries along the way.

The most significant discovery that I made was that the almost structureless succession of "acts" that made up the backbone of my scripted show became almost subordinate to the banter with the audience. I increasingly enjoyed drawing the room together, pooling ideas from the crowd, responding to both their laughter and their confused silences. This meant that a show that originally had clocked in at a little over 50 minutes started to overrun quite considerably. Even after I had cut a lot of additional material I had originally thought I would need, I regularly made myself a nuisance to the group whose show was on in the same space immediately after mine.

But I find it hard to regret much about an experience that was so overwhelmingly positive. By dwelling on the lessons to be learned, however, I can escape the melancholy that might follow a straightforwardly "successful" Fringe. I have chosen to step away from improv for the foreseeable future, and devote myself to solo scripted performance, even if that means that at first I spend less time on stage. Starting at a lower level in the vast and diverse comedy arena is more exciting to me now than continuing to do shows of increasingly consistent quality, in an increasingly familiar setting.

I have also bought myself the official Edinburgh Festival Fringe t-shirt.

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