August 28, 2019
An update: Mouthpiece won the ethical drama (Carol Tambor) award in Edinburgh, so the production should be coming to New York sometime this year!
If you’ve perused the videos up on the website, you’ll notice Arthur, which won a Fringe First this year. We were lucky to have gotten tickets to this play for 10 audience members in our own house! The star of the show was the baby, of course, but I did indeed learn some things from Daniel Bye’s fact-based play about bring up children in the modern age. (Yes, it seems that the better we get at it, the more anxious and depressed our children turn out to be!) The unusual nature of this play was perhaps matched by the play call 8:8, which featured eight performers apparently from the general population in Edinburgh. We went into the small downstairs space in Summerhall (formerly the Women’s locker room), and watched the performers silently stare at us for a while, then do a little marching in formation. Just when we were about to write the piece off, though, they all sat a few feet from us (each performer facing one audience member) and began to tell their stories. To say they were engaging is an understatement. Most of them had been incarcerated (one 68 year old for 30 years!) and all had endured some kind of tragic mistake. By the end of the 25 minutes, we felt like we had deeply connected to the stranger in front of us. After the show, the program noted that the play was written in response to a new Swiss law that prevents anyone with a felony conviction from entering the country; after hearing these surprising stories, such a law seemed incredibly harsh.
August 19, 2019
I promised myself and friends to write about the festival while there, but here I am at home, wishing I was STILL in Edinburgh watching amazing performances, eating good food, strolling through the gardens, and planning the next day’s events. All told, I saw 36 shows (19 of them with our group). While that may seem like a lot, I had many stretches of free time when I considered adding another show and instead opted to rest up or just hang out in our beautiful house on Gilmore Place.
Of the offerings at the Traverse Theatre this year, two plays stood out for me: The Patient Gloria and Mouthpiece. The former was a feminist play by Gina Moxley based on the actual 1964 video recordings entitled “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy,” which captured the encounter of a patient (Gloria) with three different psychotherapists and was ostensibly made for educational purposes. (They’re still up on youtube here: () However dreary that might sound, the Irish production was ripping fun, right down to a the flying drone-like penis purpose built for the show. The production underscored the disturbing power dynamics revealed by the original project, and restored Gloria’s voice for a modern-day audience more attuned to the absurdity of mansplaining therapists, all three of which were hilariously played by the Gina Moxley herself.
Mouthpiece played in the more intimate space of Traverse 2 and offered an emotionally devastating look at the relationship between a disaffected, working class Scottish teenager and a female playwright facing a mid-life crisis affecting her ability to write. An opening moment on a cliff where boy “saves” girl from an apparent suicide jump leads to an unlikely, but utterly compelling relationship between the two characters. The class differences and related misunderstandings are underscored by the language: it was difficult for most of us in the group to keep up with the teen’s thick Scottish brogue! The mutually inspiring encounter ends up, ironically enough, in the theatre itself, in the play written by the female playwright about her relationship with the boy–who crashes opening night with his justifiable rage at being hurt, abandoned, exploited, and, once again, misunderstood. As Toby writes below, however, the collective experience of this play was a subjective one: some of us were moved to literal tears by the end, while a few felt distanced by the language or thought the play did not deserve the wild standing ovation it certainly got the night we attended. What’s nice about the Traverse Theatre is that the play program is the script of the play–and these are two plays I plan to re-read and savor.
August 9, 2019 (pm)
I teach my students that going to see a play, while a collective experience, is also a subjective one. We are together in the dark, ostensibly witnessing the same story, and yet where our minds go, what moves and shakes us, what leaves us cold, is all so personal. It can be influenced by the past and current events of our lives, what we’ve done earlier in the day, feelings of hunger or exhaustion, or even the temperature of the theater. It can also be influenced by the amount and style of the art we grew up with, as well as what we’re currently exposed to, and the aesthetic preferences that grow out of that. And so it is that, at the end of a play, I can feel completely impervious and unmoved, and think, “Well, that was pointless,” only to look around the house and see a hundred audience members giving a tearful and enthusiastic standing ovation; or, I can be weeping, shaking, haunted and engaged beyond anything I can remember, only to have those around me yawn and look at their watches. It seems obvious: art is subjective. And yet it sometimes still surprises me.
I have seen 11 shows thus far, some with the group, some with Jenny, one on my own. Of these 11, my favorites have been Peter Gynt, the rarely produced, sprawling, troll-filled Ibsen play, in a new adaptation by British playwright David Hare; Buzz, a solo show adapted from a Norwegian novel and performed by Belgian actress Charlotte Vandermeersch (who is, according to Wikepedia, one day older than I am), working alongside a talented musician playing a host of small handheld devises as well as piano, guitar, and drums; Baby Reindeer, another solo show written and performed by stand-up comedian Richard Gadd, a “true,” (I’m doubtful), grotesque, and chilling account of his stalker; and finally, a third solo show, Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch. [Note: we saw the first three shows before the group arrived.–Jenny]
I found I’m a Phoenix, Bitch to be utterly gut-wrenching, in that it felt like my guts were being extracted from my body, palpated, and twisted in knots; and heart-breaking, in that my heart felt, by turns, jostled, constricted, and shattered.
During one sequence in the show, I actually felt, for possibly the first time in my theatrical life, “unsafe”—well, not unsafe, actually, but deeply unsettled. But then I remembered that the performer had lovingly told us in the beginning of the show, in the only effective and likable “content warning” I have ever experienced, something like, “I process all my emotional sh*t first, and then I make art out of it. So I am safe here today, and you are safe.” I know I’m not remembering the specific phrasing of this. I wish I’d taken better note of it, as it was simply and perfectly done.
Bryony Kimmings apparently has quite a following. Her website says, “Inspired by the taboos, stigmas, anomalies, and social injustices around her, Kimmings creates mind-blowing, multi-platform art works to provoke change.” She beganPhoenix by giving those of us unacquainted with her work a brief description of her past work: flashy and colorful social experiments, replete with wigs and sequins, yet also always containing lots of tears. She went on to say that she hadn’t created any work in over three years, since 2015, the year where her “life burned to the ground.”
The main content of the piece described the year, or really two years, after her son was born, during which time she had severe postnatal psychosis, exploded by her son’s sudden onset of severe life-altering seizures. She and her partner split up, she (by her own description) lost her mind, and her son teetered for months on the edge of life and death.
The core emotional sequence of the piece was the depiction of the three worst days of her psychosis during which, alone in a cottage in Oxfordshire, she entered her own personal horror movie. This was illustrated for us by Disney movie-inspired projections of trees, behind which she used a shovel to face off against unseen monsters, then dug herself deep down into the earth, then burned, then drowned. The childlike quality of the scenery, props, and projections elucidated rather than undermined the horror of her psychosis. This is the sequence where I most needed to remind myself, “She is safe. I am safe. We are safe here together.”
The end of the piece found Kimmings pulling herself out of the darkness, with the help of some magical thinking and a message she leaves for herself from her 18-year-old son in the future. The night my mother saw the show, a fire alarm prevented the audience from seeing these last 20 minutes, which to me seems unthinkable. They were the promised safety, the light at the end of the tunnel for Kimmings, as well as for ourselves. Without them, we would all still be stuck in the dark.
August 5, 2019 (pm)
Our first show, Sunday night after arriving, getting set up, napping hard, and gluten free pizza, was Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. It began frustratingly enough with the ushers trying to persuade a bunch of grumpy old people (my 35-year-old-self included) to download Instagram onto their phones. I refused, like the grumpiest and oldest amongst them. Then there was a wifi problem that took another 20 minutes, with some grumbling and some bewildered even grumpier and older people saying, “But I don’t even have a smart phone,” and someone loudly asking if Fringe shows were intended to start on time. Finally, the production began.
It was very ambitious. It was (maybe) about the nature of Time. About how Instagram has kept us in an increasingly small sliver of the present, by capturing and cementing micro-moments which we otherwise might have no memory of or attach no importance to. About how we have created Time as a linear and forward moving thing because of entropy, (this idea was mentioned only briefly, and I’m not real clear on it, although I am intrigued). And also about Iran, and an (again) small sliver of the population, the wildly wealthy young people who come out of this very complicated history and go a little crazy. It was also about shopping malls.
There were some really interesting points made, and some moments where the live Instagram feed, played off many devices, often in a slow and halting way due to faulty wifi, created a powerful soundscape, a haunting microcosm of our own complicated technologically-driven broken-human-connection society. And, some of the larger design choices augmented that in powerful ways.
On the down side, the performers lacked passion, modulation, and the ability to really connect to their audience. The piece was also incredibly self-referential without containing too much of substance–in other words, the actors began with a long list of what the play was about, and then the play ended shortly thereafter. The content seemed to be, in large part, the listing of the content.
Although, maybe that was a brilliant subtle mirroring of Instagram culture, the captured micro-moment being the synecdoche for the vastness of human experience, or…something?
August 5, 2019 (am)
Toby and I are in Scotland…the flight from Boston to Edinburgh goes without a glitch, and we arrive in rainy Scotland in the morning. Luckily, we have time for a pretty long nap before our first show, and the three-floor Georgian house we are staying in has been lovingly restored to its full grandeur! Toby and I will be seeing a few shows before the full group arrives, and we’ll let people know if we recommend them.–Jenny
July 19, 2019
The itinerary is finally settled, and I’m so excited about the performances we will see–mostly this year at Summerhall and the Traverse. I just got word that Tim Crouch, the author of Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, has agreed to to meet with our group for drinks after his International Festival show on August 11. The following morning, we are seeing a show titled Arthur, which will be performed by Daniel Bye, with his 10 month old child, in our own house! Can’t get more “fringey” than that! Except, maybe, 8:8, which is a 25 minute show for just eight audience members at a time, confronting 8 “ordinary people” drawn from the Edinburgh community. Despite the potentially off-putting title, I’m looking forward to seeing Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! by Ridiculusmus–a very interesting group known for challenging their audiences as they explore different mental states (characters with schizophrenia, paranoia, and post-traumatic stress have been empathetically portrayed in earlier shows.) I was also quite lucky to grab tickets to Daniel Kitson’s last minute show Shenanigan, which sold out to members of his own listserve within minutes of being posted online: Kitson is an amazing, internationally known story-teller who holds fast to the performative nature of his art by refusing to publish his (always sold out) monologues. He calls himself a “naughty rebel” (for acting outside the Fringe deadlines and rules for tickets sales), calling his work “Something new, vaguely experimental, unfinished and frankly, quite unlikely to ever be finished…” His show is at 10:45pm on our final program day.
On our first night (after napping to address jetlag!) we’ll be seeing Baby Wants Candy’s Fully Improvised Full Band Musical, which will begin with the selection of a title from audience shout-outs. So I hope you’ll all be thinking of something! The schedule of shows we are seeing at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh’s year long repertory theatre committed to supporting new work, looks particularly strong this year. Although I haven’t booked this show for the group, I’m personally looking forward to David Edgar’s Trying it On at the Traverse this year: Edgar was one of the most succcessful and influential of a group of British playwrights who literally started a movement in late 1970’s, and someone central to my own academic area of expertise in British political theatre. Maybe you’ll decide to join me if you won’t mind seeing two great back-to-back performances at the Traverse in one night (at 7pm, before Mouthpiece at 8:45). Just time for a quick drink between shows at the lively Traverse bar: for me, that’s what the Fringe is all about!
May 13, 2019
It’s difficult to contain my excitement for the 2019 Festival! The full program is due out on June 5, and I will be glued to my computer screen for a few days after that. Things are already shaping up, though…this year, I’ll be attending the Edinburgh Military Tattoo with the group–my first time in over 15 years of trekking to the fringe! Also booked is a City Tour (on a small bus), a tour of the Scottish Parliament building, and two International Festival shows (Roots and the show by Tim Crouch discussed below). A couple very helpful apps are available now, too, for both Apple and Android phones: search for Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019 wherever you download apps for your phone. Equally useful is the Transport for Edinburgh app put out by Lothian Buses PLC. This app can lets you track where the buses are at any given time, and you can punch in a destination and find out which bus to hop on and when. And finally, here is the free website for creating a passport-sized photo (which I need to purchase your bus Ridacard): https://www.persofoto.com/upload/passport-photo
April 13, 2019
I’m especially looking forward to Tim Crouch’s new play at the Studio Theatre: Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation. You can view a clip from an earlier play I, Malvolio on this website. The new play was co-commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Court (London), the Attenborough Centre or the Creative Arts, and Teatro do Bairro Alto, Lisbon, where it will tour. According to Tim’s own website, the play “tells the story of a man who, compensating for his own failure, manipulates a group of people to sit in a place together and believe in something that isn’t true. . . The play is presented through the parallel worlds of stage action and illustrated text. Audience and actors turn the pages together. They study the images together. Sometimes – with agreement – they share the words.”
Tim’s plays are often written around an idea or concept that requires the audience, in some way, to “co-produce” the play. Usually, his plays are performed with a kind of “heightened alienation”—not really a Brechtian alienation effect, yet not not one. His audiences are invited into a state of “detachment” from the narrative that actually allows for both reflection and emotion, the latter often coming as a startling “surprise.”
Although I have not yet seen or read this new play, It sounds like it may take up some questions and themes from earlier work (My Arm, An Oak Tree, England, Adler and Gibb) such as: What is the qualitative difference between theatre and visual art? What does it mean “to look”? What does it mean “to see”? What does theatre do for the audience, and what can it do? How are “real” emotions produced in a space that is totally fake, artificial, unreal?
I’m so curious to know precisely how Tim, with his charismatic presence, will lead the audience “toward the end of the world and the start of a new one,” using his unique brand of philosophical inquiry and theatrical magic. We’ll be attending this play on Sunday evening, August 11.
March 25, 2019
I’m getting super excited about the upcoming 2019 Festival trip! This year, we are a group of 9, who will undoubtedly be joined by a few past program participants who are returning to Scotland for the festival. In two days, the Edinburgh International Festival Program launches online (although tickets go on sale a bit later). The Fringe website has also added a bunch of shows, although my experience has been that its best not to commit until the full program comes out in mid-June. We will be seeing at least one International Festival theatre performance while we are there–and I’ll let you know as soon as I buy the tickets. Check out their website at https://www.eif.co.uk/.
P.S. If you’d like to add your own two cents to this blog, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. While in Edinburgh, I’m hoping we can take a few minutes each day to record and share our experiences (and photos?)