Race and Trauma // Demi Nandhra

This piece is available as an audio recording below:

why do white people like watching trauma so much?

this is how im going to start. why do white people like watching trauma so much? that question, because thats what plagued me at fringe. plagued me? maybe not plagued but intrigued, kind of confused me. i kind of wanted an answer but also i think i knew the answer.

context first -

this was my first ever fringe. taking a show. i performed everyday at 1pm at summerhall in the tech cube 0 space. i had aaron, my partner and my dog on stage. I spent my time with theatre people and then aaron and the dog. most of the shows i watched were at summerhall because of ease and them being free. I started off watching as much as a could but then went down to maybe on a good day watching 2-3 shows. It went down to one a day and then many days…nothing at all. just netflix or romesh ranganathan’s many fucking shows (google him, he’s funny)… all afternoon at the nice flat that cost nearly £5,000. a flat that didn’t have a sharp knife or a cheese grater.

anyway….

i was choosing to watch shows from artists i respect/admire and artists who were also friends that i wanted to support. a lot of the work centred trauma - personal trauma, family trauma, generational trauma, collective trauma. alllls the traumas. The works were rich, nuanced and vulnerable and had the potential to be dangerous…for me the audience and maybe the artists. I’m going to make an assumption and say yes dangerous for the artists. As an artist who was also presenting trauma based work, i did my due diligence, i considered what support i needed and made those arrangements. (begged aaron to be there). I was safe and i can imagine others tried to do the same but like me the work still had the potential to be dangerous for them. I/we just had to monitor and stay vigilant.

so all that to say i was around of a lot of dangerous works.

i became more and more concerned for audiences, my audiences and others. I spent a lot of time trying to maintain safety for audiences in my shows and then trying to control my triggers as an audience member in other shows. one thing that would help was to come out of the work a little, now and then look at others in the space not just the ‘stage’.

i noticed things.

I noticed white audiences didn't seem to have an intolerance to trauma. Not all white audiences before you start.

i noticed white audiences actively seeking trauma based work and filling their day with it

like the whole day, back to back of despair, violence and danger.

wtf?

is that not a wtf?

i think thats a wtf, i would be so exhausted by just one work that i would try and honour that exhaustion and leave. get the fuck out the venue i was in and go breath and watch romesh do his best judge judy impression.

i would get angry in some instances.

this one made me angry -

i was watching Rachael Young’s NIGHTCLUBBING for the second time. I love Young and i love this work. someone i was with wanted to see it and i was very happy to see it again. i knew what to expect so i had a healthy distance, my danger meter was low.

————

Young, the performer is standing on black block platforms, hula hooping, hands up in the air and into the mic is listing apologies, for her blackness and looking good in neon pink. the hula hooping never seems to end.

her self and voice keep going and going she is exerting so much physical energy/spirit/heart. it’s an exchange, she is giving and giving, we must give back. give her our energy. honour this moment, in this work. honour it.

it has been a long time now and she is still hula hooping and still listing her apologies.

i hear a rustle and my gaze moves through the audience to a white man in the audience a few rows down. he is eating some nuts or crisps and is gulping his beer.

i am confused. what is he looking at?

because it can’t be what I'm looking at, Young performing at this moment.

this man looks like he’s watching a football game that just flicked on.

i’m confused. and then it settles, i know, you know.

i then to want to punch him in his head.

————

I wanted to lunge my leg into the side of his head and then, when he turns around i would pretend nothing happened and he would be well confused because of the unprovoked violence towards him.

because that is exactly what he was doing in that moment. His attitude, demeanour, his energy was violent, violence upon this performer and their work.

“deMi He wAs juSt eAtiNg nUts AnD drInKiNg beEr, nO BIg dEaL”

fuck off, you know what i mean and if you don’t you are probably that guy or like him. ready to consume trauma like its skittles.

another - a white women talking to me about the violence/pain of a show while she looked at a food menu.

and thats what Fringe is folx, white people looking at a giant fucking menu and picking what to have.

“ooo i fancy something exotic tonight? maybe Indigenous people’s trauma and a side of non-binary person with OCD and depression”

“naaa sally i fancy the mixed grill… refugee stories, HIV positive experience and the peppercorn sauce, i mean political depression.”

i felt sad and pain and anger and all the things at the context i was in and so many PoC/marginalised artists were in.

“bUt yoU deCidEd tO Go, yOu pUt YoUrsELF iN thAt eNviRonMeNT”

suck your mom.

We are bees and fringe is honey. The big fucking honey pot. NO we are loads of winnie the poohs and the fringe is the biggest pot of honey we have seen.

(I’ve changed it to winnie because bee’s are not wanting honey right? they go to pollen and make honey? and this, my friends is from a 29yr old who has a masters degree).

winnie the pooh is the better example because it is fictional. winnie the pooh doesn’t exist so their/our love for honey/fringe isn’t real so i could be all clever and say that the fringe is a false honey pot.

but we know it isn't.

i had a meeting with an agent last week. you see how i write and where my comma’s land, i have no business in writing but that opportunity came from fringe (i had a successful fringe).

fringe feels like an evil that must be done. a sticky, tasty, sickly evil honey.

i had a great time but this piece is not about the fun i had with aaron and the team, and the park and the beach and the scooter i bought from home bargins and toni giving me a massage, and katie this womxn i fucking loved meeting. and all the conversations i had with audiences who told me so many of their truths. that validation, that experience. me honing my craft. ETC.

this is about white audiences consuming trauma.

now i don’t necessarily blame these white people. it’s all plated up for you nicely. you can stay in the nice area of town. pop down to the venue at any point and land yourself in a trauma pie.

i blame capitalism and white people and colonialism.

because fringe is capitalism at its finest. saturation of the market, no regulations, unethical practices, consumerism and all the rest of those big words when it comes to capitalism.

what do i expect from white people in that context?

erm, maybe some fucking MANNERS. MANNERS WHEN YOU ARE EATING YOUR FUCKING MEAL!!

you see white people you’re getting this menu of amazement. be respectful, don’t over-order, don’t moan that things are too spicy, don’t moan if you don’t think its not authentic enough, don’t bring you manky caucasian food to this exquisite meal. put the fucking man beer down. that is not needed right now (i would like to talk about the lack of dry spaces at fringe but i wont.) just eat slowly, take your time, don’t overindulge, respect the fucking menu.

if you have a problem with my menu analogy and me acquainting PoC work to being on a menu and being consumed, i’m sorry that is exactly what i think fringe is.

————

i will finish with this

I asked aaron, my partner what he wanted to see, i told him all about the menu ,the honey on offer. i showed him a programme. he looked at it and put it down.

“whats up?”

“its too much”

“what do you mean, there’s so much good work you need to see”

“yeah i get that but its giving me a headache, its too much information. i’m overwhelmed. you pick something for me and i might go”

I picked Pizza Shop Heroes. ive been with aaron for 11years i know the art he likes and Pizza Shop Heroes was him.

it was sold out.

“see aaron you didn’t get chance to see it”

“thats fine, its good that they sold out, i might see it again so time”

“so we have been here nearly a whole month and you're not going to see anything?”

“yeh, probably not. can we put jurassic park on?”

————

i ate around 12 shows at fringe.

i had pencilled 54 on the app and programmes etc.

aaron ate one and loved it.

how many shows did you eat? and did you fucking tip?

- this was written by neurodiverse artist Demi Nandhra.

Visibility in August // Sage Nokomis Wright

A person from Alaska, raised in Edinburgh, finds a CanadaHub program in a coffee shop and flips it open to a page about a group of indigenous artists from Canada who are presenting work at the Fringe. She takes a chance, shows up in the CanadaHub beer gardens and we all think she’s someone’s family, or someone’s friend, until she opens her mouth and we are all awestruck by an Inuk with a Scottish accent. She took us to Sandy Bells, and as a folk band played in the back, we taught her all the ways in which we are a family, that there isn’t a “her” and “us”, that now there is only a “we”. She taught us local swears and about her version of home. Tucked away behind the ancient fiddles and posters of local legends on the walls, hangs a bodhrán. Looking like a moon, like our drums where we are from.  

Patti is leaving Summerhall one day and sees someone she thinks she must know. But this person is a Cree girl who was raised in Scotland by parents who were hoping to avoid a life of residential schools, of systematic interference. She was raised as an Italian. I imagine them sighing, like i do when i think of all the things that could have happened the other way, preventing them from a moment like this. A halfway point moment, a reminder of some kind.

Me, a mixed race Anishinaabekwe, who can’t figure out what my Ojibwe Father considered homelands because he lived through a tragic blur of displacement. I touch down in Edinburgh for the first time, and right from the airport drive through Christorphine, the neighbourhood my Grandmother grew up in before fleeing to Canada during World War Two. A new kind of homeland to explore that I had been ignoring until now. 

Four girls, emerging artists, from the plains, the ocean, the city, strangers to one another except for the skype meetings and countless emails in preparation for August, are put together into an apartment on Marchmont. They don’t have a living room, so they meet in the hallway to laugh, to snack, to cry, to fix each others beadwork, talk about what to wear. That hallway is sacred, I imagine them making a pilgrimage to that hallway every August, to combine their powers once again so they can continue to take over the world. A dusting of the flyers of yesteryear embedded in the carpet. 

Those same girls go to a party, it’s late, it’s raining. Quick! Make friends with the angels in all black, Patron Saints of Hunger Induced Exhaustion, “too busy, forgot to eat-got lost, didn’t have time-late for a show, I’ll find something after”. Trays of free venison sliders and fish sticks like beacons for our dwindling post-exchange rate per diems (“bring tupperware to all the parties, fill it up”, I can hear my Mom’s voice in my head). It’s hot. The bottomless chardonnay begins to make one face in a suit look just like all the others, but in a fun way that we laugh about. It’s not a big deal, we may not remember them, but how could they forget us?

Searching for a moment, some cool air, sitting on a stoop outside, a voice yells across a group of people to compliment Tai’s earrings. Behind a cloud of smoke and a crown of curls we see two women, we’ve never met them but we fall into each other’s arms. We all talk over each other but the sentiment is the same, “so glad to have found you here”. They drag us inside and introduce us to meet their castmates, their family, and just like that we’ve found our kin from down under, from the other side of the world, and here we all are.

We tuck into a tiny theatre that feels like a lecture hall, we are aware we are in for a party because we’ve already been here once before, just had to come back. We heckle the quartet onstage, but out of love. They sing in their language, they promise to the audience only one colonialism joke tonight, but we scream for more. We toast the Aboriginal comedian on stage who is their guest when she lovingly jokes about her Father: “cheers to one white parent!”. The audience mostly glares at us, but for all we know this show is just for us

We all ended up here, writers, actors, dancers, producers, directors, designers, hailing from all across Turtle Island*, the earth. We find each other on stage, on posters, the radio, walking the streets, finding each other at parties. We all ended up here to find one another. Edinburgh in August, a month long possibility.

When my brain begins to deteriorate from a diet of spon con Pop Chips, two pound Sainsbury’s sandwiches and late nights due to a fear of missing ‘the big connection’, these people had me.

A hand reaching out to grab mine behind a chair after a long day. A little gossip, the kind that could keep you from making a terrible decision. Disrupting the peace with full belly auntie laughs backstage. Someone your senior picking up your tab. An “I see you”. Seeing all of this and banking it for when it’s my turn to do the same. The one perfect review that makes me weep. The first bad review, and it being victoriously perfect.  

Extending my family, one chance encounter at a time. It’s all my relations. 

- Sage Nokomis Wright

*Turtle Island is the name used by Indigenous people in Canada to refer to the continent. In various Indigenous origin stories, the turtle is said to support the world, and is an icon of life itself.

About Indigenous Contemporary Scene

Indigenous Contemporary Scene (ICS) is a nomadic platform for the presentation of live arts, fostering dialogue and creative exchange between artists and communities. Founded by Onishka in 2016, ICS amplifies the voices of Indigenous artists internationally.

In 2019, ICS brought a group of Indigenous artists from across Kanata* to Edinburgh to present a program of live arts across the city's famous arts festivals. Onishka and O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk Collective joined forces to co-present stellar performances and creative conversations as ICS Scotland, amplifying the voices of Indigenous artists internationally and creating spaces for generative dialogue between artists and communities.

www.indigenouscontemporaryscene.org

Instagram: @indigenouscontemporaryscene

*Kanata-Before Canada, there was Kanata.  The Haudenosaunee word for village, Kanata became Canada through the colonial process of dispossession of Indigenous lands, identity and language.

Theatre and Addiction // FK Alexander

Theatre and Addiction

This year in Edinburgh, working for Total Theatre as an awards assessor, I saw around 45 shows, and listened to the 23 other assessors discuss more than 400. We considered many issues that the work and the artists brought up. They were necessary, vital and important issues, ones of class, race, disability, feminism, patriarchy, recourse, visibility and access. But there was one more issue that I had my eye and ears on, one that no one else in the group mentioned. One that, were it not for my own access needs, I might not be aware of either. Alcohol and drugs. Of course, they are the same thing really (legal definitions notwithstanding).

The Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, and it has many aspects to it that are deeply problematic. One is that performing here is a job with, for many, few or even zero days off, and the vast majority of temporary workplaces are places that sell and promote alcohol. The separate issue of branding and sponsorship aside, one thing that leaped out at me this year was the amount of performances that either gave audiences drinks, consumed drink on stage, made jokes about drink, mentioned drinking and/or alcoholism as an aside, or, even worse, as a joke. 

The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland soared to 1,187 in 2018, according to official statistics. It means there were more drug-related deaths in Scotland last year than the 1,136 alcohol-specific deaths. And the country's drug death rate is now nearly three times that of the UK as a whole, higher than that reported for any other EU country. A few thousand people dead from drugs and alcohol. The butterfly effect of personal and societal devastation beyond those numbers is incalculable.  I include these statistics for context - the report about Scotland’s drugs deaths came out shortly before the Fringe started. 

Of course, some shows were pretty clear what they were doing - five free drinks as part of the show, Shakespeare while drunk, a one woman play about a homeless alcoholic – but these types of shows don’t sit within the world of contemporary performance practice that I work in. With all the awareness that this part of the arts encourages, knowledge for each other and with the wider world, there is still a gap. We have content warnings, allergy advice, trigger warnings, and other access needs addressed or met. I’d argue that one glaring omission is in relation to drugs and alcohol. 

*** 

Imagine you are in early sobriety, a few days, or weeks, or months. Edinburgh is fast paced, hectic and stressful, as an audience member or as a worker. You are sitting on your hands trying not to drink. You go to a show and the performer offers everyone a drink - maybe as a toast or maybe as group activity. You are holding that cup. You are holding a loaded gun. It is not simply a wee dram or a mouth full of lager to you. Others drink it down with impunity, laughing. You sweat. You smell it. You drink it. And then you can’t hear another word out of that artist’s mouth because all you can think about is how to get the next one, maybe without your friend or partner seeing. Can you 'go get cigarettes’ or ‘make a phone call' and hoof round to the corner shop? Telling yourself you’ll only buy one, but you come out with a half-bottle of vodka. It might look like a ‘choice’ but please understand – it does not feel, physically or mentally, like a choice. It feels more like a compulsion, a mental obsession, cloaked in shame and secrecy and fear. It’s complicated. Really fucking complicated. 

***

Why then, do we still have an arts festival with an ever-growing community of performance practitioners who are engaged in forward-thinking, challenging and generous work, who aren’t holding addiction or issues around substances up as an important part of the conversation? We have access needs starting to be acknowledged (and sometimes even met) for people using wheelchairs, those who are hard of hearing or visually impaired, or have epilepsy, autism, anxiety or depression. And crucially we have these experiences and realities being seen and heard and shared through the work. 

There was a moment in a show that I saw that was both very hard to hear and yet very illuminating. An artist offered an audience member a drink from a selection. When the artist said that they were having a wine, the audience member said 'Oh go on yeah, I’ll have one too’ and switched after previously taking a juice. It was 11am on a Sunday and everyone laughed. A cheeky vino in a show on a Sunday morning, nothing wrong with that. And there isn’t for most, it’s a naughty treat on an unusual occasion. It wasn’t meant in malice or probably even noticed by anybody by else, but when the artist then said ‘I’m glad you’re joining me. I would have respected your choice not to but it’s so much nicer for me that you’re having a drink!’, it was a true moment of realisation for me.

***

Side note - I drank  or used drugs very often at 11am or earlier and not once was I met with applause. I was once met with a police officer. Sometimes by a P45, sometimes by slammed doors, by A&E admissions or more than once by a softly spoken medical professional who advised me it was time for a 72-hour nap. I also had a fairly long holiday in an acute psychiatric ward.

***

I know people respect my choice. I know they will get me a soft drink when they go to the bar for their 'real' drink. I know that I can choose to stay in a pub or not. But I also know that it’s just nicer for everyone else when we all  join in, and that is what stings. If my friends come round to my home, they know not to bring drinks. If I worked in any number of other workplaces - a school, a hospital, driving a bus - people aren’t allowed to  drink. But my workplace this August, and before when I have shown my own work, is the Edinburgh Fringe (as well as all other theatres, festivals, clubs or events). People have come to see my work having had a drink, holding a drink, full-blown drunk and/or high. Meetings happen in pubs and bars, receptions serve champagne at breakfast and commissions are made over bottles of wine. Not only is this normalised at the Fringe, it is encouraged. And I find this exhausting, like the others I have spoken to who are either alcoholics in recovery or people who don’t drink for other reasons. And I am not alone. I know a number of people who really struggle at the Fringe, and in theatre in general, to be both addict and audience, alcoholic and artist. It is alienating, and at its worst it is really fucking dangerous.  

I know a lot of people who have died from addiction. I know a lot more who have suffered from an illness that remains cloaked in stigma, moral judgement and misunderstanding. Which I understand – it is near impossible to love someone even if you know they are very sick, when the behaviours that accompany that illness are so often cruel, selfish, or exhausting. It is hard to acknowledge a drinking problem in yourself. No one wants this. 

For me it was pretty fucking clear for a long, long, time. Not everyone needs to or will spend as long as I did trying to skirt round the problem and not face it. It is tricky - you are either allergic to nuts or you aren’t. You are epileptic or you aren’t. But you might have a problem with your drinking and or drug use and not know. You might be in denial. You might be forced to think about your own substance use when someone nearby says ‘I am clean and sober’. You might need to consider your own behaviours and your own thoughts.  What is hard to watch, what I hope we as artists can help address, is the environments we uphold that contribute to individuals feeling a sense of shame around this issue. The feeling of hiding who  you are because the environments seem to say, ‘but everyone else is doing it!’.

I am not an expert, but I wish to offer a couple of ideas. How about you hold your networking event or delegate meal in a place without a bar? Have your show team meeting in a flat or café.  In your next festival panel or round table, bring up the issue. If you don’t have an issue with alcohol then you won’t miss it. If you feel like you are missing something then maybe you can look at that and what that might mean to you. I know people who felt, through stigma and misunderstanding that they couldn’t say to an employer that they struggle with substances and in the end there was a harmful outcome.

I’m not asking everyone to stop having fun, or to not enjoy a drink during a long day during an intense roller-coaster of a month. I’m not saying anything like that.  I’m talking about awareness. About an illness. About people’s safety and security. About access. Addicts are not 'over there'. We are everywhere! It affects anyone - regardless of class, gender, race, sexuality, physicality - addiction is an illness unlike many others. It is hard to spot and hard to admit and hard to deal with. I want theatre and art to understand this and I want to feel like I am welcome in the room. Why do you need to provide alcohol to an audience? For what purpose? What does that shared fluid bring that your performance needs? What laugh does it raise? We talk so much about access and holding space, and putting in place language, consideration and comforts for such a variety of experiences and needs. Let the next one be towards addiction and sobriety. 

-       FK Alexander

Sex Education, Sobriety and Self Care // Harry Clayton-Wright

Sex Education, Sobriety and Self Care

The all-consuming beast that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is over for another year and I’ve been asked by TSOTF to write about my experiences at the festival, particularly in relation to sobriety. As someone who is approaching four years sober, I’m very happy to be given the opportunity, alongside the wonderful FK Alexander, to write about this experience as it isn’t talked about enough. 

Having done a fair few Fringes - this was actually my sixth full run - as a blogger, a PR intern, a production assistant, and as a performer with my work in cabaret productions, I decided to throw my hat in the ring this year by including Sex Education, my debut autobiographical theatre show, in the programme. Self-produced and self-financed, I knew I’d learned enough over the years to be able to give it my best shot, which was handy as I also didn’t have the money to be able to pay anyone to help me produce this run anyway. Being based in Blackpool now, a big part of the reason I moved back home with my mum at the start of the year was to be able to afford to do the Fringe. As has been widely discussed, the costs of presenting a show in Edinburgh have indeed risen over the years. But as an international arts marketplace it felt important to be there. I felt like I had a piece of work that needed to be seen, was ready to be booked, and that the time was right to have this conversation with audiences. I also thought people would enjoy the show. I was delighted to be accepted into the Summerhall programme - my first choice in terms of venue - where I knew the show would be safe and looked after. Positioning for your work is so important in the context of the Edinburgh Fringe and complete honesty, I’m very afraid of drunk patrons around this work. I managed to escape relatively unscathed in a festival that sells A LOT of drinks. 

This was my second sober Fringe but my first with all of the responsibilities of presenting my first ever piece of solo work in the largest arts festival in the world, and I knew in advance that two things would be very important: accommodation and self-care. The first was actually sorted through Instagram. With the experience of Fringes gone by having stayed on a camp bed in a living room and tricky accommodation previously, I knew I wanted to stay with a local, in their home and not some dodgy cupboard a landlord was charging through the teeth to use, with no hot water and party flatmates that would make me feel miserable. A friend put a callout on Instagram in January and a lovely couple (Doug and Mark with their incredible cat Trev) got in contact. AirBnB superhosts (their place is beautiful) we spoke on the phone and I put a deposit down the next day. We actually met in March when I went up to do some work and had a WhatsApp group going for months before the festival. I can now thank Past Harry for the foresight in knowing how useful this would be to my mental health during the run. Sex Educationis an incredibly honest and exposing piece of work and having a lovely, chilled place to go home to after the show each night was a gift. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m happiest in the bath. I don’t want to think about the risk it’d put me in to not have had this in place and am lucky to be able to know what is best for me and to have had this plan work accordingly. I worry about highly personal works and this festival very much. How can we look after people in an environment that isn’t regulated? I made some incredible friends in Doug and Mark who I look forward to hanging out with again. And in terms of expense, it was actually very reasonable, as I heard of people paying much more for a lot worse (mice, lack of hot water, parties).

The second thing on my list, self-care, was something that I also knew I had to budget in for this run. Having been to the Fringe many times before, I knew that one thing I could do for myself was to get a spa membership. This was the fourth year I’ve used the spa to look after my mind and body during the festival, and it was also the year I saw the most artists there, day after day. The hot tub became live art soup. I’m very grateful to the artists I got to spend time with, in the pool or sauna or steam room. Chats or hugs or sometimes just silence, it became an artist community centre and safe haven to cope with the pressures of the outside world. A place to listen and look after each other. It was also, for me, an important and rare sober space in the festival.

Sober spaces during the Edinburgh Fringe are few and far between, which is an often-overlooked conversation when it comes to what it means to be putting your work in this context. Consumption is everywhere and it’s a hard thing to avoid, so in all honestly I withdrew from a lot of the festival to be able to cope with the workload and responsibility. I wanted for this run to be the best it could possibly be - it cost so much to present the work in this context, I didn’t want to blow it or jeopardise it in any way by being shaken, tired or anxious. Having felt overwhelmed at the start of the run, I didn’t do any nights out. I never went to the artist bars. It was straight home after the show. I was almost always in bed before midnight to get a full eight hours sleep. At first, I felt like withdrawing meant I was missing out on networking and being seen, the fun times. Maybe I was, but I also knew that I’m at my best when I’ve slept and much more ready to seize the day and concentrate on the work. I’ve gotten the Fringe party animal days out of my system. I’ve been a mess in front of my peers and for me it doesn’t end well.

There’s a reason I’m sober and I’m on the other side of those days building different types of friendships and working relationships. I talk about sobriety online so it isn’t a shock for people. They don’t expect me to join in. Did I feel like a let-down for not going out to see enough shows? Yes, absolutely. Am I going to see these works when they inevitably go on tour? One hundred percent. And I’d just like to say, I don’t begrudge anyone needing escapism during a festival like this either. I understand, I’ve been there, but unfortunately I cannot be around it. It’s too hard for me. But the need for escapism during a festival like this and the over-accessibility of alcohol and lack of sober spaces is part of a bigger picture of the arts’ reliance on socialising over alcohol. A lack of care for those who put themselves through this month shouldn’t be on those who are leaving broken and poor, it’s important for the festival and our industry to be talking about this way more than we do (which doesn’t feel like often anyway). 

And this is just one topic on the list of other difficult conversations that we need to have about the Fringe. About accessibility, the overwhelming whiteness of the festival, representation, class and the regulations that needed to be put in place years ago to have avoided the escalation of costs. I’d definitely like to see more accessible case studies in the future, and more action to follow them up. I believe TSOTF are one of the only organisations paying people for their time and labour to feed back about the festival, and that’s something that should change too. Give us transparent examples of how Fringe festivals have gone for a variety of participants. From solo shows to big companies. From wins to losses. What can be traced back to having done the festival? What did their budgets look like? Tell us some honest tips and tricks and even hard realities.

Sex Education had a really lovely run at the festival which I’m thankful for. It looks like it will have a touring future and I am beyond delighted by this. I made some wonderful friends and I’m very grateful for the audiences who came and the lovely words about the show. But it’s important to also recognise my incredible team who supported me throughout.Simon, my amazing technician who has the best energy in the world. StorytellingPR who run the Summerhall press office and looked after me during the festival (letting me come in and work with them, drink coffee and even occasionally let me nap).  Summerhall for being incredible. The Marlborough in Brighton for commissioning the show, Shoreditch Town Hall for supporting the development and Arts Council England for funding it. David Sheppeard for producing the original run, who will work with me on building a tour. Brian Lobel for directing the show and the constant kindess and checking-in through the process. Leah Shelton, Duncan Jarvies, Rosie Powell, Kuchenga, Ophelia Bitz, Scott Coello, Greg Bailey and Sarah Ferrari. And of course, my lovely Mum. For her beautiful interview. For agreeing to be in the show she can never see. For letting me live at home this year to be able to afford to have the opportunity to try and advance my work. Their labour was put in to making Sex Education happen too, and an accounting of the experience should acknowledge their contribution.

I’m very happy to have survived another sober festival and a shoutout from my heart to anyone else who has achieved that too. Because it isn’t an easy thing to navigate.

You are incredible.

-       Harry Clayton-Wright 

Edinburgh 2019 // Lewis Church

TSOTF at Edinburgh 2019

The Sick of the Fringe has been in Edinburgh for most of August, supporting artists, making connections with organisations and looking to share reflections on what the festival means to its participants. To us this means thinking about artists, audiences and anybody else involved in or impacted by the annual cultural bonanza, and listening for the gaps in conversation, issues that are live and questions that might otherwise be missed.

This piece that you’re reading will attempt to pull together some threads of debate at the Fringe this year, and highlight shows that were particularly resonant or relevant to TSOTF’s time here and our areas of interest. It is not, as it was not in 2018, an attempt to sum up or consolidate the ‘main’, ‘best’ or most ‘significant’ works of 2019, but a starting point, a reflection and an attempt to link works doing or saying interesting things around our key concerns of identity, health, science, disability and access. The urgency of this work has not lessened over the five years we have been in Edinburgh, and indeed it is increasingly apparent that many of these concerns have moved to the forefront of conversations about how the Fringe should change, the personal cost of being here and the efforts being made to mitigate its worst aspects. TSOTF is delighted that our work sits so well alongside the activities of related initiatives like Fringe of Colour, Bechdel Theatre, EdFringeQueer, PowerPlay Theatre and The Cost of Edinburgh, as well as the commitments that the Edinburgh Fringe Society have made to future adjustments as to how they direct their activity. But whilst it is immensely gratifying to hear and see access and wellbeing support for performers being taken seriously and discussed vigorously, TSOTF is still looking to push the conversation further and introduce new and overlooked topics and issues. There is still work to do and many problems with the Fringe model yet to be grappled with, and 2019 has reaffirmed the necessity of continuing this work. 

Performing, producing and working at the Fringe will of course always be a challenge, a slog through weeks of flyering, networking and fatigue that can threaten to overwhelm the positive aspects and opportunities that arise. One of TSTOF’s long-running concerns has been the impact of the Fringe on mental health, a topic now taken up by national newspapers, industry experts and many artists themselves. Perhaps too often though the acknowledgement of the issue can be seen as enough or some kind of solution in itself, when it is only the start. As Demi Nandhra, one of our commissioned writers this year, put it in her show Life Is No Laughing Matter, she ‘heard mental health was a theme of this Fringe. Just like it’s been for the last four’. This truism revealed the work still to do to actually support artists, particularly those mining their own lives for their practice. Demi’s show was a bright and warm engagement with the question of mental health and the often-lacking medical response, but was also acutely aware of the way that performing those experiences in the context of the Fringe can easily be to risk provoking them again. Demi foregrounded her self-care with the presence of her partner on stage, clearly marking to the audience that he sat there as a genuine support for her rather than a prop or symbolic gesture. As she explained in her appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row coverage from Edinburgh, this was part of a set of careful strategies for self-care developed to support bringing her autobiographical work to the Fringe.  

This attention to the personal toll of autobiographical work was itself something that seemed to be recognised and discussed as a ‘theme of the year’, particularly when the power and ubiquity of personal testimonies resonated throughout the Fringe programme. I was left struck by the experience of watching Jonny Donahoe’s work-in-progress Forgiveness and Scottee’s Class almost back to back, as whilst the shows were very different, they both raised questions about the choices artists make when producing autobiographical work. Donahoe in his charming and disarming story of how becoming a parent enabled him to forgive moments of a difficult childhood, Scottee’s work revolving around a playful, angry and confrontational assertion of working-class presence. As one of the central questions of TSOTF’s work since its inception, both performances were urgently relevant to the question of how performance engages with trauma, asking how and how far artists should go when sharing their own stories, and the expectations and responsibilities of an audience consuming them. Caroline Horton’s All of Me began with an apology for the form the performance takes and any missed expectations, for example, with the fantastical recounting of her experience of depression that followed pushing its audience to feel the dream-logic of unspecified anguish. Black Holes similarly couched lived experiences of racism in sci-fi and Afrofuturist aesthetics, drawing its audience in to the exhaustion that leaves, like the astral body the title comes from. 

What does it mean to hear these testimonies within the quite narrow parameters of a Fringe audience? Are there ways that the interest in such stories can translate to actual redress of the issues they raise? And what does it mean when they don’t? Like Scottee’s Class, Travis Alabanza’s show Burgerz engaged ferociously with these questions of culpability and voyeurism, inviting individual audience members up to restage and assist in the retelling of and extrapolation from a transphobic assault in which Alabanza had a burger thrown at them on Waterloo Bridge. The piece was a reminder and a challenge, a response to inaction as much as violence and a uncomfortable watch for any audience intent on maintaining an attitude of cool detachment. It was a call for active solidarity and a cry for empathy, a reminder that not being transphobic in a comfortably liberal sense was not enough in the face of violence and prejudice, that the situation requires an active fight against transphobia rather than a well-meaning but largely notional ‘support’ or ‘awareness’. 

Deer Woman, part of the Indigenous Contemporary Scene showcase, was similarly unconcerned with the political comfort of its audiences. Discussing the shamefully high numbers of Indigenous and First Nations women and Two-Spirit people who are killed or go missing every year, it was a fierce and uncompromising engagement with the realities of life for these politically marginalised communities. The ICS showcase continued CanadaHub’s growing commitment to telling Indigenous stories. As HUFF did in 2018, Deer Woman uses the monologue format of a single-voiced, unbroken narration to engage with both a deeply painful set of circumstances and the frustration of well-meaning liberal responses. Deer Woman’s overlap with Burgerz was brought home by Alabanza’s reminder to their audience that binary gender is a Western and often quite recent construct imposed upon societies around the world. As was also made plain in the performance installation This Time It Will be Different, discussing, affirming and owning other histories is a powerful assertion of worth and knowledge otherwise minimised by a homogenous and Eurocentric view of the way the world works. 

Alabanza also wrote on being in Edinburgh and the overwhelming whiteness of the fringe, an issue that has been raised many times before but seemingly to little meaningful change. And it’s certainly not, as some on social media might disingenuously argue, that the Fringe simply reflects the whiteness of Scotland’s population. That’s an argument which firstly minimises the importance and necessary representation of Scotland’s BAME communities. But it also bypasses the fact that artists of colour face extra barriers in bringing their work to the largest international arts festival in the world. It is important to recognise the programming bias in the arts, the lack of diversity in leadership roles within the cultural sector, and the importance of addressing that in a meaningful manner. At the Fringe Society industry event ‘The Future of Festivals’ this question was raised provocatively to a room of international promoters, calling for action as well as recognition of these factors. Whilst work by artists of colour was acclaimed throughout 2019, from Rachael Young’s exceptional piece OUT (supported by TSOTF) to Mika Johnson’s tight and articulate Pink Lemonadethe lack of diversity at the Fringe was never in question, and there is far more that could be done to reach out to audiences and to support artists from different communities and experiences to deliver their work. It’s tied up in money, but also in the culture of the performance sector – critics, producers and senior programmers are also lacking in diversity. And whilst that means race, it also means gender, class and disabled representation. Diversity must be prioritised at every level of what in the UK is still a predominantly white, cis and non-disabled performance culture (particularly at the Fringe). 

Conversations around disability, for example, were sadly put back by the announcement of the Dave TV ‘Best Joke of the Fringe’ award, won by a pun using Tourette’s Syndrome as its punchline. It provoked condemnation from activists and charities, and whilst not necessarily malicious or snide, it is representative of the distance still to go. As Jess Thom of TourettesHero wrote in response, the prevalence of this kind of humour is simply exhausting, leaving her ‘sad and tired’ in its basis in stereotype, emblematic of the lack of consideration of the lived experience of people with disabilities. The joke highlighted that until audiences of all kinds feel welcome and invited rather than only accommodated or tolerated, until awareness of the diversity of experiences that should be in every room is better entrenched, the Fringe will still struggle to reach outside of its bubble.  

As an organisation lucky to work with exceptional, progressive and adventurous artists and partners, the kind of humour represented by that joke is not the work we regularly engage with. But work which reproduces problematic discourses, often without realising, is sometimes hard to avoid at the Fringe, and this was brought into sharp relief this year around the notion of sex, particularly when contrasted against the shows that managed to subvert its usual representation. Sex is everywhere at the Fringe, from posters for erotic circus acts to laddish comedians mining their best stories for laughs and applause. But despite the faint libidinal charge of swathes of artists in too close proximity for too long, it would be a stretch to suggest that Edinburgh in August is particularly sexy. Too tired, too cold and rainy, too hung-over and/or too busy, the realities of sex can be superseded by the performance of sex, used as a trope rather than interrogated and considered. But alongside the bad jokes and the salacious gossip there were several superlative pieces that dove in to the messy and fraught realm of sex in a provocative and serious manner.  

The sexual desire of women in particular was explored in sensitive, rage-filled and intensely powerful work throughout the month. Louise Orwin’s Oh Yes Oh No dealt with its complicated and difficult subject matter of taboos around personal desire through an incredibly tightly structured exploration of existing sexual culture. Indelibly rendered through dolls and narration, the piece asked such difficult questions that for some it was too much. But it was an important intervention in conversations around the heinous legacy of sexual abuse and assault and the impact it has on later desire and need. Similarly dressed.returning from 2018 as part of the British Council showcase, staged with great poise a series of messy and complicated questions about the legacy of sexual abuse and trauma. Harry Clayton-Wright’s Sex Education dealt hilariously with the question of how we learn about sex, its humour and irreverence sugaring a serious question about the lack of information for young queer people. As Harry declared in his show, ‘LGBTQIA+ education is suicide prevention’. Catherine Hoffman’s Cyst-er Act similarly asked about the way people learn about their own bodies, staging the medical information not discussed and the information not shared through tight songs and powerful personal testimony. This theme continued in Ejaculation - Discussions about Female Sexuality, highlighting once more the way women and LGBTQIA+ people are often required to discover the medical realities of their bodies for themselves, with existing research slow to prioritise them and their needs or desires. 

The Fringe can be a place where a critical mass of shows dealing with similar subjects can reveal the urgency of a deeper and more abiding problem. In the staging and recounting of multiple personal narratives about sex, the lacking education and the medical obfuscation, it could be hoped that the emotional work artists put in to stage their experience might give comfort to some and instigate solutions to an issue. There’s something in that as a model for change, a creative potential to reach and engage wider audiences than might be possible at any other time. Despite the gruelling reality of the Fringe, it can highlight new voices and draw attention to work that might not make the same impact elsewhere. This is something to celebrate, and perhaps reason enough to resist wholesale calls from some artists and organisations to abandon the Fringe and its unique performance ecology. The opportunity of the Fringe and the rare annual moment where performance is central to the cultural conversation is useful. But the largest arts festival in world inevitably reflects the problems of the arts sector as a whole, and the work to fix that, to open it up to as many as possible and make all feel welcome isn’t something that can be let slide. 

In response to this in 2019, rather than producing a high volume of short pieces of writing on individual shows (our ‘diagnoses’) as in 2016 and 17, we made the decision to commission four longer responses as a way to instigate richer and more complex starting points for conversation. We are delighted to be publishing writing in the week following the Fringe from FK Alexander, Sage Nokomis Wright, Demi Nandhra and Harry Clayton-Wright, which will each engage in different ways with questions of money, race, sobriety, class, nationality and more, seen through the prism of their time and differing roles at the Fringe. By publishing these responses after the festivals conclude we hope to prolong and sustain the discourse around Edinburgh in August, avoiding the sudden quiet that usually follows, only for the same issues to re-emerge as the cycle for next year starts to ramp up.

All in all, TSOTF’s time at the Fringe has, this year, once again been about listening and reflecting. It’s a slow process, and one that we’re proud to undertake alongside our allies, co-supporters and partners. We’re looking forward to those colleagues reading our commissioned writers, and for the conversation to continue in the hope of actually shifting the future direction of the Fringe. Look out for this work to be released in the next week and shared widely via our social media, and for announcements about our wider and expanded program to come. Do check back on the TSOTF website or keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TSOTFringe) for these next steps.