Edinburgh 2017

Prognosis 4: After Edinburgh - Lewis Church

At the time of writing, it’s been a month since the end of the Edinburgh festival season, that strange set of three and a bit weeks in August that feel like both the centre and the edge of the world. 2017 was the first time in some time that I had attended for more than a week, and as a British Council Showcase year (happening alternately), it was perhaps even more heightened in its intensity than usual. Arriving on the first day of the fringe and staying beyond its last as lead writer for The Sick of the Fringe and editor of the diagnoses, I enjoyed the brilliance of the largest arts festival in the world as well as witnessing its problems, blind spots and several of the issues that participation invariably raises.

With many of the other writers I spoke to at the festival, whether mainstream newspaper reviewers, those writing around a particular form or focus, or independent bloggers, the timetable contest was a perennial conversation and obsession. With 3,398 shows in the programme (not including parallel events) the quantity of shows seen in a single day was continually used in conversation as a proxy for the intensity of your festival experience, even though we’re aware it says nothing about the quality of your reflection. I often found myself wondering whose experience at Edinburgh is the most ‘authentic’, someone who might see two or three shows in a day and then go for dinner, or professionals running from one performance to another, forgetting them as they go? And of course, the demands asked of artists are often even more extreme. A relentless duplication of their show over a month, with previews bleeding seamlessly into the run and audience sizes fluctuating mercilessly throughout.

The focus of reflection is often on those at either ends of a spectrum of festival success – those who do very well, breaking through and selling out, and those who don’t, the crushingly reviewed and the empty-seated. But it is perhaps also worth remembering that most companies and artists have an experience pitched somewhere in the middle: selling some tickets with three stars on a poster. Money is lost, energy depleted and with probably no clear answer to whether it’s all been worth it. For artists, I’m not sure if it makes more sense to view Edinburgh as a festival or a trade show - like an investment that might come good, or an experience to enjoy. Both characterisations make sense, and whilst I would always prefer to imagine it as an expansive carnival of art and performance, the fringe can sometimes feel more like a cynical Darwinian ecology of advertising, reviews and sponsorship. 

These issues are perhaps internal ones that apply largely to those making at and participating in the fringe. And it’s easy to lose sight, during the weeks there, that the rest of the world is happening outside. For me this year the bubble of Edinburgh, that fugue state of seeing work, waiting for shows, snatching food on the run and almost hysterical drinking, was made even more incongruous by the horrors unfolding outside it. On Twitter feeds and Facebook walls threats and prejudice jostled uncomfortably alongside a parade of reviews and recommendations. Charlottesville, Trump, North Korea and Brexit all intruded, pressing in on conversations in queues and the Summerhall courtyard. In 2017, the politics of the fringe itself were thrown into stark relief amid these horrors, and what might have otherwise been internal debates within the artistic communities represented there were accompanied by new urgencies and anxieties of significance and relevance.

Debates around race and gender were key in both the coverage coming out of the festival and in conversations happening amongst its participants, for example. Incredible work by artists of colour, and women of colour in particular, attracted significant and warranted attention, including Selina Thompson’s salt. (one of the most highly regarded shows of the festival), Rachael Young’s Out, Pauline Mayers' What If I Told You and Julene Robinson’s The Black That I Am. But despite their successes, many of these artists reflected on their success in relation to the whiteness of the fringe and its audiences, and the strange dissonances that occur as a result of this. Thompson writes persuasively about her experience of these issues here, with many also emerging in TSOTF’s Live Conversation broadcast with Robinson and Mayers.

Perhaps similarly, the ‘high’ number of shows engaging with experiences of trans identity was highlighted in much of the media coverage. It is of course a positive step to see powerful and necessary shows like Eve, You’ve Changed and Testosterone attract attention. But the small number of these shows, and any suggestion that there are ‘enough’ or even ‘lots’ of diverse stories at the fringe should be undone by the literally hundreds of shows that are nowhere near as progressive, open or questioning. Realistically, like every other year, this fringe was not the year of the black female performer or of trans testimony, but the year of the white male comedian, as always. There is much more work to be done by organisations, venues and critical organs (newspapers, blogs, etc) to include and engage with people and audiences who might be left outside the Edinburgh bubble, particularly people of colour, those with different gender identities or class backgrounds, those with access requirement and local artists and audiences. When the rest of the world is so terrifying, we as artists, writers, audiences and fans should still continue to question and shape the development of institutions and traditions.

I hope that The Sick of the Fringe and its various activities contributed this year to the consideration of these issues. Our diagnoses brought new and interesting perspectives to bear on artwork that engaged with questions of medicine, mental health, personal experience and identity. Our team ranged from artists to research scientists, science journalists to arts writers, applying their unique skills and knowledge to produce reflection that engaged with the ideas behind a piece as much as its execution. Public events brought artists together, offered producers a space to share expertise, and showcased the conversations happening over the city throughout the month. Building on two previous successful years of activity, and for the first time an expansion of the diagnosis model to other festivals (Normal? and Manchester International Festival), TSOTF has developed and continued to engage with the nuances, contradictions and most urgent aspects of the fringe and those who attend it. Whilst the thoughts and questions I raise here are ones that have stayed with me since getting back home, they also make me want to return. Here’s to next year.

Related Diagnoses: Eve, OutPreScribed, Yvette, Not I, Sometimes I Adult

Be sure to read the other prognoses from Edinburgh 2017 here.

Prognosis 3: Slippery Now Because - Alexandrina Hemsley

Standing Alongside Performers and Audiences of Colour

Summer 2017’s political backdrop (Charlottesville, UK detention centre guard arrests, drug seizures in the run-up to the Notting Hill Carnival and L’Oreal hiring and then firing their first transgender model because she spoke about systematic white supremacy) is what liberal white media might call ‘heightened racial tensions’ and what I and others might call a painful and tragic reveal of shit that’s been there forever, always tense, always heightened but horrifying when it explodes. In some ways, Edinburgh was somewhere I hung out for a bit experiencing the same painful, tragic shit in a different place.

‘Racial tensions’ are slippery now in this moment of ‘wokeness’, and something seductive occurs in how often and comfortably white privilege gets spoken about. Venues and arts programmes actively profile work by people of colour and more and more artists are speaking out about industry shortcomings when it comes to engaging with diverse audiences. Within this landscape I am fooled into thinking I/we are on a level of understanding about what needs to be (un)done to have meaningful change. 

But white privilege hits and disorientates. The majority white spaces of Edinburgh are purported as spaces that welcome work by people of colour, but morph into hostile ones when I hear of and experience how alienated people of colour can feel within them, both as audiences and performers. I may walk in like I can be there unhindered, supported by the illusion of a shorthand between me and white ‘woke’ people, but then…

I don’t get flyered. I sit alone. My tongue spills out times when a white person has ignored me. A white friend’s shoulders tense and I realise I’ve said too much about race at friendly drinks. I wish I could wrap the words back up into me. I disrupt without intending to disrupt. I’m too tired. I think white audiences will only hear the incredible voice of a performer and not recognise the violence of the golliwog she’s purposely dressed up as. I think white audiences will assume the golliwog or minstrel are now archaic rather than see that our times are in close dialogue with these terrible exaggerations - particularly as I/we/they spectate work by people of colour. I feel terrible for judging them. I must remember to watch Bamboozled. I feel terrible for judging them. I sit alone. I don’t get flyered. I nearly text my white friend to apologise for bringing up racism over drinks. I feel terrible for judging them. I see two black figures of ‘the mammy’ and the house servant’ in a charity shop window on my way to leaving Edinburgh. For sale. For charity. It’s obscene. I can’t buy them because I do not want to stand next to these objects and have the sales assistant look from me to them and back again. Even though I am impotent, the figures need to be gone. I tweet Brian Lobel. He buys them. They are gone. I resent his freedom in this instance. I am thankful for his actions. 

Moments of watching work by people of colour are slippery now because majority white spaces are on my mind, in my mind and on my tongue as brown is on my skin for others to see and engage with. Whether I like it or not. Whether others like it or not. Whether they are aware of white and brown mediating all our interactions and projections, or not. Like Selina Thompson’s diaries that expose her own experiences of Edinburgh, my time there and afterwards was accompanied by the layered image of racism and its many impacts as an infinitely adaptive creature, insurmountable from any edge. With the obstacle so high and roots entrenched deep into this colonising UK soil, what are the implications of making work in front of majority white audiences? How do you acknowledge and undo a white gaze that is both outside and within, that carries with it problematic spectatorship of work made by people of colour?

The sounds of white folk gasping in salt. fall on my ears. 

They gasp at what I would consider to be lived experiences that many people of colour could identify with. Often they were stories I perceive as totally expected through their frequent repetitions both in the life of one person of colour and the multiplied, overlapping collective experiences of people of colour in the UK. This is not to minimise the violence and impact of these experiences, but something in the shocked gasping of white folk is hard not to rage at because of how it carries with it a sense of white disbelief that illustrates unequal experiences of racism with such potency. 

As people of colour, I/we need to move through racist experiences in order to live within an environment where our bodies are under threat. For us, the first moment of shock is over, but re-tell the story we have learnt to live alongside and the white person gasps. They have not had to do the same navigating. Bodies of colour have navigated around them invisibly. In the gasp are the sounds of someone waking up and I am jealous because racism made me/us awake except we did not get to gasp loudly - a racist insult got hurled at us as children and we had to bury it silently until a white person would believe us. 

An example came to mind when thinking about how to frame white spectatorship: women have been calling Beyonce and Jay-Z's five year old daughter Blue-Ivy ugly. The venom directed towards a black child disgusts and terrifies. Recent studies have shown that young black girls are perceived as less innocent than white girls. The scrutiny that the black female body is placed under within white supremacist patriarchy leads to an environment where not only are we measured against whiteness and fall short, but racial biases systematically leave our bodies unprotected. Within the arts, this might manifest as a limited understanding of the emotional and practical support that artists of colour might need when presenting their work in majority-white spaces.

Perhaps no work can slice through the tendencies for (white) audiences to enjoy the exotic? To treat brown and black bodies as booty shaking, ground stomping, sexy divas…the enjoyment is slippery now because buying a ticket for the show and sitting in your seat aligns yourself with a politic that speaks of liberation, undoing, overthrowing. Yes, yes, yes, we squeal. We want this. We are AWAKE. Applause. More applause.

In Hot Brown Honey I saw the revolution but I could not will my body to cheer for it amongst the hive of white faces. What does it mean if I’m not going to dance with these white spectators because it is a work that you want to sit still with, relieved that someone else sees you? What if the work tells parts of your story but white people are more into it than you are? Like, seriously into it. Shrieking, stamping, laughing, crying, standing ovation INTO IT.

I see the merch. Plastic Afro combs and guitar picks with ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ blazing across them. ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is one of many requests for a right to body-privacy that so many people of colour fight to make heard every day. It is also frequently and unfairly personalised, i.e. ‘I know you have a thing about people touching your hair…’ For a request that at one time felt so invisible to have grown into an accessible mainstream slogan is energising, but exposes it to processes of privilege and appropriation. 

Again, this hive of white. White grabbing hands. How did I get into this scrum? I’m standing near the middle of the merch table and getting served last. I stand silently, my own pair of earrings in my hand like a candle at a vigil. My hopes for feeling something (anything) by buying this empowerment, begin to morph from solidarity I can connect with into a fashion accessory white people are clamouring over. Sometimes I hear that they are buying the merch ‘for a friend’ and I think, ‘How is that friend going to feel about you giving them this?!’ I mourn. The slogan becomes vulnerable once more. 

These earring and badges could be ones that a white person feels safer wearing than a brown person. Sometimes, I can walk into a room or join in a discussion and I know I am being read as angry or as a disturbance. Sometimes, I cry in front of a white person and they think I’m angry (no lie). If the the starting point is a body whose attitudes and emotions are being misread, wearing the badge or the earrings adds to this already complicated mix. A dance of questioning and need for justification may begin. The anxiety of well-intentioned but racist behaviour happening is one of many spectres that accompany a brown body as it meets its environment. 

I am increasingly concerned with how people of colour can continue to make and passionately advocate for work that needs to be seen, heard and felt, while also knowing that the work is simultaneously used to entertain, sell and increase white folk’s cultural capital. Poet Vanessa Kisuule articulated the implications of this in a twitter thread with that started with “Watching so many shows at fringe around the issues of race whilst surrounded by overwhelmingly white audiences has been a trip. #edfringe”. Within it was a fear of minstrel-ling herself in her own performances - becoming complicit in the exoticising she fears is there within the gazes of her audiences. The thread captures a sense that fight for space for representation on our own terms is shifting/slipping. 

I hope these words sit alongside the currents of others. Adding one more to the volume of voices carrying on and hoping these moments amplify, to drag us out of this marshy terrain. 

Related Diagnoses: salt., Out, Yvette, Hot Brown Honey

Further Reading: Being Black in the Age of 'Wokeness', Pravesh Kumar: Radical Change Required, Theatre's Diversity Problem, Theatre's Lack of Diversity is Inexcusable

Prognosis 2: Reality Shows - Michael Regnier

It is customary at the end of shows at the Fringe for a performer (or sometimes a producer, if there is one) to step out of character and onto the stage to thank the audience and ask them to tell their friends about the show. As well as trying to increase word-of-mouth publicity, this act inevitably affects the relationship between the performers and their audiences by revealing the ‘real’ person who has been entertaining us.

At the end of Being Hueman Being, for example, Luke Nowell stepped out of the clown character through which he had been engaging us in play throughout the show. He thanked us and reminded us of Schiller’s idea that we are fully human only when we play. Clearly the defining philosophy behind the show, this idea couldn’t be overtly articulated through clowning and had to follow afterwards, retrospectively contextualising what we had seen and done. In particular, it made sense of the inclusion of a judgemental art critic as one of the characters on stage: Nowell had apparently been swiping lightly at the question of whether his show was ‘art’. In the end, the answer was that the question was irrelevant. We had been playing, and playfulness was the be all and end all of the experience, which is to say, it was the be all and end all of being human according to Schiller and Nowell.

At the start of Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould – a tribute to Dolly Parton, Dolly the Sheep and a forensic body farm in Tennessee – there was a moment when the performers agreed to start again. They walked off, came back on and, indeed, restarted the show. Was this scripted? Or the confidence of two artists who weren’t afraid to reset? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter – playing with what is real and what is artifice helps make theatre exhilarating, and it’s a fundamental tension in contemporary performance and live art. Actions performed by actors are real, in so far as they exist in time and space, but they are also artifice, part of a constructed story. The audience knows this, and so playing with the balance – perhaps revealing that a supposedly artificial action is, in fact, devoid of artifice – can change their perception of the entire experience in a heartbeat.

(The performers of DollyWould eschewed the end-of-show moment of authenticity. Instead, the audience filed out as the two performers lay onstage, hidden under sheets. They didn’t even take a curtain call, another moment in which the ‘real’ people who have been entertaining you make an appearance. But they had revealed themselves during the show, when explaining its provenance – in response to a falling out, the two decided to make a show about something they both loved: Dolly Parton. It seemed authentic, though in the theatre, who really knows?)

In a post-truth era of “fake news”, the roles of reality and artifice seem particularly important. As the world of politics has become more about celebrity and stagecraft (though let’s not forget that even 50 years ago, some authors were lamenting celebrities known only for their well-knownness), publics have looked to light entertainment for a glimpse of something real, something authentic. But it is not enough to put the real world on TV or onstage. As has been learned in reality television from The Apprentice to Made in Chelsea, reality usually needs plotting, scripting and editing before it becomes satisfying and entertaining. Aristotle knew this. In Poetics, he wrote that 'it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen'. Biography is not enough to achieve authenticity.

If reality is not quite real enough, can scientific research bring more truth to performance? In The Science of Cringe, Maria Peters elegantly incorporated scientific research and ideas into her comedy show. Some of the science was not what you might call ‘consensus’ – evolutionary psychology theories come with a grain of salt because they are essentially untestable – but Peters was not afraid to comically undercut the ‘cave-girl’ explanation with her own story and by noting that, according to the theory, cave people were driven by “food and sexy times – so unlike today…”. Similarly, in Primates, Tessa Coates drew on her anthropology degree, sometimes for direct factual asides about penis shapes and sperm motility, sometimes for characters, such as her former lecturer. Coates’s moment of authenticity came when, towards the end of her show, she stepped back in to the lecturer’s character to deliver what amounted to her moral lesson; although life is basically meaningless, we are all special. As elsewhere in her show, she had to take on an alternative character to say what the ‘real’ Coates seemingly couldn’t.

But the most 'authentic' show that I saw at this year’s Fringe was Descent, presented by A Moment White Productions. A scripted play, performed by three actors (who left it to their producer to come on at the end and say thank you), it followed a family’s experiences with the onset of dementia. By investing completely in the fictional world they created, and demonstrating extensive research into the real-life effects of dementia, the production made the transformation of the character with dementia (and those around him) real. It’s not that fiction is always able to achieve a greater truth than reality, but it’s worth remembering that it can.

Authenticity in the performing arts is often a question of the extent to which a performance can be reconciled with the original work it re-presents; a question for revivals and productions of the classics. But authenticity lies also in the world that the work creates, which as Sarah Rubidge concludes, “is located anew in each performance”. If audiences today are sceptical of a reality in which a former reality TV host can become President, I wonder if the performing arts can offer authenticity precisely because, by their nature, they put artifice and reality in creative tension with each other. Life might be turning into a movie in which people play themselves, but theatre can be a place where fictional characters achieve a truthful existence.

Related Diagnoses: Being Hueman Being, DollyWould, PreScribed, The Science of Cringe, Descent

Prognosis 1: Accessing the Fringe - Tian Glasgow

In observing the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, it’s communities, its vibrancy, and its impact on the arts scene worldwide I was continually asking myself the question ‘why come here?’ As a theatre director and producer, I was fascinated by the challenge of bringing a play to the world’s most intense playground, and I wanted to see the Fringe first, gauge the terrain and understand how to succeed. It took me a month of investigating to understand that the very idea of success at the Fringe is a personal one, and can be different even within teams working on the same piece of art. Whilst many artists and technicians seek to enjoy the experience, their main hope and expectation is just to survive it, like a mountain to be climbed or a wilderness to be crossed.

If you have an incredibly important thing to say through your art should you have to build an incredible financial and emotional resilience to take part in the Fringe? Or should wellbeing and access be placed firmly at the heart of a festival that has grown into a Wild West? Our TSOTF hosted Producer Gatherings raised many points to this effect. Taking on-board a relatively large financial risk is the first millstone loaded on to the producer and artistic team’s mental health. Money is outlaid to create a platform where your art can be seen by all those reviewers and programmers who are ‘unable’ to attend your show, a perennial problem if your work is made outside London’s zones one or two. The second level of risk comes from reviewers or programmers still not attending even in Edinburgh, and the related anxiety that comes from a negative response. Thirdly is the emotional risk from the physical challenge of the flyering, performing and networking cycle, and the fact that personal and team wellbeing is pencilled with a question mark at the bottom of a long production to-do list. As we found at the TSOTF Tickets to My Trauma events, those that make up the temporary artistic community at the Fringe are uniquely positioned to understand each other’s issues and problems and give advice and support. But whilst this is true in many cases, the true reality of community at the Fringe is that the ability for each artist to listen to each other’s troubles is severely limited.

To speak about access brings the need to define it, alongside the standard definition of improving accessibility for those with physical disabilities, hearing/sight impairment or mental health challenges. A significant amount of work could still be put into making the Fringe and Edinburgh city itself more accessible in this way, but there is a broader definition that should also be addressed. There is a question of the access to create at and attend the Fringe without being part of what is actually quite a slender demographic - a privileged position of having the resources to pay the venue and accommodation, a willing (usually unpaid) team, and a strong mental and emotional robustness.

The Fringe Society has begun making real steps into this terrain, ones that will eventually have to involve everyone from producers and artists to venues and the council. BSL and surtitled performances can be costly and logistically difficult but with enough lead-in time and pre-thought out infrastructure it is very possible. Edinburgh Council must consider in every way how a historic city can be physically accessible considering disability, age and crowd management. That includes disseminating this information far and wide, not just to those who will request it but to those who will relay this information. It will require producers to challenge venues to aid them in considering important wheelchair space, BSL show dates, gender-neutral toilets, quiet spaces for members of their cast or audience members that require it. A financial commitment from curating and commercial venues to consider more work from teams that have access requirements and then challenge themselves to learn to support those teams properly. A shuttle and/or buddy system for those who would rather be accommodated further away but would like to perform centrally. These are small steps, but remembering to ask these questions even while stressed and creating art will all have a knock-on effect and open the door to more audiences.

In relation to the big question of emotional access and wellbeing, everyone must be honest with themselves about what they can handle. Producers, have proper conversations with your entire team and with yourself about what you need, even if you don’t necessarily have the budget to provide all (or any) of this provision. Engaging in a conversation with an actor that has to endure emotional abuse as a part of the script regarding how they plan to decompress, and then facilitating that routine is useful in itself. Check in on these bespoke wellbeing plans throughout the month, and maintain your own.

Related Diagnoses: Bechdel Testing Life, Out, Polyphony, Sometimes I Adult

Live Encounters: Julene and Pauline,  Kate and Lucy