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.