Prognosis: Edinburgh Festivals 2018

by Lewis Church

The Sick of the Fringe has been present at Edinburgh in a much quieter way in 2018, with our band of roving diagnosis writers not active in quite the same way as previous years. But our core team has been here nonetheless, watching shows, attending talks and appearing on panels, working with key artists in producing relationships, and continuing to initiate conversations about mental health, science, identity and criticism. The absence of the diagnoses this year has been noted by several organisations and artists, in person and online, and we remain doubly convinced that they provide a useful intervention in what is still (with some notable exceptions) a critical framework around the fringe that privileges star ratings, good/bad judgements and sensational hot takes rather than a deeper engagement with the work and experiences of artists. This is also confirmed by our work over the past year with festivals across the country, where we have rolled out our diagnosis model to promote local engagement and audience reflection. You can find writing from our time earlier in the year at Strike A Light (Gloucester) and Normal? Festival of the Brain (Folkestone) hosted here.  

In this prognosis I’ll attempt to highlight and consider some key aspects of the Edinburgh festival experience in 2018, particularly focused on the core interests and concerns of TSTOF. It is not a comprehensive overview, nor an attempt to engage with all the ‘major’ shows, but a record of the conversations and concerns that emerged from our team’s personal viewing schedules and conversations. I hope to avoid repeating too much of the editorialising that will appear in other outlets as we wind down – the kinds of assertions I referenced in my 2017 prognosis. Then many publications confidently stated that it was the ‘year of the trans testimonial’, and of ‘women talking about race’, without acknowledging the still relative paucity of shows that fit into that schema. Also absent in trite thematics is the recognition that in order for the themes of last year to have been significant markers of change, there should be a noticeable difference in the success and ability of those shows to break through again – for opportunities to continue to grow for marginalised voices. In relation to those particular examples from last year, that doesn’t seem to have happened, with artists of colour, for example, still dealing with prejudice and extra challenges when performing at the fringe.

But of course, whilst there are few characterisations that could accurately reflect the at least four distinct festivals and nearly 4,000 shows and events, there are themes and correspondences across Edinburgh in 2018, many of which reflect the year we’ve had politically, socially and culturally in interesting ways. Part of the ongoing project of TSOTF is to identify and draw together some of these connections between artists and their practices. We refer to longer form pieces like this one as Prognoses (building off the concept of the Diagnoses) and they represent an attempt to predict and associate, just as a diagnosis describes and reflects. Like a TSOTF Diagnosis, links and further reading are included throughout to provide further context and link up conversations.

What of the ‘themes’ of the year then? Perhaps unsurprisingly, assertions of identity have felt particularly urgent in the face of #metoo, insidious societal racism, and continuing public debates around the relative privilege of whose story gets told. Narratives of toxic masculinity indeed proved alluring to makers throughout the fringe, with everything from The Abode to Angry Alan engaging with damaged men, MRAs, Incels and the alt-right. But none, most notably Daughter, Adam Lazarus’s deeply problematic solo, managed to answer convincingly the nagging sense that the men at the centre of some of these stories don’t really deserve to be the main focus of a theatrical #metoo response. Daughter in particular provoked much the same furore it had elsewhere, with observers and audiences deeply divided on its merits and significance. Foregrounding the voice of an abusive straight white man, it asked privileged questions leaving those victimised to answer. Several commentators argued that the critical attention afforded to this piece alongside David Ireland’s Ulster American obscured many of the more interesting responses to the urgent conversation around sexual assault, consent, desire and abuse that were also in Edinburgh.

Thankfully, shows engaging with the same subject matter but centring women, girls and actual lived experience were also here. Cock Cock Who’s There, Samira Elagoz’s raw yet exquisitely composed film/performance hybrid told the story of her rape and its aftermaths without seeking permission or sympathy, pivoting the story around the experience of the person attacked rather than the perpetrator of sexualised violence. So too did ThisEgg’s dressed, attracting acclaim for its foregrounding of the sometimes funny, sometimes poignant ways people find of dealing with trauma, in this case costumier Lydia Higginson’s creation of bespoke outfits for three of her friends. Katy Dye’s Baby Face featured a hugely accomplished physical performance, uncomfortably embodying her experience of the Lolita-isation of her elfin frame, and making culpable voyeurs of her audience. And in a breakout from the Free Fringe, Lee Minora’s character comedy White Feminist smashed liberal self-righteousness apart and then played in the ruins.

Both Cock Cock Who’s There and Baby Face in particular were unapologetic in their presentation of the female artists’ desires, bodies and experience, embracing the messy and complicated ways that sexual experience and personal relationships unfold. This unapologetic, sometimes confrontational stance around gender and sex was replicated interestingly in relation to race and class privilege in Huff. Cliff Cardinal’s one-man narration of childhood on a First Nations reservation never bent to ask for forgiveness or empathetic release, flicking manically from character to character and showering the front row with the tomato juice of a skunk wash. It relished in telling an indigenous story within the terms of its own narrative: the audience watching a bored kid acting out, without any attempt made to make him easily palatable for the crowd. The show attracted mixed audience reactions, including walkouts and arguments during the show I attended, but was, to the TSOTF team, an important voice introduced to the conversations happening at Edinburgh. Sam Ross's Can't Stop Can't Stop was also another instance of sometimes uncomfortable honesty and action on the part of the performer, replicating the experience of OCD in a visceral and affecting (yet responsibly managed) manner.

Live Art Bistro (LAB)’s 5pm-5am takeover of ZOO venues All These Things embraced difficulty in yet another way. As recipients of Forest Fringe’s Pass the Torch Fund, the sometimes instrumentalist nature of the fringe was undone by their commitment to showcase live art, installation and club-based performance, forms that demand a significant time commitment in a festival space dictated by the rigid parcelling of days. This feels like a space important to preserve, a place at Edinburgh for artists uninterested in moulding their work to neat repetition over the month. With Forest Fringe no longer running its own program in Edinburgh, both the LAB takeover and the series of Dice Festival nights at Summerhall successfully managed to spice the festival with more formally radical work – stuff too long, too short, too physically demanding or too strange in delivery to successfully fit anywhere else. Whether the fringe is accommodating (or should be) to this kind of work was a key part of the conversations had at Devoted and Disgruntled, the conversation event taking place at the fringe for the first time since 2012. Members of the TSOTF team took part in a series of conversations there about what a sustainable fringe might look like, from the place of radical work to the role of criticism, highlighting again how our work as an organisation contributes to and intervenes in debates also underway elsewhere. Connections were made with organisations like The Cost of the Fringe, self-motivated initiatives designed to interrogate these concerns, as well as reinforcing our continued engagement with the Fringe Society and their efforts to continue to expand access to the festival. 

As well as being discussed, the sometimes-invisible barriers to entry at Edinburgh (a list which might include, as the Fringe Society acknowledges, class, race, and access to money) were continually made explicit throughout August 2018, sometimes by shows and sometimes by what happened around them. Borders were one, with Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot defying a travel ban to bring the extraordinary Riot Days to Summerhall by driving over the porous border between Russia and Belarus, after being prevented from boarding her flight at Moscow airport. Within the show (a raucous celebration of her activist story so far) time was taken each night to reference those who couldn’t make the journey, with some missing from the cast due to British immigration restrictions as much as the Kremlin. At the International Book Festival too, running alongside the fringe, several authors were denied visas to enter the UK. International festivals only work if artists can come, and this year, like the last, the looming threat of Brexit and Trump (twinned on posters up and down town) leaves something of a question over the potential for that in the future. 

Joshua Hepple’s Accessibility Gala at the Pleasance dealt head on with the perennial problem of more literal access at the fringe, in the huge number of non-accessible venues and events. Edinburgh is full of shows impossible to attend for those unable to easily go upstairs to an attic or down to a basement, with smaller venues in particular (which are also often those most available to younger artists) rarely prioritising wheelchair space or initiatives like relaxed performances. Featuring disabled and non-disabled comedians, Hepple’s gala was complemented by his protest promotion, a large sign affixed to his chair as he travelled around Edinburgh. It phrased the often underappreciated or dismissed concern (‘oh but that’s just Edinburgh!’) to playfully provoke: 

            Hey! Here’s a joke: I can’t access almost 50% of fringe shows.

To TSOTF, as an organisation concerned with access of all kinds, these issues were depressingly familiar, coming up again and again in our work with artists and audiences. Diverse audiences and artists should not be an optional expense to accommodate, and the work to raise awareness and bring about action is a vitally important undertaking. At Devoted and Disgruntled this was raised too, with the question of reviewers with experience of disability raised in relation to the added responsibility artists with disabilities take on to negotiate fringe systems and educate their public. The diversity of our diagnosis writers and the commitment to maintain it is one of the ways that TSTOF feels able to contribute, bringing in writers with lived experience of the events or experiences that they may be asked to write about. 

As a year without a British Council Showcase or a Forest Fringe, and one where TSOTF were not as active as in the past, this Edinburgh has been, to me, a year without quite as much urgency as the last. Of course that observation is deeply subjective, and there has of course still been an enormous number of great, good, bad and potentially problematic shows and events in rooms across the city. As it winds down, and TSOTF looks forward to its next phase of activity, the enduring questions of the year are around who gets to come to Edinburgh in August and how outside influences dictate their success when they do. These are unavoidably linked to our broader and ongoing concerns about local engagement, reaching new audiences and working with artists to create useful models of critical reflection. Once again, Edinburgh has been exhausting but as ever offers one rare month to think about art, performance, and the work that we do. Do keep up to date with our next projects on this website and on social media, and we look forward to hearing about other experiences of the festival as the long comedown begins. 

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