Dateline Edinburgh

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Clancy Productions is presenting two shows in association with the Assembly at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month: The Extremists by C.J. Hopkins and Genesis/Golgotha, two monologues by Don Nigro. The next few Downtown Dispatches will be excerpts from the production diary.

We got into town on Saturday the 28th, having barely survived the usual Heathrow horror (cursed be the ground on which that Labyrinth of Unhappiness stands). It’s always good to see Edinburgh before the festival invades. Next week the streets will be packed with players and punters (the local term for audience members); tens of thousands of artists swarming through the medieval Old Town, scrambling over the slick cobblestones, jockeying up and down the closes, grimly thrusting flyers at each other, studying every sheet of newsprint for mention, bellowing late into the night with joy and despair and just run-of-the-mill inebriation. But now the streets are quiet except for the cackling gulls and you can walk into any pub and the bartender is waiting there just for you.

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EdinburghIt is not possible to capture the immensity and intensity of the festival with language, but numbers help frame it: in 2012, 2700 shows from 47 countries played in 280 venues, selling two million tickets over the course of a month. It is the largest arts festival in the world. Read that sentence again. Yep. Bigger, louder and crazier than any other gathering of artists on the planet, by the magnitude of about a thousand. Every conceivable manner of performance, from stand-up to Beckett to Shakespeare to Japanese physical theater to spoken word to speaking mimes to furious clowns to shadow puppets to sweet kid’s shows to raunchy cabaret to circus acts and all of that is happening in only one of the venues, go next door and you can find something else.

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We’ve been working here since 2000 and this is our seventh or eighth go-round, depending on whether or not you count 2008 when we were only here for a few days to put up a staged reading of a show the International Festival commissioned. There’s an International Festival, which is fairly staid and highbrow and pays you good money to perform and then there’s the “fringe” of that festival, which is the chaos and madness and wonder that is about to burst forth.

But for now, the rhythm is one of quiet, determined preparation and if you lift your eyes up from your own script and take a moment to forget about your own precious show, you will see something quite remarkable: an army of workers, builders, students, technicians, carpenters, ushers, administrators, electricians, press reps, box office and front of house beauties and bosses; in short, the human network and support system that allows all of these artists from all over the world to meet all of these audience members from all over the world and make it seem effortless and easy, the most natural thing in the world. Most of them are paid very little and will work 12 hour days (in contrast to the 2-3 hour workday of most performers) and will count themselves lucky if they get one day off over the course of the endless month. Most of them are in some way interested in or involved with the theater throughout the year, but some are not, they just like the buzz of the festival and enjoy the challenge of joining a team that will pull off the impossible every year.

edinburghcrowdGo back and look at those numbers in the second paragraph. Every one of those 280 venues has to be staffed. Every one of those two million tickets needs to either be handed to a punter or at least checked by an usher as the queue pushes eagerly into the venue. The sheer human workload that is lifted and carried every August in Edinburgh by this extraordinary, near-invisible army is maybe the greatest achievement of the festival, certainly it is the hardest and least remarked upon.

The actors will be applauded, lustily or politely, the writers will win awards, the directors and designers will be singled out and praised in the papers, and all rightly so; the theater is often a lonely and difficult place to work, but without the work and effort and presence of all those red or black-shirted unheralded art soldiers, it would be well nigh impossible.

And so, to plagiarize my younger self, writing in the New York International Fringe Festival’s 1998 guide:

For those about to Fringe, we salute you.

All of you.

Let’s have a good time.