So I went on a trip. Almost an impulse trip, really; my sister Alena and our friend Mark were going to Fringe and asked if I wanted to come.
Edinburgh is home to the original Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a theater arts event that has been running annually for three-quarters of a century. All those Fringe theater events around the world are spinoffs of this OG. It is the largest arts event in the world, and possibly the third largest ticketed event in the world (after the Olympics and the World Cup). In the words of the festival itself, it features “theatre, comedy, dance, physical theatre, circus, cabaret, children’s shows, musicals, opera, music, spoken word, exhibitions and events.”
Also street food!
This year there were over 2200 official ticketed events (and more unofficial). The Fringe program book is literally larger than the phone books of some places I’ve lived (back when phone books were a thing). The entire city becomes a city of theaters, with over 300 official venues comprised of existing theatrical facilities, rented rooms, churches, pubs, classrooms and lecture halls, temporary structures, and converted spaces. There are also unofficial venues, which can be even a gap left in a crowd or a nook between food trucks. An acrobatics performance broke out during our lunch one day.
A cool thing about the Fringe is that it’s open to just about anyone, not just A-listers. You have your first play, but no one has heard of you? No worries, you can bring it to the Fringe. Want to play Hamlet? Bring your production to the Fringe. You have a hit West End/Broadway show on your resume and you want to try a new show? Bring it to the Fringe. Lots of cool things you might know today actually got their start at the Fringe (such as West End/Broadway hit Six or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).
So we saw a great mix of established and experimental work.
But let’s be honest, first we went for Mischief.
Mischief is the theater company which brought you The Play That Goes Wrong (Olivier Award, What’s On Stage award, Broadway World award) and many other comedic productions. You can find The Show That Goes Wrong (regular series) and Peter Pan Goes Wrong (one of a few Christmas specials) on some streaming services. During 2020 lockdowns, my family and friends would meet outside and watch The Show That Goes Wrong on a projector, and it was a mainstay of social connection and good humor.
One thing that consistently amazes me about Mischief is their balance between improvisation and tightly scripted, highly choreographed work. The Goes Wrong shows are so very technical, and so precise, and then they will turn around and improvise an hour-long story on the fly. Just mad skills.
How good? When I was in Spain for a business conference, I grabbed the short extra flight to London and then took a train up to Newcastle to catch the original cast reunion in The Play That Goes Wrong. I’d seen it on tour, but I really wanted to see the original cast, because Mischief is freakin’ hilarious. (This was a pretty funny meeting, too, because it was a subject that one man had come from an hour away, which y’know is a big deal in British travel, and then there was me. :) )
So Mischief was doing a lot at Fringe, and we caught a lot of it:
Mischief Movie Night
Charlie Russell Aims To Please (solo show)
Mind Mangler, Member of the Tragic Circle (magic show but of course it goes kind of wrong)
The Fire Alarm, Or, I’m Sorry, Mischief, I Really Don’t Mean To
Starship Improvise offers the frame story of a group of actors re-watching episodes at a fan convention, “discussing” each episode with audience attendees who “recall” the episode’s title, theme, and opening scene setting. We arrived for “Commander of the Stars,” an episode about loneliness, which opened in the crew’s quarters. (Not the cruise quarters, where actors would drift by hoping for pickups, but the crew’s quarters.) The the “re-watch” begins and the entire hourlong episode is improvised, with a complete storyline.
So, yeah, we were halfway through this brilliant episode when the fire alarm went off.
The actors and most of the audience originally thought it was another sound effect, if an odd choice, and the actors incorporated it as a ship’s alarm. Then theater staff entered and told us to evacuate.
The Inflammatory Backstory
I saw The Play That Goes Wrong in Newcastle twice. The first night ran as usual. The second night, the show had to be interrupted for an emergency (rumor suggested a medical emergency, though I could not confirm).
My personal record of being in public buildings with alarms or emergencies is a statistical anomaly. Many are small (a stage light exploded during The Addams Family on Broadway, but that was a minor interruption), but others have been more serious (several hotel fires, one airport fire alarm, one train station, one smoking train car [not the tobacco kind], one convention center fire…)
My inner circle likes to joke that when infuriated I can start fires with my mind but I’m just really bad at aiming them, but honestly, I wasn’t mad in all these cases.
Anyway, this makes me a good person to travel with, because I always know where the hotel fire exits are! but it’s inconvenient for theater going. I’m really sorry. (And I am taking offers to not attend your important event.)
So now we’re all standing in the street, and after a while it becomes apparent that we’re not going back inside any time soon. The show can’t run late (again, thousands of shows sharing hundreds of theaters, everything is closely timed) and so we’re just out of luck.
The cast found a nook where a construction site’s fence dipped in to provide space for a gate to open, and that became the new stage. They did a brief recap of the episode thus far for all the newcomers also waiting in the street, and then they continued the episode. A steady stream of pedestrians flowed between performers and audience, but that was just the cost of doing business. Construction workers kept coming through the gate, suddenly surprised to find themselves in the middle of a performance, but the cast just incorporated them seamlessly. “This man reminds me of your father. He also wore high-vis.” /construction worker leaves/ “Why do all the men in my life walk away?”
Anyway, the whole thing was brilliant, well done.
We returned for another episode of Starship Improvise and made it through without incident. But…
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World
This had to be stopped mid-show as well for an undisclosed problem. We didn’t have to evacuate, though, so that was an improvement.
This musical comes from the same people who created Six, which has done pretty well for itself, and I expect this one will also get some traction. It’s the story of an ignored girl doing everything right but still getting nowhere and her encounter with bold women who made history. The soundtrack is really fun, too.
Dragons & Mythical Beasts
This show was targeted for kids, bringing young volunteers onstage to participate, and featured simply fantastic puppetry.
(I know it’s generally both wrong and illegal to take photos/video during a theatrical performance, but in this case we had permission to take and to post!)
As a kids’ show, the writing was a little message-y and a bit uneven to start (opened with some environmental themes, and then they disappeared), but overall the message was good. Instead of having to fight and kill all the magical beasts, we found alternatives — for example, instead of killing a unicorn for its horn, our heroes took hoof clippings instead, because horn and hoof are the same material.
We saw up to four shows a day, so there’s a lot I won’t cover. Other memorable titles included:
Showstoppers! (musical improv, doing a plot and songs on the fly)
Happy Birthday, Mr. President (revue style recounting American presidents and factoids)
Dreamgun Film Reads (comedy script read of Titanic)
Feeling Afraid, As If Something Terrible Is About To Happen (one man show with Samuel Barnett)
Space Hippo (shadow puppet story of a hippo sent to space to hide climate change and the resulting space wars)
We also attended the Edinburgh Tattoo, which was very cool, but this is pretty long already. Maybe another post.
Support live theater in your neighborhood! :)