To the Fringe and Back: Reflections (or Ramblings)

My original intent for this post was to consider the ways in which taking photographs for documentary purposes was indeed a much different task than taking photographs for artistic purposes, or taking photographs for personal use. To question whether, with documentary imagery, the aesthetic concepts of line and color are important, and whether the documentation image needed to be interesting or visually pleasing. Is it enough to have the image even if it isn’t a great image? When it comes to a cultural community or movement, how does one take it all in and reproduce it?

These questions still interest me. Yet, as I try to settle into the last few weeks of summer in New York—crowded subway cars, block parties, festivals—and write my blog post about the challenges, the concerns of how to best document culture as a (student) archivist/ tourist/ theater-goer, I can’t help but consider the parallels between my two weeks in Edinburgh and my week back in NYC.

• People handing-out literature on the street during all times of the day.
• People dressed in colorful costumes for no recognizable reason (juggling farm animals?).
• A kaleidoscope of culture, various styles of dance and food, people speaking different languages.
• Tourists like me snapping pictures, wanting to document everything, and blocking foot traffic.
• Even at 12 am in the morning, there is a hint of something going on. (I most enjoyed walking around at night in Edinburgh when there was less traffic).

• The buzz doesn’t last forever. A friend of mine, an Edinburgh local, explained that the city isn’t always so full of people; the Fringe is what brings in the crowds that almost spill over the narrow sidewalks.

Edinburgh definitely seemed familiar to me, even though it was my first time in the city and first time at the Fringe. In fact, when my friends and family ask me about first excursion abroad, I often report that being in Edinburgh during the Fringe felt a lot like being in Manhattan—but with gothic architecture. Hmm…how is familiarity captured?

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Filling the time capsule

IMG_6310 In two weeks of covering the Fringe, I created about 200 files that will land in the archive. These include photos and video recordings of performances at Venue 13 as well as a few audio recordings of interviews with cast and crew members. Then there are all the dozens of fliers and ticket stubs that I collected from other shows, as well as another hundred photos from other parts of the Fringe. Add these to the hundreds of files that my classmates have created or collected, and we’ll have a fairly sizable archive for this year’s Fringe. It’s interesting to think about how much ephemeral information we captured that would ordinarily have persisted only in the memories of the people who took part in these events.

But what or who is the archive for? On several occasions over the past few weeks I’ve been asked about who might use all of these files. The theatre people from CalArts and York University seemed happy to be recorded and delighted at the thought of having representations of their work preserved in a library, but many of them wondered about who might use this archive one day.

I’ve asked myself this question, too, and found myself imagining several possible users, including scholars and practitioners. Maybe some historian one day will want to study the evolution of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or of CalArts productions at the Fringe. Maybe in 50 years a scholar will want to explore what sort of social, political, economic, or gender issues were involved in American college theatre of the early twenty-first century. Maybe a biographer will want to examine the early work of an actor or dramaturge who went on to become very successful. Maybe a producer will want to consult the video recording of a particular drama because they are thinking of restaging it. Or maybe one of the actors we filmed will want to show their grandchildren something from their days in drama school.

Because of my experience studying musicology, it’s a little easier for me to picture the possible scholarly applications of archives in the performing arts. When I was researching a particular piece of music from the 1930s written for a play, I would have loved to have access to any documentation from the original production, let alone oral histories of those involved, yet there seemed to be little available because the show was not very successful. At the time, who would have thought to invite a team of archivists to capture and preserve information about the production?

I hope that future scholars and theatre companies will discover and use the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe archive that my colleagues and I worked so hard to put together. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll want to explore it myself for research or just to be reminded of a very rewarding experience.

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The Real Show is Backstage

On Friday I got the opportunity to film and document backstage during Pomegranate Jam. I was really excited to see how the shadow ballet is performed to produce the amazing show of shadows and light the audience sees.

The curtain onto which the shadows are cast during Pomegranate Jam is right at the front of the stage, so all the performers have the full stage that they would’ve had if it wasn’t a shadow performance, but all of their movements are completely altered. The closer to the light source or the back of the stage, the more mammoth the actors figures’s become, the closer the actors are to the curtain, the more life-size the figures.

All of the puppetry was done with small puppets right up against the curtain and all of the dance sequences with the actors was also performed in the restricted space right at the front of the stage. The only times the actors were towards the light projector and the back of the stage was to produce specific moments of grandeur.

All of the scenery is projected onto the curtain with a classroom overhead projector. The colorful gels/sheets and dark roots that make up the different scenes are all backwards to the tech member controlling the scene. She has to reach around carefully to push up the flowers of spring towards her so that her arms and body don’t cast an unwanted shadow.

Tricks that seem difficult to fathom from the audience become simple as you see that a bowl of water spun over the projector creates the eerie scenery for one of the climatic scenes of the show. Actors can also disappear by lying down flat on the stage so that they no longer cast a shadow on the screen/curtain.

Being backstage for Pomegranate reminded me of being on stage during orchestra performances and thinking that it’s infinitely more interesting seeing the conductor’s face rather than their non-expressive backs. I think many audience members would be shocked to see the facial expressions that help produce beautiful music. Far fewer people would ask what it is a conductor “does” if they could see from the performers’s side of the stage.

Performing in Pomegranate Jam means not knowing what the show looks like from the audience. This is true of any production, but there is something about producing shadows with the actions on stage rather than just acting on stage that adds an element of mystery to the performers and for the performers. During the tech day for the show, while trying to figure out all of the technical issues and transitioning between cues, people kept running out in front of the curtain to see what they were doing actually looked like from the audience, to ensure that what they were doing translated well to the audience to tell the story.

Every person that helps produce the show of Pomegranate Jam knows exactly where they need to be at every moment to not miss any of their cues and to also not be in anyone else’s way. The show is a shadow ballet performed for the audience, but there is also a kind of dance happening backstage to produce the show.

I enjoyed watching Pomegranate Jam from the audience, but if I had a choice, I would much rather be backstage to see how the show comes together.

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Pub Culture

I love a bar or what I like to call a joint.  My idea of a great joint is diverse people, good food and good drink cheap.  A place that you don’t mind going to often that is frequented by your friends.  A meeting place, a place to relax, enjoy good conversation and grab a brew.  In the states, we have places like that, but they are not places where you see families, kids etc.  They are usually bars and the real reason for being there is to drink.  Maybe there is some food on the menu.  In Scotland the pub is a part of the Scottish culture.

Pubs were originally called Public Houses and their history can be traced back to Roman taverns. Pubs are a drinking establishment, but because so much information is traded there, in smaller places they can be the focal point of the community.  Pubs are socially and culturally distinct from cafes and bars. Families frequent pubs as they serve good, usually comfort food and spirits cheaply. The biggest difference however, was that pubs also sold spirits and beer in small shops that were attached to the pub.  Once supermarkets and gift shops were able to get licences to sell spirits the shops attached to pubs, colloquially known as the jug and bottle, went away and you are now left with the modern-day gathering establishment that I so enjoyed while in Edinburgh.

While in Edinburg I tried to have a beer at as many pubs as I could.  I loved the atmosphere.  You can sit with friends and have a conversation, catch up and enjoy a beer and a good meal in a happy atmosphere.  I enjoyed how different each pub was from the next.  Some were big spaces with lots of light and maybe some live music and others were smaller, cozy area with comfortable couches and chairs; places you could have a real heart-to-heart with someone.  I loved the fact that all kinds of people came to pubs, families, groups of friends, co-workers, all there to relax and have a good time.  I never once felt the “meat-market” atmosphere that I sometimes encounter in American bars.  I felt comfortable enough in the pubs that I went to in Edinburgh to go to one alone.

The pubs I encountered in Edinburgh had many more beers on tap than in most bars I been to in Maryland.  I enjoyed to cast ale and grew very fond of Innis and Gunn beer.  It  is a cast ale some of which is done in whiskey barrels and some old rum barrels.  Tasty!  I also loved the fact that I could get a half-pint.  Most of the beer is 5 or 6% alcohol and as such I really didn’t need to drink a pint all of the time.  Having the option of a half-pint was great.  I also found pub food to be comfort food.  Most of it was really good and relatively inexpensive so I had another reason to like pubs. I love to eat and the food was good.  What else do you need?

So…if you are every in Edinburgh, stop into the local pub that you see and raise a glass.  I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.


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Dimensional Documenting

Theater is three-dimensional.

An obvious statement, yes, but I didn’t realize how three-dimensional until I was behind the camera documenting CalArts’s productions. The camera immediately transforms the live three-dimensional performance into a two-dimentional representation of the performance.

Actors move their bodies around the entire stage and project their voices out to the audience. The performance through the display on the screen on the camera is flattened. Glancing between the screen and the stage it’s apparent how much the representations that we’re creating for the archive is just that, representations. Performing Arts like theater and music and dance don’t happen in mediums that can be stored for perpetuity. Recordings, photographs, manuscripts, etc are not the mediums of performing arts, but these are the mediums that libraries, archives, and museums are able to house.

Video recordings seem to come the closest to seeing a performance live. We had four days of documenting at Venue 13, the dress rehearsal and three performance days. The shows have not remained the same over the small time that we have captured and the shows will continue to change after we’ve left. The changes come from technical issues being worked out, to actors being more familiar with the space, to how much an audience laughs at a joke, and many other reasons that add up to each recording we collected being it’s own individual document. There are four recordings of each of the shows, but they are in no way identical and no recording is any more truly representative of the performance, of the piece. Each recording is an individual documentation of an individual performance while also being one instance of a show. They are connected and related, but not identical.

Yellow Fever, Kaspar, and Victims of Influence are all flattened, but it is easy to imagine the depth that exists when you are sitting in the audience of the live stage. Yellow Fever and Victims of Influence have the action of the shows fully on the main stage and within the world of the stage which was easy to set up a camera to document. As long as the entire stage is in the frame the show is being captured.

Kaspar mostly happens on the stage, but there are many entrances from the back of the house (audience) and then along the side up to the stage. For one performance we tired to set up a camera to capture the actors’s entrances as well as the main stage, but the video is basically just black as there are no lights on them when they enter. In a live viewing the minimal light from the stage allows you to see them, but cameras are not human eyes and do not have good night vision, even if cameras are getting better at capturing images in low light.

Things from Before has a beautiful set. There are picture frames of various sizes hung at different heights all along the edge of the stage. It looks stunning live to see the actors within the room that is the stage and then looking through the picture frames out to the audience to deliver lines or to look out into the yard of the house. As beautiful as it is though, it suffers from the flattening effect of the camera. The actors and picture frames interacting in the video don’t have the same depth that you can see live.

There is only one show that is exempt from the strange flattening out through the camera, Pomegranate Jam. Pomegranate Jam is a shadow ballet and therefore the normally three-dimensional aspect of theater is already switched to two-dimensions for the live audience. The shadows are cast by puppets and actors themselves onto the screen that lies in between the stage and the audience.

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Show in 15 Minutes: The Necessity of Guerilla Marketing

Since I have arrived, I have encountered performers—actors, comedians, fire eaters, and sword swallowers—who are hungry for audiences. After a gig, these performers often head to the Royal Mile, or any other place around town, to flyer, perform, and market their productions. I have enjoyed many of these encounters, because I view them as informal opportunities to connect to audiences.

Last week on my way to a performance, a comedian from London stopped me and handed me a flyer for his show. Rather than simply shoving the flyer it my hands and walking off, he chatted with me a bit, telling me what I could expect from his set. I told him that I was in Edinburgh with a group of American library students who were committed to documenting the Fringe Festival and asked to take his photograph. I explained that in a hundred years from now, scholars would see that he was a part of the festival. He agreed and, jokingly, instructed me to only include his photograph (and not his flyer) in the archives. “I don’t know if I want people a hundred years from now seeing me in the kilt,” he said.

Imhotep, Comedian, London England

Imhotep, Comedian, London England

A few days later while I was snapping pictures near the Scott Monument, a storyteller introduced herself, and just as it started to rain, handed me her flyer. She told me she was playing at the Merchants’ Hall and said that the show was about her life. She kindly agreed to a photograph—she even held the umbrella for me as I fumbled with the light meter on my dying camera.

Shurl, Storyteller

Shurl, Storyteller

Monday afternoon while I was flipping through the Fringe booklet, the required text for the festival, a woman came over to me and offered her flyer. She was out marketing her show with her daughter. Across the street from us, a crowd had gathered to watch and listen to a group of street performers jam in the square.

Even the performers at Venue 13 do their own share of guerilla marketing on the street. In fact, before their show each day the cast of Things from Before often go out in costume to talk about the show and to get flyers into people’s hands.

I have done my own share of street flyering and I know that pitching a show is key. Just handing someone a flyer won’t warrant the desired return: an audience to fill the house each night. And even with a great pitch, there is still the sobering possibility that no one will show-up because there are hundred other performances to see. This has been the anxiety and reality of some of the performers that I have spoken to. Being at the Fringe has given me a new respect for street flyering, performing, and crazy-costume-wearing for these techniques have the power to rein in audiences in ways that festival interns and a 400-page-festival-booklet cannot.

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We’re Off To See The Wizard! : Seeing Shows at the Fringe

In addition to the shows we document at Venue 13, we are encouraged to experience and document other performances at the Fringe. No, I didn’t get to see a production of the Wizard of Oz as the title of the post might suggest (though there was one about Dorothy that looked kind of cool), but I did get to see some other fantastic shows. The most difficult part was narrowing down a manageable amount of shows–there is the official programme (over 400 pages, color coded by genre of performance, and with a handy map at the back) and app to make the job easier. I really liked this tweet the other day that illuminates how large this festival is:

Out of these, I (with the help and company of some classmates) managed to narrow it down to 5 shows as I mentioned in my last post–but so far I have actually gotten to see 7 shows! We happened upon the cast of “He Had Hairy Hands” on the Royal Mile, and we got free tickets to their preview show that night; that was some of the best money I’ve never spent. It was a silly “horror” story with a werewolf, an enterprising detective, and had a little twist at the end! They also had some of the most inventive uses for a retractable dog leash I have ever seen–it was at times a telephone cord, a mountain climbing rope, the edge of a(n invisible) table, and of course, a classic dog leash.

Flyers, Tickets, and Map

Flyers and venue booklets for the shows I saw, as well as my handy dandy Fringe venue map

Then, during a pause in documentation shifts, I saw the 5 shows I originally bought tickets for. First up was “Shakespeare’s Avengers Assembleth” on Sunday–and it was as fantastic as the title might suggest. Will Shakespeare has been called by the queen to defend Protestantism against a Papal inquisitor…by putting on a play. Appearing in the play was quite a mix of characters–Hamlet and Ophelia showed up, as well as Macbeth, Brutus, Katherine (from Taming of the Shrew), Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet, and Iago. Shenanigans ensued, and it was hilarious.

Next, I saw Out of the Blue (an all-male a capella group from Oxford) at a venue at the University of Edinburgh, and to put it in perspective–they started with a Shakira medley and got better from there. What more can I say, really? They were very talented musically, and were great performers on top of it. That night, I went to see a production of “Hamlet”–choosing one out of the many because of a vague personal connection to a director–that was also well done. Watching such a well-known (and often-performed) work is interesting to me because of the different stylistic choices made by the directors and actors, and this one had its own unique flavor–helped by the fact they managed to fit most of Shakespeare’s longest play into about 70 minutes!

Flyers collected over the course of just a few hours on the Royal Mile (and elsewhere)

Flyers and booklets collected over the course of just a few hours on the Royal Mile (and elsewhere)

Tuesday I saw two more shows. In the morning, we saw “The Seussification of A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,  which was very cute. In addition to performing the majority of the play–in a rhymed, Seuss-ed style–the all-female cast ran through the show again at the end only faster…and then did it again, only faster and backwards. My ticketed shows ended with watching a musical group from South Africa, called Soweto Melodic Voices, in St. John’s Church. They started with a tribute to Nelson Mandela (which gave me chills for almost the entire first half of the performance), and by the time we finished people were dancing in the aisles. They were awesome, and so my original list of 5 shows ended on a good note.*

Finally, yesterday (Wednesday), I got the opportunity to see “Fleeced!” at Venue 13. I had seen a description and it looked funny, so I went in and gave it a shot–it was hilarious. Jesephules leaves home on a Hercules-esque quest and meets Odysseus, and then they meet Medusa (who is very nice, wears a bag on her head to avoid fossilization accidents, and has a hand puppet as an imaginary friend). Hades also shows up, and had a very thick Scottish accent (who knew, right?). The mashup of different Greek mythological characters, along with the fact that it was a well-written musical, made it one of my favorite experiences of the trip so far.

*Pun not originally intended



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Skill Building

I am learning new skills.  The old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” thankfully, I’ve found, does not apply to me.  I have learned more about technology during my trip to Edinburgh than in the last 20 years.  For instance, I am now writing a blog.  Really!?  I had no idea how to do that until last Tuesday and now I am able to sign on and write a blog. I can also Tweet!  That’s right, Tweet, and I do so everyday thank you. And, if I don’t say so myself, some of my Tweets are downright clever! The acquisition of these now common everyday skills may sound trite to some, but when your computer skills were truly limited to e-mail, facebook and ebay, blogging and Tweeting are big steps.

I am now somewhat proficient with a video camera. To be brutally honest I was scared to death of the thing. I was nervous that I would break it or at the very least do something to it that would keep it in some continuous loop or some other strange thing that would force me to buy a new camera. However, I overcame my fear and learned it won’t do anything that I don’t tell it to do. Pure power!  So now, I can put it up, check to see if it is taping correctly and video live performances without asking for help from my younger, more tech savvy classmates.  They are probably happy about that too. Now they can get their own work done and stop helping me. A win-win!

I have successfully used an audio recorder to tape a group interview.  Big deal, all you do is turn the recorder on and off, right?  Well not to the remedial tech person.  I had to practice with the device several times to make sure I was actually recording.  Then I had to check to determine if I could hear what was said. Sadly, after my first practice I heard absolutely nothing. Headphones? Did someone say headphones?  Duh!  You need headphones to hear the audio recording.  So I found some headphones and Wa-la…the practice taping worked!   After doing that about 15 times (repetitive actions help when you just don’t get it) I was finally comfortable with the little hand-held machine and able to interview a group of delightful students from the California Institute of the Arts about their play entitled “Kaspar”. They didn’t even know I’d just learned to work that little recorder that day!   I am now the master of the audio recorder, a skill that belongs to me and no one can divest me of it!.

Then there is my own technology.  I so wanted to use pen and paper, they are, after all old and dear friends, but I chose to get up close and personal with both my new tablet and my laptop.  I can use certain things like Word and Angry Birds, but learning to use my laptop to place photos in blogs for instance or my tablet to take pictures was a different story.  Yes, I know how to take pictures,(I had a Brownie camera back in the day that I could manipulate just fine, thank you)  but working with the tablet to get good photos was a test.  I also learned how to take videos with my tablet, a skill of which I am very proud.  Just ask and I will be more than willing to show my latest video.

Last, but not least, is the use of apps.  My apps included the Weather Channel, Jewels and MapMyWalk.  Since being here at the Fringe, my classmates have shown me how to find the times for shows, get a map of Edinburgh, find the nearest Indian food and how to connect to WIFI anywhere, including the bus. Oh joy!  I can be as connected as everyone else in the world! Now if I could only change the ring tone on my Smart phone…

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13 ways of looking at a black box

Some observations and reflections on Venue 13:

1. The fringe is economical: it fills every available street corner, nook and cranny, every possible time slot. A dark theater is a sad theater.

2. The productions conform to the space while transforming the space. They have to accept the restricted size but they also make it an element in their story.

3. Pomegranate Jam limits itself to two dimensions of the theater. Silhouettes of puppets and actors and props are projected against a scrim. With no dialogue, the play relies instead on movement and music to tell the story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld. In a predominantly black and white world, the appearance of colored projections and a very red sparkling pomegranate stand out.

4. The 15-minute gaps between shows are breaks only for spectators. For everyone involved in the theater, it is a mad rush to strike the previous set and install the new one. The crew frets over the main overhead projector at the venue, which seems at times to be slow to load the new projections and get centered. Stage managers call out how much time is left until the house is supposed to open. When it does, the audience has little idea how much sweat was spilled in the last 15 minutes.

5. Things From Before builds an elaborate set of 17 window or picture frames hanging from the overhead light rigs and includes a jumble of some 30 alarm clocks piled up in the back. The eight-member cast fill every inch of the stage, dancing at the opening before settling into an anxious family drama that gets interrupted by absurdist dance and musical interludes. It’s Tennessee Williams by way of David Lynch.

6. The space accommodates the narrative, the lyrical, the literal, the abstract; the wholesome, the risqué, the avant-garde; the minimalist, the mannered. Likewise, the space accepts all types of spectators: young, old, traditionalist, adventurous.

7. Victims of Influence features four young women who awake frightened to discover their human forms and the destinies that are laid out for them. Bits of story come through in movement, expression, projections and recorded snippets of dialogue. The characters have few lines of original, live dialogue; much of what they speak on stage is a direct quotation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The effect is often unsettling but very thought provoking about how perceptions can shape one’s identity.

8. Projections, prerecorded sound, light displays: only occasionally are these mere enhancements of the story; often they are critical elements. In a scene at the end of Victims, the house lights come up, implicating the spectator as an influence on the characters’ predicaments.

9. Outside the theatre, a large man in a bear suit hands out flyers to rein in an audience for Fleeced. I haven’t seen it yet so I have no idea what the connection is to the story, which I thought had to do with the Golden Fleece.

10. In Yellow Fever, a tortured painter who aspires to be Vincent Van Gogh is obsessed with the color yellow, personified in a female character who is alternately his model, muse, lover, critic, and tormentor. The stage is covered in a yellow surface and bathed in colorful lights that drip like paint on a canvas.

11. Colorfully dressed people come and go from outside the theater. It is occasionally unclear whether someone in unusual clothing is in costume or just a very artsy/weird spectator.

12. The female lead of Kaspar begins by pounding on the door of the house, staggering inside and repeating a cryptic phrase about wanting to be like somebody else was once. One by one, eight more characters appear, interrogating, lecturing, musing, explaining about language and the spaces between the signifiers and the signifieds, the past and the present. Are we in a mental institution? A coffin? A circus? The story seems at times chaotic and relentless but develops in an interesting way, and the actors do an excellent job.

13. From outside the theater, there is no way to tell from a program or flyers just what is taking place within. The space truly is a black box, its contents known only to those brave enough to peek inside.

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