The Fringe is On: First Glimpse of Festival Culture in Edinburgh

There’s this buzz around Edinburgh, suggesting that something great is about to happen. Tuesday morning, I awoke to singing, a rehearsal for “Tattoo.” It was as if the collective voices, distinct harmonies were welcoming the suite guests into a new day. It was a special before-breakfast treat. It prepared me for a day of exploring.

After breakfast, the UMD students went down to Venue 13 where we will be working. On the way, I snapped a few photos of the flyers and signage for shows that guide pedestrians down the path. “Come See,” they beckon. Who was I to resist?

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When we arrived at Venue 13, Daz and his team of students from the Royal Welsh College were loading-in. The space only holds a little more than forty ticket holders, which will, perhaps, provide a more intimate setting for performers and audiences.  Daz explained that the performances will run back-to back, offering a lot of art in just a few days. He deemed it the “Fringe at its best.”

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Following our meeting with Daz, we ventured down the Royal Mile. Some performers were getting a head start with their in-person advertising and showing off their acts.

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During a quick coffee break at Caffé Nero, we met two festival–goers from Austria, Tari and Stefanie. Stefanie recently graduated from business school and is taking some needed travel time before settling into a career. Both women will be working at the festival this year and will get to see many of the shows for free. Not a bad deal.

Tari and Stefanie

Tari and Stefanie

Before heading back to the suite, I did a little exploring of my own, searching for other interesting performances to catch over the next few days. So many from which to choose…

(While I was drafting my post, the bartender at the restaurant on the University of Edinburg Campus began to sing the lyrics to Jay-z’s and Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind.” So my day ends as it began…with music.)

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A Magical Tour

I love reading for the same reason that I love traveling: I love seeing life through a perspective that isn’t my own. When traveling I like to see the different quirks that exist in all the new towns and cities that are different from the ones I’m used to. Seeing if people diligently wait at lights for them to turn green or if, like in Edinburgh, they press the buttons that they want to cross and then completely ignore the lights to j-walk across streets when there is a good enough gap between cars. Reading gives you a chance to uniquely see perspectives through the eyes of another person, even if they are a fictional character. My experiences in Edinburgh so far have been able to combine both my love of traveling and my love of reading.

The first event that I’ve had the privilege of attending of the Fringe Festival was The Potter Trail, a walking tour of the city to show all of the Harry Potter related sights in the city, places where J.K. Rowling wrote the books as well as various things and places that inspired aspects of the books. In my independent travels that I did before the program started I had seen a couple of the sights already. I had seen The Elephant House, a cafe that describes itself as “The Birthplace of Harry Potter” and knew that there were a couple of gravestones that Ms. Rowling got names from in Greyfriars Kirk’s graveyard – I hadn’t found the names, but I knew they were there somewhere.

The tour not only connected the fictional world of Harry Potter to inspirations from the real world of Edinburgh, but gave some history of the city of Edinburgh. For example, J.K. Rowling got Professor McGonagall’s name from the Poet, William McGonagall’s gravestone. This poet was given the unofficial title of “worst poet ever” and was generally not very well liked. At one point during his life he allowed people to pay to see him recite poetry and throw rotten fruit and such at him and his face. When one of the first health and safety laws was put into place outlawing this practice, William McGonagall wrote an angry poem stating that the law was taking away his livelihood.

I have greatly enjoyed experiencing this wonderful city through the perspective of one of my favorite fictional worlds and can’t wait to see other aspects of the city through other Fringe Festival events and by exploring more independently.

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A Whole New (Old) World

Street in Edinburgh

Taken on the walk to Venue 13 to check out the space and tech move-in

Today was our first full day in Edinburgh, and it was just as bright and sunny as yesterday. Bright, sunny, and completely new to me–this is my first trip outside of North America. Going through customs (and traveling through Heathrow in general) was certainly an experience, as well as remembering to make sure to look BOTH ways before crossing because they do indeed drive on the left. So far I’m really enjoying all of the stone buildings–it makes every view more dramatic. Hearing all of the different accents and languages adds a flair to every interaction as well.

After walking with the group to Venue 13 today to learn the route and meet some of the people from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama setting up the venue, and then stopping for coffee (and Wi-Fi), Andrea, Melissa, and I explored around town. We got tickets from the Fringe Box Office–we managed to narrow it down to 5 shows out of an expansive list–and then explored all the way up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. Then we walked back down, made a couple stops, and headed back to Greyfriars Bobby’s (where we had dinner last night) to meet up at the statue of the well-known little dog for a tour for Harry Potter fans.*

Pizza Paradise Menu Offerings

Pizza Paradise Menu Offerings

One of my favorite parts of the day was the place we stopped for dinner on the way there–and not just because there was food involved. It is called Pizza Paradise, and as you can see in the picture, a sign outside advertises that they serve falafel, humus, shawerma, kebabs, pizza and burgers, all in the same joint. I’ve never seen this particular combination of food served at one place in the US, but I do see it with amusing frequency here! And I don’t know about all of the other falafel-humus-shawerma-kebabs-pizza-burger joints of the world, but this one had really good food (Melissa and I shared chicken and corn pizza, for curious souls).

Finally, an ongoing side project of mine on this trip includes asking people I meet a Question of the Day and videoing their responses. I’ll put these responses together in a video for the kids at the DC Public Library branch** where I work, as a fun way to teach geography and share some global perspectives. In this quest so far, I’ve met 3 people–two friends from Vienna who had traveled to the Fringe to work (and get into shows for free), and an author from London who was on the Royal Mile promoting her book of short stories. They were very nice, friendly people, and I’m excited to keep working on the project–and to keep my progress documented/summarized here!

 

*If you don’t know about the sweet little terrier, here’s the Wikipedia article, as well as the Historic UK description.

**Totally my own project, not official in any capacity.

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First Day of a New Adventure

So far “Following the Fringe” has been a great adventure.  Scotland is beautiful.  Every vista is breath-taking especially the one out of my window that looks at Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano that is just beautiful. However, what makes travel so fascinating for me is meeting new people.  I love how many languages I hear while just walking down the street in Edinburgh.  Today turned out to be a boon day for me because I was surrounded by new sights, new sounds and very interesting new people. I awoke to the sound of various conversations that passed my window on the way to breakfast.  I understood very few of them, as they were spoken in languages other than English, but that made the sound lyrical.  Just as I began to get out of bed, I heard voices raised in song; beautiful young African voices singing for all they were worth.  It was a wonderful way to start the day.

On my way to breakfast I met a woman from Australia.  She was lost and trying to find her way to breakfast.  I was lost too, but I acted like I knew where I was going just to have the chance to talk to her.  I learned that she has been visiting many countries for the past few months with her husband and some friends.  We had a nice chat and then she and her party went onto breakfast.

After breakfast, we traveled as a group to visit Venue 13 where we will be working documenting the performances put on by students from the California Institute of the Arts. The venue was being set up by the students from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. While there I met Clare, one of their instructors. We hit it off right away.  She had a big smile and eyes that sparkled when she laughed.  She told me the history of the building that will house Venue 13 as well as the history of the building across the street.  I learned from her that the building under renovation across from Venue 13 was the birthplace of Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations. We hung out at Venue 13 for a while and then we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring Edinburgh on our own.  I spent a delightful day with two of my classmates, Kendra and Melissa.  I have had classes with both of these young ladies, but today gave me a chance to know them better. Although not new to me, I consider spending time with them as one of the gifts of my splendid day.

Later in the day while having coffee,  I met two girls from Vienna, Austria. One young lady was intrigued by my accent and was trying to guess where I was from.  She knew it was the U.S. but was trying to pin down the state.  She was fun and very enthusiastic about being in Edinburgh for the Fringe festival. I enjoyed my conversation with her and her friend. Oh, and by the way, she never guessed what state I was from, I had to tell her I was from Maryland.

While walking to Edinburgh Castle we met a woman named Sarah Guppy . She is an author of short stories who was on the Royal Mile trying to sell her book.  Moreover, she was trying to get people to review her book.  She said that the competition between short story writers was intense and she was chatting with people to try to understand what would make people read collections of short stories instead of novels.  She was intense, focused about her writing and interested in carrying on a conversation with strangers. I found her brave and dedicated to her cause and I hope her book does well.

Around four in the afternoon it was time for a half pint.  Travel and beer go together so well!  The bartender at the Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar was delightful.  This must have been the day for guessing things about people, because she tried to guess the ages of Kendra and Melissa.  At first, while listening to her speak, I thought she was from Scotland.  But as she continued, it was apparent that she was from the U.S., Alabama to be exact. She made us laugh, welcomed us to sit anywhere and made us feel at home. She scored points for bartenders everywhere.

Today renewed my faith in people We hear so much about how poorly folks treat each other. Today I had nothing but great experiences meeting people new people and strengthening ties with my classmates. I hope as my stay continues I will be able to meet more interesting people and create some lasting friendships. That is the best part of traveling.

Picture of Andrea, Kendra and Melissa

Fun in Edinburgh, Scotland

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What makes a city a Festival City?

I’ve been thinking about this question since I started planning for my trip to Edinburgh, which is clearly a Festival City and not merely a city that happens to hold a festival. But where does the distinction lie? I think of festival cities as places that get completely swept up in an event throughout the town, where residents and visitors are equally likely to attend events, and where the normal order of things is suspended for several days.

But what causes these features to be present in some cities but not others?

New York, for example, is a worldly city with a million cultural things to do, but those things are about equally available and appealing throughout the year. There are festivals, of course, celebrating an exhibit, a composer, a film competition, or the like, but these festivals tend to occupy just a few pages of that week’s 100-page Time Out. On the other hand, a city like Montreal, where I lived for several years, transforms itself into festival central for the entire summer, starting with the Fringe Fest, Grand Prix weekend, the Jazz Fest, Just for Laughs, Francofolies, and more. Downtown streets become pedestrian-only spaces for much of the time, and there are noteworthy free and paid events happening almost every night. The festivals are able to attract big-name acts, which is great for the period of the festival; however, there may be a relative shortage of, for example, big-name jazz acts visiting during the rest of the year. I think of New Orleans (mardi gras, French Quarter fest, jazz fest) and Austin (South by Southwest) as other Festival Cities.

So, here are some of the qualities I associate with arts festivals and Festival Cities:

1. They are multidisciplinary, mixed-arts festivals. Festivals that limit themselves to a particular medium or genre will also limit their audience. One of the things that is so impressive about the Edinburgh Fringe program is the diversity: comedy, spoken word, theatre, music, and cabaret, each of which can be subdivided into too many bizarre subgenres to count. A man in an animal suit performing a monologue about his mother while riding a unicycle? The Fringe probably has about a dozen such shows. Want Shakespeare or Mozart straight up? The Fringe has that too.

2. They are democratic festivals that include free and ticketed events, in public as well as private spaces. Holding events outdoors and marking a street as “Festival Central” brings extra visibility to the event and allows people to attend while spending as much or as little money as they choose. The democratic nature also allows for an eclectic group of artists who participate.

3. The cities have a notable arts scene outside of festival season. I also think of festival cities as having a significant presence of college students and artists who are eager to be involved in the festivals.

4. The cities have lousy weather for a good portion of the year, which makes locals want to take advantage of the few months when temperatures are pleasant. This was definitely true in Montreal and my hometown of Buffalo, where locals never let a sunny day pass without a visit to a terrace. I suspect it is also a factor in Edinburgh, which can be dark and soggy for months.

What else could be added to this list? I hope that after two weeks in Edinburgh I’ll have some additional thoughts.

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Follow the Fringe 2014

And we’re back! The UMD iSchool is returning to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to document and archive three stage productions produced by CalArts and students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and all performed at Venue 13. In addition, this year we will be documenting a production by students from the York University Center for Film and Theater.Fringe Pre Class 2014

We, Lissa and Alex, are returning as #MLSfringe veterans (Class Coordinator and Librarian, respectively) to help lead our second year of students and we look forward to working with the class and Dr. Mary Choquette.

Fringe Pre Class 2014 DC exercise

On Monday, July 21st, we gathered in Hornbake Library to meet each other, go over safety in a foreign country, review logistics, and learn about documentation strategy from Dr. Choquette. The students finished the day with a documentation exercise where they interviewed each other and recorded the metadata for their interview.

We all arrive in Edinburgh Monday, July 28th. Our first group dinner will be at one of last year’s favorite spots, Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar, and the work at Venue 13 begins on Tuesday. Check this blog over the next two weeks for posts from each of the students and follow our journey daily on Twitter using the hashtag #MLSfringe.

~ Alex & Melissa

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