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.

Parallels:
• 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).

Differences:
• 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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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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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 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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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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