The tour of Instructions for Border Crossing starts this week at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, then Bristol’s Tobacco Factory on Sunday, then more.
In a newspaper, that sentence would be in italics at the bottom, to explain why you’ve just read a lengthy thinkpiece about my experience of performing the show in Edinburgh, but I want you to buy tickets, so I’m getting it in up front.
On the morning of my final performance at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, this wonderful review appeared in the Scotsman. (WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS, SORT OF).
It’s one of those rare reviews that not only loves the show but also seems to really get it and the intentions behind it. However much we might kvetch about reviews, when one really connects with what you thought you were up to, that’s satisfying. And Joyce MacMillan, incidentally, has gone two for two, having done the same with Going Viral two years earlier. Thanks Joyce! See you next time!
But my immediate reaction wasn’t this, so much as MAN, I could have done with this a fortnight ago. Joyce saw the show on its fourth performance, two and a half weeks earlier. During the course of the run, the show was seen by six separate critics from the Scostman. (Or, perhaps more accurately, press tickets were booked in the names of six separate individuals on behalf of the Scotsman.) I’d fully given up on a review ever appearing and I don’t expect ever to solve the mystery of why so many people booked only for a review to appear at the very end, written by the first of them to come.
Last time I was at the Fringe I’d had four-star reviews in several national newspapers by the time I went on for my second preview, and it was only a few days later I learned I’d won a Fringe First. The show sold extremely well for the rest of the run. I was very spoiled and it was – at least on the surface – a much easier time.
This time, the reviews were more restrained. They were warm but not ecstatic. Despite being seen by up to half a dozen people from the panels of various awards, no awards were forthcoming. The show sold extremely well some days and more slowly on others, yo-yo-ing crazily from day to day according to no pattern I could discern. It was a normal experience of the Fringe and it was – at least on the surface – a tougher time.
In fact, I had a much nicer time this year. Although by all external markers Going Viral was going extremely well, it was almost the end of the run before I was really enjoying performing it. For at least two weeks there was a massive disjunction between my experience of performing the show and the show I was reading about – even when the reviews were good, even when they were good and discerned the intentions behind the show, I didn’t feel the show was really achieving those intentions until the last week. That feeling was exacerbated by the fact that barely anyone I wasn’t friends with ever told me in person that they’d enjoyed the show, and social media was largely silent.
Instructions for Border Crossing changed radically from the first performance to the second, and more gradually throughout the rest of the run (This is for another blogpost). But that first performance and one or two outliers aside, I thoroughly enjoyed performing this show. And more people than with any previous show (including The Price of Everything) came up to me in the bar to tell me how much they’d loved it. Importantly, a sizeable proportion of these people had stories about how they’d been directly affected by some of the subject matter of the show. Many people tweeted their enthusiasm.
But somehow these experiences weren’t finding their way into print. They weren’t part of the mainstream narrative around the show, which I guess, based on the reviews, was that it was pretty good, some great bits, interesting, clever, but maybe doesn’t all quite tie together or isn’t quite satisfying in the final analysis. (Which sounds like plenty of shows, actually, but certainly isn’t the peak of anyone’s ambition.)
And that affects audience figures. And smaller audiences make it harder for a show to really land hard, especially one that asks quite a lot of its audience. It’s no coincidence that the strongest shows were those with most people in the room. (Another subject for a future blogpost.) I should stress again that I'm not complaining about any of this. It's the normal experience of the Fringe. If anything it's even smoother and more pain-free than that normal experience, which is of no-one really noticing or caring at all.
So although the experience of doing the show day-to-day was immensely rewarding, I was getting a little worried about the tour. The autumn tour of this show is tremendously exciting. If five years ago you’d asked me to write a list of all the venues I really want to be touring into, it would have looked a lot like this tour. And they’d booked it before it existed, which is a tremendous and humbling vote of confidence.
But watching from afar, would they worry that they hadn’t got what they’d hoped for? Had they been banking on another award-winning box office smash? Would they be able to sell the show; would they be invested in selling the show when they’ve also got salt. and The Believers are But Brothers, two bona fide sellout hits that also happened to be the two shows directly before mine in the same room?
This sort of worry suggests a profound lack of faith in the brilliant people at all those venues, but that’s the sort of thing the Edinburgh Fringe makes you worry about when you’ve no real things to worry about. Of course they’ll be able to muster the enthusiasm. The show’s good and plenty of people have said so. Also, it’s their job and they’re good at their jobs. But my god that Scotsman review made a difference to my ability to not just know this but really feel it. Man, I could have done with it two weeks earlier.
Honestly, though, the real reasons I had a better time at this Fringe than two years ago were my friends and my running, and if you’re more interested in the theatre industry than my life, I’d stop reading here.
Two years ago, very few of my close friends were around during the Fringe. I’d come off stage after doing Going Viral and be at a total loss about what to do. I’m pretty good in my own company but at times I became seriously lonely, the kind of loneliness that makes going to the Summerhall bar to see who’s around a gauntlet of anxiety. If I talk to people and it’s awkward, that might be worse than not risking it at all. Maybe I won’t risk it. And then when I do, this anxiety guarantees it will be awkward. For much of the Festival I was living in a flat on my own, so going home never seemed particularly thrilling.
This year I had people in the flat and enough good friends up (and through, and down; not everyone heads north to the Festival) to be confident of someone with whom to pass a happy hour. The difference that made to my mental health for the month of August was immense. Doing what you can to be sure of this is going to become my #1 tip for solo artists heading up in future, unless you’re almost frighteningly robust.
My #2 tip for everyone is take up running. (And although it definitely puts me in a better place mentally, that’s not why. Being told to go for a run is one of the more exceptionally annoying things doctors say to people suffering from depression.) Edinburgh is a beautiful city and running is a great way to see more of it. On the first Sunday (after finishing that first huge rewrite) I ran down to Portobello beach and back along the Brunstane Burn path. The next Saturday I went to Edinburgh Parkrun along the promenade at Cramond. The following day I was taken on a tour of the route of the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race. I’d never been to Portobello, or Cramond, or along the Brunstane Burn path, or up any but one of the seven hills. And sure, I could have walked any of this. But I wouldn’t have. I’m now looking forward to my next trip to the Festival in order to do these routes again, and also to get the train out to Linlithgow and run back along the Grand Union Canal, and a trip to the Pentlands.
And the longer the run, the less time there is to worry about when the reviews will come out, about which you can do nothing, however much difference, in hindsight, they might have made.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will