A walk down the High Street in Scotland’s capital Edinburgh might normally present you with scenic views and the chance to buy some whiskey and woolens. But not so during the month of August, when the thoroughfare is transformed by the city’s fringe festival and, more specifically, the hundreds of performers clambering to sell tickets to their shows. Now in its 61st year, the Edinburgh fringe is said to be the biggest arts festival on the planet, attracting performers and visitors from all over the globe. This year, more Czechs are on the bill than ever before.
We’ll be talking to some of those Czech artists a bit later on, but first it’s off to the Assembly Rooms – one of the city’s so-called super venues, which houses more than fifty different shows a day. That’s where I met Steve Gove, who is the founder of an offshoot fringe festival back in Prague, and who, this year, is one of the directors of the festival in Edinburgh. Who better to talk me through the fringe? According to Steve, the Scottish capital’s population more than doubles for the three weeks in August when the fringe fest is on:
“One day it is quite sleepy and quiet and then the next day you just hear the trundling wheels of a million suitcases as they head from the airport to the various corners of town. And then the venues all start to appear. It really does transform the city. Every street is full of all of the festivals going on. Every street is full of performers giving out flyers and promoting their shows. The High Street is packed with performers doing snippets of their shows. The rain stays – I think the last 48 hours it has rained non-stop, but you know, in terms of everything else, it really becomes a very different place to be.”
So, is it fair to say that the fringe this year is bigger than ever, or is it at saturation point? Because it seems like, as you said, everything transforms into a venue at this time of year, so is there anything else that can be transformed into a venue for the fringe?
“Well, I saw a couple of empty phone boxes the other day, so they are waiting for something to happen in them. And it is really a case of that - you know, shows have taken place in public toilets here before, on the streets, of course, and in all sorts of unusual corners. It is an entirely open arts event. So, if you wanted to bring your dog and perform in one of those two empty phone boxes, then you could. All you do is pay your fee to be in the programme, you sort your accommodation out, bring your dog, and it’s all go. And the risk is on you. You might sell one ticket, you might not be able to sell more than one, but anyway, the risk is on you as to where it then goes from there.
“So there is no control over how big the fringe gets. And it is bigger this year, every year it gets bigger. It is a monster event, which very much has a life of its own.”
You said this is a monster festival, the Prague fringe maybe isn’t quite yet – but otherwise, how do the two compare?
“It is almost impossible to compare the two. We have 40 groups a year coming to Prague over an eight-day period. The Edinburgh fringe is, you know – we’re talking about thousands of different shows and events happening over a month. But the thing that you can say is very similar is the atmosphere – the Prague fringe is like a little slice of the Edinburgh fringe dropped into the Malá Strana. People are scrabbling about trying to find out which shows to go and see, asking other people what shows they have seen, what they should go and see. People see a show and then run to another venue to see another one, and maybe they take in a couple of shows a day. So, in that sense, it is very similar to here, it is just a much, much smaller version.”
But now to the Czechs performing in Edinburgh themselves. Five theatre groups were invited by the Czech Centre in London to come and perform at the fringe. Dance troupe Dot 504 were asked to come and perform their work ‘Holdin’ Fast’. The production is described by the group as a ‘dreamy ballad of sexual dependency’. After one performance, I caught up with dancer Helena Arenbergerová, still slightly red in the face:
“It is partly, but very independently, based on Milan Kundera’s book ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, but we took it only as an inspiration for some scenes, not for all of them. And then we improvised a lot on all of these different themes to do with sexual behaviour, and the relationship between men and women, and the different sorts of relationships there can be between men and women, and so on.”
Dot 504 are fringe first-timers, unlike fellow Czech performers Teatr Novogo Fronta. This experimental theatre troupe is playing in one of Edinburgh’s most historic spaces, the Old College Quad in the middle of the city. Novogo Fronta’s Jakub Vedral says he is glad to be back:
“I think it is good for each group to come back to the fringe. We are back after four years, and so it is a little bit like the Olympics, that after four years we are here and showing others, and ourselves, that what we are doing can still move people and has some reason to exist.”
And can you tell me a bit about the performance that you have brought to Edinburgh this year?
“We are putting on a street performance called ‘Phantomysteria’. It is a little bit of a risk to play outdoors in Scotland, but we like risks, and so we hope that God will like us and that it will be fine. There is lots of fire, it is very effective, and there are some puppets. It is a physical performance without words, so we hope that everyone will understand what we are trying to say.”
The Skutr theatre company, meanwhile, uses traditional Slovak folk music to communicate in the play that it has brought to the fringe - ‘The Weepers’. The rest of the show is mimed. The day that I saw it, the play seemed to prove a hit with the audience. But, as Skutr’s Jiří Sulženko explains, working the crowd is only part of the job that has to be done by performers in Edinburgh:
“The show is just the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of the work is creating ideas in order to attract audiences on the streets, and to attract journalists. We are trying to think of things other than just flyering on the streets – and then, of course, there is the flyering. For the actors, for the company, of course, it is quite exhausting. One of the directors of the show said, for example yesterday after spending the day on the High Street, he felt like a yoghurt on the shelf of the supermarket, because we are not used to selling ourselves as much as people are used to here. So, from this point of view, it is quite strange.”
In the days and weeks that follow at the fringe, it looks like it will be
back to the High Street - and more flyering - for Jiří Sulženko, and
Skutr, and the hundreds of other performers at this year’s festival. The
fringe continues until August 25.
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