What’s it like to direct a show at Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

Edinburgh.

Heard of it?

Home to the world’s largest theatre and arts festival, located at almost 56 degrees north (Portland=45, Oslo=60) on a moss-covered rock in the North Atlantic, formerly dull and drab Edinburgh is today the shining, intensely proud capital of a nation on the move.

As smaller progressive countries around the world lead the way and show what the future could look like, this is Scotland’s moment. On 18 September 2014 (timed strategically to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when Robert the Bruce defeated an English army led by Edward II), a popular referendum will ask the Scots whether they want to be fully independent of the UK.

Whichever way they go, one thing won’t change. When it comes to the arts, Scotland is and will likely remain a world leader.

Yup.  It's that beautiful.
Yup. It’s that beautiful.

Tonight, NoPerks Theatre’s production of DIARY OF A MADMAN by Nikolai Gogol opens for three performances only at The Headwaters Theatre. The company’s members hail from Switzerland, the US, and Belgium, and the show has been performed several times in Europe, most recently at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this past August.

What’s it like to take a show to Edinburgh, where thousands of performances compete for the audience’s attention? Here’s a first person account from DIARY OF A MADMAN director Mathilde Schennen (B).

As it turns out, the show’s theme of “madness” was quite appropriate to the over the top free-for-all that is the fringe today…

Director Mathilde Schennen.
Director Mathilde Schennen.

My Experience in Edinburgh – Mathilde Schennen

The Fringe Festival was a very intense experience… you can have the worst and best things going on at the same time…

It was the first time for each of us: first time in Edinburgh, first time at the Fringe… with more than 3,000 shows around us… very scary!

Over the past years, the Fringe has become a huge commercial event. People come to see and sell shows… Everything is pricy and requests time to be organized. Very quickly the question came up: is it really a place for artists? Can they afford to be part of that?

We were going with the production of “Diary of Madman”, and the theme of “madness” was completely appropriate to the situation. We were in a complete theatrical madness. On one hand, it’s wonderful to see so many shows going on everywhere and to realize that people believe in theatre and live performances (music, comedy shows, physical theatre,…) more than ever. On the other hand, there are too many shows, too many people everywhere, a lot of pressure to deal with and too many things to be done by the artists themselves. A festival where you perform but also promote, produce, live and breath in group during a couple of weeks: a big and wonderful challenge!

Edinburgh.
Edinburgh.

What is the Fringe at the end? Each of us has to define it for itself. There are rules, you can follow them or not… You can find books telling you how to get prepared, how to promote our show and how to find a venue…

After months of preparation, we arrived in Edinburgh. We had to understand very quickly how everything was working. We were receiving lots of information at the same time and quickly we had to find a way to survive in this massive organization and collective hysteria.

My main concern was at the end how we would make this festival ours. We were in the middle of something uncontrollable and we wanted to enjoy what we could experiment. It had to be ours!!!

Thanks to the festival, we had the chance to perform the show and that was the essential. With the Fringe, our show improved a lot, was shared with a new audience and very well reviewed. Miro and the musicians, Igor, Luca and M, explored many new things everyday, making the show each time very unique, alive and enjoyable.

“Diary of a Madman” is a piece from the classical repertory (comic and tragic). Even if we worked on the play in a contemporary way with live musicians on stage with the actor, it was still based on a classic. Very few pieces (with that length of 1h15min, considered as long – the average is 50 minutes) like that were presented at the fringe. It was a little risky to have a show based on a classic and that long. Also we didn’t do that much of “flyering” (usually that’s what you would do in a festival) but people were coming to see the show. How was that happening? Was it because it was based on a classic (and there were not a lot of them…the festival is such a good place for “comedy shows”) or because people spread the word, or because of the great reviews, or just the program ? It is still a mystery how the audience came to our show.

The Traverse Theatre.
The Traverse Theatre.

Each artist is promoting his show. So each day I was surprised to receive tones of flyers. I couldn’t say “no” to one of them, knowing how difficult it was to flyer for a show… humility was needed …

We didn’t go out so much at night. We were performing at 8.20pm and after the show, we wanted to cool down, eat together and have a drink. I was surprised how early the places were closing. At the end of the performance, only a few places were still open…We had to hurry if we wanted to eat something.

Some places were open very late at night… exceptionally during the festival…They were connected to big venues, very present during the festival, such as Pleasance Theatre, Underbelly, Assembly, Gilded Balloons… They say they are part of the Fringe but it’s like they play another game. They are more big theatrical structures/ institutions with a curated program and big budgets… they are big machines, very well organized… destroying a little the idea of an open fringe festival…

Around them you have many truck-food options (indian, “crêpes”, “hamburgers”…), they have large place to eat and drink and if I remembered well they were closing late so many people were meeting there at night.

In terms of food, the choice was very limited and not very inspiring. I think I did a special “gluten diet” during two weeks. My diet was: croissant, bread, pasta, crêpes, potatoes and fish and chips. Horrible diet …

We had our best “fish and chips” when we left Edinburgh during our “break day”. We took the train and in 30 minutes we were next to the water. I cannot remember the name of the village. We wanted to be at “the beach”. We ended up in a very small village along the sea, very charming with a wonderful pub, playing cards and eating fish and chips.

I forgot to mention the city: Edinburgh! Known as the “Athens of the North”, Edinburgh is a beautiful city, with a very strong history, a wild nature, incredible Whisky, Culture and Beauty everywhere.

In terms of nature, I remember when we arrived, we discovered the view of this incredible mountain/ volcano. Once he saw it, Miro named it “the elephant”. It had the same shape as an elephant sleeping… beautiful. We all did our “pilgrimage” on the top of it, sometimes in group, sometimes alone… when we needed to revitalize ourselves differently…

Three nights only! Catch a piece of Edinburgh in Portland. Direct from the Fringe, DIARY OF A MADMAN by Nikolai Gogol plays September 11, 12, 13 at Headwaters.

It’s on – and then it’s gone…

Standing guard.  The blue of Scotland.
Standing guard. The blue of Scotland.
Instant evidence you're in a progressive place: A national network of fully separated bike paths.  In summer, they come from all over the world to ride.
Instant evidence you’re in a progressive place: A national network of fully separated bike paths. In summer, they come from all over the world to ride.
Scotland awaits.
Scotland awaits.