My month on the Fringe: an end-of-term report

A month’s unopened post awaits. There are red bills to pay. As for the emails…

But they can wait a few more minutes. Returning too quickly to real life after almost a month of submersion in the Edinburgh Fringe can give a you bad case of the bends. For the past 26 days, the all-important daily event of my life has been appearing on a small stage in a cabaret bar for 55 minutes at half-past-five to tell stories, sing songs and be someone who was not quite myself. It was all like a strange, in tense dream.

If I was not performing, I was trying to get the show noticed, or re-writing it, or thinking about it, or nagging people on the street  in an attempt to get them to see it. I did manage to write a weekly column for the Independent, and saw a few other shows, but between 1st and 26th August my self-focus was an aggressive, relentless 24/7 thing. I became a different person.

There will be time to consider my first Fringe experience, and weigh it all in the balance  – what I’ve learned and can take with me into the future, what should be firmly dumped in the junkyard of experience – but, before, sanity, balance and commonsense re-assert themselves, I wanted to note down some brief,  immediate post-Edinburgh impressions.

It was unforgettable, but not always in a good way. The lows were very low, and the highs fell some way short of ecstasy. There were moments when I decided that I should not only give up performing, but also abandon songs and music and maybe even writing, too. It was tough, and often lonely. Yet, at the end of it all,  I find I’m missing it and don’t regret a second.

I have a new respect for performers. I have never before had to appear on stage,  be judged by strangers, and then return the next day for another performance. Appearing as an author and reading from your latest book is something entirely different. I had never realised how different one show can be from another, how it takes time and audiences to discover what works and what doesn’t. This gradual, inclusive, democratic process is the polar opposite of the  ruthless dictatorship of fiction-writing.

I thought I was prepared. I was wrong. When I played my first Fringe show on 2nd August, I thought the thing was more or less cooked and, for better or worse, ready for consumption. How naive that was. The show changed throughout August – cuts, additions, a new song – and so did the way I presented it. I had more or less nailed it by the final show, and then it was time to go.

People who work in the performing arts are generally kind. At first, the Fringe is like some mad cultural tournament: almost 3000 shows are competing for attention and audiences. Then, as time goes by, rivalry (with a few exceptions) gives way to a battered camaraderie. We are all foot-soldiers in the same desperate raggle-taggle army. Winners or losers, with five-star reviews or two, we are pretty much in it together.

The city of Edinburgh is extraordinary. Every year the city is subjected to a bizarre invasion of the talented, the optimistic and exhibitionistic and has to endure their often tiresomely zany antics for almost a month. Yet the people I met were invariably welcoming and encouraging, from the woman in the café who wished me luck as I put up a poster for the show on her wall, to the taxi-driver who was seemed genuinely interested in my show, to the coffee-shop on West Nicolson Street where I had my pre-show cappuccino and the Mosque Kitchen where I would eat often an exhausted post-show curry.

It’s a financial disaster. It is an expensive business, taking even a one-man show to the Edinburgh Fringe. I knew that, unless something extraordinary happened to audiences, I would take a bath. It didn’t, and I did. The theory is that, armed with the experience and reviews provided by the Fringe, a show can make its money later. We’ll see.

Creatively, it was unlike anything I have ever done. I have written stories, and I have sung songs, but I have never brought them together, with a narrator who was not me and yet not unlike me, to make a 55-minute show. The gap between what works on the page and on a stage is far greater than I had anticipated.

Most people genuinely liked the show, and a few loved it. The reviews that I received were, on the whole, positive, although they fell short of the level of bug-eyed euphoria for which I had been hoping. By the end of the run, I was more convinced than ever that bringing together fiction and song and unreliable memoir can work as a form.

I like standing on a stage and telling stories. That is almost the biggest surprise of all. Yesterday, when 5.30 rolled around without a show to perform, life seemed a little empty.

It could be the beginning of something, but it might well be the end. I’ll need to think this through over the saner days and weeks to come.

But now reality beckons…