The life of a performer tends to seem otherworldly to us regular folk. We listen to podcasts hosted by our favorite musicians and actors and we watch Jerry Seinfeld dissect the comedic mind, all in an effort to make sense of what drives them. Why do they do it? How do they do it? What makes them say what they say?
Urgency seems to be a big part of what pushes performers. They need to say it. There’s no other option. What may start as a tiny thought soon becomes the seed of a show. That performance needs to be sculpted and re-sculpted until, hopefully, that first tiny thought has evolved into something magical. And the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is where a lot of your favorite artists (and those you don’t know are your favorite just yet) expedite the process of finding that magic.
Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival — dating back to 1947, when eight unregistered theater companies showed up to Edinburgh’s International Festival and got turned away. Those companies went on to perform on the fringe of the festival and managed to find an audience anyway. Be it on the street or in the back room of local pubs, they performed. Almost 70 years later, not a whole lot has change. The spirit of the vagabond performers lives on.
The scale is different though. These days, the Edinburgh Fringe festival lasts for almost all of August and includes over 3,000 different acts, most of which are free to the public. Those acts go on every day, at the same time, in whatever venue they can find. Storage rooms of bars, converted heavy-metal clubs, churches, a health food store, you name it. If a room exists in Edinburgh, there is most likely a performance there during Fringe. And even though most performers can find a venue, they still take to the streets to draw a crowd. At any given moment, a walk down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile almost guarantees a laugh or an awe-inspiring gaze at street performers, musicians, and comedians alike trying to connect, hoping to cut through the noise with a simple please, “I HAVE SOMETHING I WANT TO SHARE WITH YOU.”
In recent years, especially since the introduction of “free-fringe,” comedians have, more or less, taken over and have taken to the festival as a sort of bootcamp, booking whatever 20-200 seat venue they can find to polish their acts, performing sets every day for a month, and adapting and tweaking each performance depending on the crowd. By festival’s end, “most American comedians hate it” New York based comedian Ari Shaffir told us about adapting to the U.K. audience. “But I’m filming an hour long special in October and there’s no better way to find the kinks in your set than coming here and doing it every day.”
Those who, like Shaffir, decide to perform for free ask for a small donation following each set , which sometimes works out. “On my best day I ended my set with somewhere around two hundred pounds in the bucket, but on an average day it’s under one hundred pounds,” four-time Fringe goer Conor Drum told us. That seems pretty solid considering that Drum’s set was hosted in a bar closet that had been transformed into a 22-seat performance space.
Comedians like Drum and Shaffir find encouragement and success at Edinburgh,”While you’re here you get little moral boosts, little nudges of encouragement to let you know you’re on the right track,” Drum said.
Others can’t seem to hack it. “A lot of comedians leave early,” Shaffir explained. Performing to empty rooms day after day can be devastating. Droves of starry-eyed performers show up at the festival’s starting line, only to book a return flight well before Fringe ends on the 29th. “You either get laughs or you don’t,” Drum explained. “And if you don’t, something needs to change.” Those comedians that do change, however, are stronger for it by the festival’s end.
That’s the true glory of the festival: Not a full bank account or multitudes of screaming fans, but the knowledge that you finished it, were made stronger by the experience, and can now use what you learned to create even more comedic gold.
Comedians who power through and perfect their voice at the festival find reward in discovering new audiences or returning home to reconnect with an already established fan base. This group includes comics like Simon Schatzberger, whose show, Woody Allen(ish), a tone-perfect cover set of Allen’s best bits from the early ’60s, sells out nightly. It also includes Chris Gethard, who brings an audience of 200 to both quiet introspection and tears of laughter while baring the true story of his battle with depression. These comedians both have something important to say, and the fact that their performances — although widely different in tone — are met with standing ovations and word of mouth buzz, proves there’s enough room for all types of performance at the festival, provided that the performer views their connection with said audience as paramount to their success.
Visiting the festival, it’s hard not to examine what drives the comics to not only perform in the festival’s makeshift theaters, but also take to the streets and entertain. Maybe it’s because having a conversation with the audience, on their terms, is therapy for the artist. Or maybe they just want to help us escape for a minute, to take a vacation from our own minds, and to think a little differently by the time the lights come on.
No one walks this fine line more brilliantly than absurdist mastermind Paul Currie, who packed his room at the festival every night, while doing only about 20 seconds of actual jokes. His show was an off-the-wall roller-coaster that included heavy audience participation and seemingly purposeless chaos. By the show’s end, half the audience is covered in milk and cereal. The other half are draped in confetti and doused in their own (and Currie’s) sweat — everyone has to come to a separate peace with the madness they’ve just witnessed.
“Now, I think we can all agree,” Currie said at the end of a Fringe show, making his final proclamations between deep exhausted breaths, “the world would be a much better place, if all of us, stopped taking ourselves so F*CKING seriously.”