Bear Masks, Baby Powder, and Blindfolds: My First Edinburgh Festival Fringe
No sensible person pretends the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a breeze. Every August, performers and audiences and critics swarm the charming Scottish capital for three weeks of thrumming, sleep-deprived, often soggy mayhem. Founded in 1947, it’s billed as the largest arts festival in the world. “I’m looking forward to having my city back,” a woman on the bus sighed to me, a few days before the festival’s end.
I attended my first Fringe this year. I’d heard stories. More than anything, about the flyers, about how you can’t walk down the Royal Mile without having a chipper teenager or sunken-eyed mime or grown man dressed as a medieval knight thrust a piece of paper at you, imploring you to attend their show. My second day in town, I was flyered by a barefoot, barely verbal toddler in a diaper. Somehow he managed to communicate that I could find a map to the venue on the back of the sheet. I wondered where his parents were.
And I knew about the numbers. In 2015, there were 3,314 shows in 313 venues. Performances start at 9 am and run past midnight. With the runtimes rarely exceeding 60 or 75 minutes, it’s conceivable to see six, seven, eight shows a day. Everyone has a furiously frenzied—and manifestly stupid—schedule.
In two weeks, I saw 42 shows. (More than half of which I reviewed for ThreeWeeks.) I met loads of people, tromped onstage in a bear mask, joined singalongs and group hugs, hung out with an actor who spilled stories about Juliette Binoche, watched audience members stand on their heads, spent an hour blindfolded while Scottish schoolchildren whispered into my ear, spotted Chris O’Dowd vaping in the lobby of the Traverse, danced in a cloud of baby powder, and threw crumpets at performers. As an American, I marveled at my inability to discern various Commonwealth accents. As a German resident, I marveled at the lack of nudity onstage. I became a semi-regular at a beer bar yet somehow still spent more money on coffee than on alcohol. I cried looking at flipbooks. I refused to break eye contact with a performer as his words sliced through me: “Imagine that, some dude’s jizz in your eyes,” he spat. But also: “I fucking loved you.” I climbed a hill, in an attempt to escape the theater crowds, and found two women in clown noses clutching mini accordions.
People talk about being battered by the festival—performers, audiences, critics—as a strange point of pride. I know one woman who saw 90 shows and wrote 60 reviews. I don’t care how good you are: that’s nuts. It’s not just the pace that’s punishing. While I saw plenty of good shows, and even a few great ones, it was far from some uninterrupted barrage of earth-shattering, glitter-spewing splendor. But I soldiered on, trying to drown out an internal chorus of “why?”
And then, on a weary day toward the end of my stint, I plodded north, out of the old town and towards the water, to the district of Leith. I arrived early and sat in a sterile church cafe, wishing they were still serving tea. Finally, about 30 of us were led into a large, chilly room. Chairs were scattered about, not in rows or any strict order. A blindfold hung on the back of each seat. We chose our spots and covered our eyes. Then came the sound. It came in waves, as singers entered the room and weaved among us. Not words, but something more abstract or strange than that. I felt a woman take my hands and slowly lift me to my feet. She folded me, still blindfolded, into an embrace. Her skin was soft and warm. She smelled warm, too, and safe and slightly sweet, as if she’d been baking that morning. I felt the rise and fall of her diaphragm, the vibrations of her torso, the beating of her heart. She held me tighter. The voices swelled and rang around me, becoming three-dimensional in the darkness. And then the woman loosened her grasp, and sat me down, and released my hands. And the voices became distant, and then they disappeared. And we sat for a while in the suddenly hollow darkness, until we untied our blindfolds and glanced around at one another, blinking and silent.