Looking back at my first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Edinburgh Fringe and what a big part of my life the festival has become. This summer was due to have been my ninth visit, and my fifth with a solo show.

The current situation means that everything at the moment is up in the air, and several reports have mentioned the precarious position the Edinburgh Fringe might be in. I can’t now imagine a year without the fringe, and if it were to no longer be a part of our lives, then this would be a very big shame indeed.

Each year at the fringe, I keep a blog and this year I looked back to 2016, the year I took my show Static to Edinburgh. This was my first year with a show on my own, having been there in 2014 with Poetry Ping Pong, and 2015 doing guest slots at other shows and performing at the Burning Eye showcase with Monkey Poet.

What I didn’t mention in the blog, (maybe I was too embarrassed!), was that I left my passport on the plane flying up and it was lost. And I knew I was going to New York a few weeks later to perform, and at the back of my mind I was thinking, uh-oh, I won’t be able to do that now. So this was eating at me all the time during the fringe.

But there were good moments, too. Breakfast with a world famous performer who told me how to go snout the whole process properly. Killing it as a guest at a comedy night and then being recognised in the street by someone who’d seen me at that gig. It was a rollercoaster of emotions!

The other thing was that my show had moments of silence and prop work, performance art and movement, and my venue was the corner of a bar. So it was impossible to perform the show the way that I wanted it. By the end of the week, I really was thinking of giving up spoken word. I remember my last show was as a guest at Boomerang Club, and I genuinely went into that gig thinking, wow, this is my last ever performance!

Things turned out well in the end. Static at Edinburgh in 2016 was a turning point because it showed me that I had to work harder at performance poetry, and make it a career, and that I needed to be way more professional. The meeting with the famous fringe performer, which you’ll read about below, certainly changed my whole way of working and mindset towards the whole process. Indeed, maybe that was the turning point of my career. I still use his methods now, every single day!

So anyway, here we go. Time for a crazy adventure!

Day One

Well here I am then, on a train heading to the Edinburgh Fringe. Well, almost. First of all I’m going to Woking to spend the night in a room over a pub, and then tomorrow morning I will be flying up. It was either that, or fifteen hours on a coach. In fact it’s cheaper this way than getting the train. How ludicrous is that?

So how am I feeling about all this right now? There are several emotions. I’m nervous, naturally, that everything is going to go tits up. Nobody will show up for any of the gigs, and when they do, I fall into that age old trap of being crap. I’m excited, because this is the Edinburgh fringe and a lot of my friends will be there. I’m also grateful that I am able to spend an entire week immersed in art and culture.

I’m also nervous that the logistical arrangements I’ve made will fall apart. The accommodation, the travel, the train, the plane.

So here so am, then, on the train, and I’ve managed to get a high profile seat in first class. It was a whole three quid extra to get in here, and I feel privileged, because they don’t just let anyone in. That three quid means a lot.

And I’m the only one in here as the train leaves Exeter, which makes me feel kind of poncey. But then a lusciously blonde muscular lad sneaks in and plugs his mobile phone into the charger. A minute or two back he’s later to look at his phone. Then he slides in, commandeers the seat for himself. Good move!

And oh mamma, what a good looking chap he is. Amazingly he offerere me a Fruit Pastel, and then we get talking. Where are you going? Woking? Me too! Where do you live? Paignton? Know it well! What do you do? Spoken word artist? I’m a property developer. And we chat for ages, about books he’s read, his love of To Kill a Mockingbird, his skills as a weekend surfer, and then it starts to get embarrassing. Whenever I try to relax he asks something else, and all the time I’m looking at those luscious legs.

At Honiton he gets off and meets a man on the platform who gives him a suit in a bag. He gets back in and looks at the suit, the tie, spreading them out on the table. Very smart! We chat some more, and then the man comes to check the tickets.
You’re in the wrong section, he says. Please move back to the standard class.
I’ve still got two hours of this train ride to go, but I’m already thinking, ah, yes. The adventure has begun!

And will I still be thinking of this blond lad in seven days time?

Day Two

Heathrow

So here I am now at Heathrow Airport Terminal Five. I stayed last night in Woking, which is one of my favourite towns and a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. When I booked into the hotel I asked if it was okay to pay with a debit card. We accept anything, the receptionist said, apart from goats.

It seems kind of unreal at the moment that I shall be performing this afternoon in another country. Okay, that country is Scotland, but when you’re used to Torbay, anything north of Newton Abbot is dodgy ground. The coach driver from Woking to the airport was incredibly jolly and rather envious of my old suitcase, which forms part of the show. You don’t see many of those, he said.

I expect the baggage handling crew are saying that too, right at this moment.

Edinburgh

It was a weird day. I mean, they talk about the madness and the insecurity which hit some more than others. Has it already hit me?
The flight was fantastic. The stewardess who found me an empty overseat locker advised me to use it quickly as those who bring suitcases on board will nab it. She was one of the jolliest people I’ve met in a long while with an evident love of life and a loud booming laugh which echoed from the galley all round the plane.

The flight was 45 minutes. It took 30 to get my case at the baggage reclaim. I caught the bus to the city centre straight to my venue, arriving ten minutes before my show. The audience seemed to enjoy it, (both of them), but I treated it as a rehearsal and afterwards pondered on a raft of changes I might make for the rest of the run. I also need to be louder. Tomorrow will be an entirely different matter.

I walked the mile out to my student accommodation, then realised that I’d left my jacket at the venue!

It was great to see Dominic Berry and Chris White, and later on I bumped into Rose Condo, Dan Simpson and Rob Auton.
It’s going to be a mega week!

Day Three

I am deep into the Fringe, now. Yes, I know that sounds weird. But I’m into the rhythm of the Edinburgh Fringe and what it means to be here, which is to say, the usual routines of flyering, exit flyering, chatting to people, finding out when other people’s shows are, and that big contentious issue, the Bucket Speech.

What is the Bucket Speech? Well, this is the free fringe, so we don’t get paid to perform, but we don’t have to pay the venue either. Because of this, we are not allowed to charge visitors entry, but we are allowed to pass round a bucket at the end. Now I was having serious philosophical thoughts about this and I decided not to do a Bucket Speech, (the bit at the end of each show where you ask for donations), and instead make the whole thing free. Yes, really. Absolutely free.

I’m not yet sure if this is a good strategy. For me the joy is sharing the words and meeting people. There’s no way that I’d recover the costs of coming here. Now it must be said that I might change this philosophy, depending on how things go.
I have been flyering. But I haven’t really done that much. Yesterday I did lots of flyering in the Royal Mile, but then got bored, so I went to the museum and I had an excellent time.

I’ve met so many friends up here, people who I know from so many different parts of the country, like Rose Condo, who I met in Manchester, Dan from Bristol, and Sam Webber, who I know from Barnstaple. Today a friend is coming up from London. It’s like the annual meeting place of performance poetry.

The plan for today? More flyering, and I’ll be performing on the Royal Mile with some other poets. I haven’t even thought about open mic nights yet, or anything like that.
And the Fringe Flu? I haven’t caught it yet.

Day Four

My student accommodation is down the hill past the Scottish Parliament, turn left, then walk halfway to Glasgow. It’s a brand new building with one or two snags, the first snag being that it’s bloody hot even with the windows open, the second snag being that the sensor light in the bathroom stays on as well as the extractor fan for about an hour after use, the third snag being that it’s so far from the centre of Edinburgh. But that didn’t stop me being waken at seven this morning by what I thought was thunder, turned out it was a bloody cannon being fired. Is that normal, or are we at war? It sounded like they fired it right next to the building.

I’ve reached an odd point in the fringe, now. I don’t care if I don’t get anyone to come and see the show, now, because I’ve done it a few times and I’ve had an amazing time doing so. If nobody turns up, then I get an hour off! I mean, the way I look at it is that I’m offering to do a show at three o o’clock every day, and if no ones up for that then, OK, I’m all right with that.

I went to a few shows last night. Gary from Leeds, funny and as human as ever. Dominic Berry,enthusiastic and genuinely inspirational. I wore a tshirt advertising my show, and I thought, that’s a good move. The moment I stepped out the building someone yelled, in a. American accent, ‘Hey buddy, like the tshirt. Naaaahhht’. He’s probably a Trump supporter.

The agenda for today is a few more shows but first I’m off out in search of some modern art. Modern art is my passion and I want to see something inspirational.
Another early night tonight. I’m such a lightweight. The other night I went out with Dominic and Chris White, feeling like an old man. We didn’t even get to where we were going before I apologised and said that I really had to go home to bed, it was almost ten o’ clock. In fact, compared to all the other spoken word artists, I feel like a very old man. Even Gary from Leeds, baldies that he is, is ten years younger than me. I don’t drink, and I really can’t take these late nights. There’s an open mic at eleven pm every night by which time I’m usually in bed. Maybe that’s what’s keeping me sane?
I’m using the wifi in McDonalds to write this. I’m trying to see as much local culture as I can.

Outside my venue

Day Five

Well that’s another day done and dusted. I’m really into the rhythm now. The rhythm of expectations being cruelly dashed. Yesterday’s audience was a very minimal two. I asked them beforehand if they were there to see my show and they said, no. But do carry on. Don’t mind us, we’re just here for a drink and a chat. I did a couple of poems without any microphone and then took a couple of selfies. Can’t let an opportunity like this go to waste!

I made the mistake yesterday of going to the modern art gallery instead of flyering. I mean, I’m on holiday. There was an exhibition of Joseph Beuys, one of my favourite artists. I couldn’t spend a whole week here and not see it! The only trouble with Edinburgh’s modern art gallery is that it’s such a long walk from the centre of the city. So the whole trip took about two and a half hours.

Then an offer of a gig came through, representing Team Poetry at Stand Up And Slam, which is a poetry verses comedian slam. Everybody there was so young and whoopy, and the music was so incredibly loud, and the MC shouted and wailed and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but I went up and performed and the place went mad, I won my round and helped the poets win the whole contest. At the end we had to come out with slick jokes or short poems on a given theme and the theme was drinking, so I did the following haiku:

The man with no arms

Fighting in the local pub.

He was kicking off.

Which also brought the house down, and it was only afterwards, like, seven hours afterwards, that I thought about the Fringe joke competition and how it might have stood a chance in that. Had they not already done the competition at the beginning of the week.

So here I am, about to go out flyering and stuff. My legs are aching and it feels like I’ve lost two stone. It doesn’t look it, but it feels it.

Just a quick word about the show I saw last night, Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth. It was flipping fantastic! Storytelling and humour, camp wonderfulness and a celebration of the joy of living. Go and watch it!

My view while flyering

Day Six

Some of my performance colleagues here have been in Edinburgh for the whole three weeks and the fatigue is starting to show. There’s a certain numbness to them, as if they are kind of ever so dissociated from the world around them, a weariness, and most amusing of all, a slight loathing of anyone who’s just arrived. Last night I went to see AF Harrold at Hammer and Tomgue. AF is one of my favourite performers and a jolly decent chap too. He’d just arrived in Edinburgh and he was sharp, articulate, funny, alert. You could sense the love in the room.

I’ve only been here a week, of course, but a fatigue of sorts is finally starting to manifest itself. Having said that, I’ve finally got the art of flyering down to a tee. I spent the first few days oblivious to the fact that you have to make an impression and sell your show in about 2 and a half seconds. I’d spend the first two seconds of that time by saying hello. By which time they’d walked on. But now I just blurt out, ‘Free poetry show? Free poetry show? Free poetry show?’ And then act very relieved when someone takes a flier.

My legs ache like anything, I’ve been up and down that sodding hill so many times. I found a short cut the other day, it cuts a minute off the journey, and it was like the best thing that has ever happened. I’m starting to feel like a local. I see people making fundamental navigation errors and I’m thinking, Pffft, tourists! I’ve also built up this witty repartee with the man in the newsagents near my accommodation where each morning he pretends not to recognise me from the day before. Oh, how we laugh.
So there are two more Statics to go. But already I’m thinking of new projects, ambitious ideas gleaned from watching so many wonderful shows. I haven’t seen much poetry: the spoken word shows are storytelling in the main part, and very funny at that. However, I’ve found poetry in the best of places, such as Dandy Darkly’s fantastic Myth Mouth, which I really, really recommend. It’s perhaps been the most inspirational show I’ve seen while in Edinburgh, and the one that has really spoken to me.

It was misty and cool yesterday and I felt right at home. Today it is hot and sunny and I’m not looking forward to it.

I still haven’t seen any of my flat mates and the same packet of pasta has been in the fridge now for five days.

Day Seven

So the good thing about the fringe is that you see all kinds of different acts and the potential for being inspired is heightened. I’ve seen so much while here that I’ve got a very clear idea of where I need to be and how the show can be massively improved with just a few small tweaks. Yesterday I was very privileged to have breakfast and a long chat with one of my favourite performers, (who wishes to remain anonymous because of the trade secrets that he divulged thereat). We met at a coffee shop in the new town area and he took me through every aspect of putting on a show, from the logistical detail of publicity and accommodation, to the more fundamental aspects of rehearsal, writing, learning the damn thing. It was the most enlightening couple of hours I’ve spent in a long time, as he imparted information which an artist might ordinarily have to cough up a lot of money for. I bought him toast and coffee to say thank you. In fact, I was so inspired that I went away and did a little bit of writing right then and there.

Now, obviously I should have been flyering. And I did a lot of flyering yesterday, both in the Royal Mile and Cowgate. I flyered like you wouldn’t believe. And while I was flyering I was thinking, I shouldn’t be doing this. But it’s a necessary evil. Spoken word show? Hello madam, I’ve got a show today at three. Spoken word show? Spoken word show?

It’s a lonely business, flyering, even though you’re surrounded by people. You’re surrounded by all the other flyerers. And they’ve all got various degrees of annoyance, like the pushy ones, or the cheeky ones, or the ones who are just plain rude, and even those who insult anyone who doesn’t take a flyer. What’s that all about?

So I did all this flyering, and what do you think happened? No audience. I could only be philosophical about it, of course. I’m at the fringe, yes, but really I’m not that well known in the slightest. My show is on directly after Harry Baker, and he’s a world slam champion. And I’m also a slam winner. Well, second at the Swindon slam, anyway. Later on in the day I watched Gecko’s excellent show and he did a song about the painting that shares the room with the Mona Lisa and I thought, hmm, I know exactly how it feels!

But it’s all a great experience and a valuable learning opportunity. I’ve seen so much that has inspired me that I know exactly the manner and tone that I shall be adopting in my writing. And yes, I’m probably the oldest performer on the spoken word scene up here by quite some margin, but I feel all new and eager to get on with it.

My venue

Day Eight

So that’s it, then. I’ve done the fringe at Edinburgh with my first solo show. And I managed to combine it with a holiday, my first for a year or so. I think it was only in the last day when I thought, OK, better work at this. And wowzers, I spent four hours flyering. I flyerered in the Royal Mile. I flyerered in Cowgate. I went to other people’s shows and flyerered on the way out. I flyerered by mistake when I went in a shop to get some water and left my flyers on the counter. I flyerered like a machine which has been built just to flyer. And if all paid off, seven people came to the last show and they gave me money even when I did my ‘don’t worry, there won’t be a bucket speech’ speech.

Last night I had a feature slot at Boomerang Club. I’d been feeling a bit weird all day before that, what with all the flyering, and I even thought, hmmm, what if this is my last ever performance? I mean, last ever. What if I called it a day after this, after the Boomerang Club? It was only a fleeting thought, and it kind of mixed up with the knowledge that I would be going home, to make me feel unusually emotional. Plus if you’ve read my blog you’ll know that I’ve been having vision problems, which makes life difficult at times and has affected my ability to perform and read at the same time. So I did a set of all my favourite poems and finished off with my most favourite of all, ‘Plop’, which seems a good summing up of my performance career. But I also started the set with a brand new piece, which I call ‘Introduction’, a piece I wrote after my meeting the other day with a top fringe performer who really inspired me. And I thought, ‘If this is to be my last ever performance, ever, then why a, I writing new material?’ As I say, it was only a fleeting thought!

So here I am at Edinburgh Waverley station. I’m in Starbucks. And I’m feeling chipper about the future. Static is done and dusted but I’ve started rewriting it and I have a very clear idea of how it will evolve. It might still be Static, or it might be something entirely different, but it will be a different beast, and I’m really looking forward to the challenge of rewriting it, rehearsing it, learning it.

This has been the most incredible week and a huge learning experience. I’ve had so many adventures along the way and seen so much good stuff, and I’ve felt younger than I have in years, and also older than I’ve ever felt. I’ve got one or two projects on the horizon that I can’t wait to work on, performance art pieces and a multi-disciplinary piece which I’ve written and is very funny indeed, the music project, the novel, there’s so much on the go at the moment! It all makes me wonder what the next year will bring till I’m back here again.

And I remembered. Yes, I remembered. Do you recall my first blog, the one I wrote on the way to Edinburgh? I remembered the lad who came and sat with me, all those days ago, who charged his phone and we chatted. I thought I’d forget all about him, but I remember. I hope he’s had a good week, too.

Author: Robert Garnham

Performance and spoken word artist.

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