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WFH: a director's take on the Edinburgh Fringe 2021 and rehearsing a play from your living room

The Edinburgh Fringe: a world-renowned celebration of the arts, pedalling everything from stand-up comedy to burlesque and cabaret. It is a place where big names in the comedy scene workshop fresh material; where professional theatre-makers explore new writing; where up-and-coming artists try to make a name for themselves; where innovative forms of theatre, performance art, music, comedy, drag are at their prime. The city becomes a space for exploration, for devising, and, most importantly, entertainment – of which there is an abundance. It is exceeded only by the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in global ticket sales, an impressive – and perhaps unexpected – feat for a festival of the arts, placing it up there as one of the most widely attended events in the world. Those who have been can attest to the unique atmosphere of the city during August, its streets packed with a bustling mixture of performers, spectators, and locals, and hundreds of pop-up venues hidden in every place you can imagine.

2020: the year the pandemic struck. The world’s largest arts festival was cancelled for the first time since its establishment in 1947. For many creatives, the loss of the 2020 Fringe was a devastating blow to their careers, as one of the world’s most exciting arenas for showcasing new talent became yet another casualty to the pandemic. Throughout the past year, there was much debate as to whether the 2021 Fringe would go ahead at all, or in what capacity it would take shape if allowed to continue in-person, particularly with the delayed easing of restrictions in Scotland compared to those in England. With social distancing measures still in place throughout the summer, a huge concern for many of the smaller venues remained in financial viability – if our venue of 150 seats was initially limited to 49, what was the fate of those venues that could only seat 30 at full capacity? This resulted in, devastatingly, a massively scaled back box-office programme for 2021, with only the larger venues being able to put on shows, with some venues relocated to outdoor tented areas. Luckily, with restrictions lifting in early August, venues were able to increase to allow full capacity, though this came as too little too late for many of the smaller independent venue spaces.

Credit: Andrew Perry

This August, I was lucky enough to direct, alongside Isla Jamieson-MacKenzie as movement director, an in-person show at The Space UK. The Fringe was in a unique position this year, happening in a not-quite-post-Covid-era; naturally, the city, venues, and show teams have all had to adapt accordingly to comply with restrictions and government guidance. Some measures our cast and crew took included – but were not limited to – regular lateral flow testing before each rehearsal, minimising the number of people in rehearsal spaces, keeping it predominantly to cast members and directors, and keeping our rehearsal space well ventilated, and sometimes rehearsing outdoors – this latter measure was thankfully made easier by the Scottish wind and rain letting up for the most part of our rehearsal period.

"It was, at times, a challenge to create and maintain a safe working environment, which was absolutely essential to the process"

In an already tricky show to stage, with content warnings of strong language, drug misuse, and sexual assault, the intense rehearsal process was heightened by these restrictions, with many of our initial rehearsals limited to just 2 or 3 cast members and myself. In a cramped flat living room, we lacked the space, and sometimes the perspective, needed to explore such themes, as restrictions made it nigh on impossible to find any external rehearsal space to use. We learnt the hard way that trying to choreograph multiple movement sequences with 7 people in a room measuring 3x4m was not the most productive approach, and swiftly took to the meadows for our movement workshops (much to the dismay of the cast members). Ironically, this ended up a blessing in disguise, as we eventually discovered our stage space was, in fact, even smaller than my living room. On reflection, these intimate rehearsals made it harder to separate living space and rehearsal space, and it was, at times, a challenge to create and maintain a safe working environment, which was absolutely essential to the process, and my first priority.

The challenges did not begin and end in the rehearsal room – far from it, in fact. There were many obstacles to overcome with the venue itself: an unexpected relocation to a tiny stage space that could barely fit both the actors and set (and at times did not – some last-minute changes in blocking were required), a rig of only single colour lights meaning we had to hire our own colour-changing LEDs, and a constant uncertainty regarding whether or not our venue would be pulled at the last minute, which unfortunately happened to so many artists this year, are only a few of the problems we encountered.

"Panic mode engaged... Cancelling the show was out of the question"

Oh, but the setbacks did not end there either. On the day of our tech run (the day before our run started), the ominous lack of one cast member’s presence was noted. In a sombre tone, we were informed by the producer that they were getting a PCR test that day, as they had been a potential contact of someone who had tested positive for the dreaded Covid. Panic mode engaged here – what solutions were there in the worst-case scenario? Cancelling the show was out of the question (partially due, I concede, to my own pride – my last show was cancelled by the pandemic back in March 2020, and I couldn’t lose a second to it), so who could we get to replace a cast member the day before the show, should their result be positive? It was, luckily, just at the point where I was attempting to channel my inner Uma Thurman and learn the famed Pulp Fiction dance for the role when we were notified of their negative test result (phew). It is as I write this article from my bedroom, in which I am currently isolating amid another Covid scare, that I am able to reflect post-show upon just how lucky we were to have pulled off this whole process without any ~major~ hiccoughs along the way. I don’t want to seem melodramatic, but it does seem nothing short of a miracle that throughout the whole process, which took up a month and a half from the first rehearsal to the final show, none of us caught the virus or even had to isolate.

However, aside from the ever-growing list of disruptions and negatives that is so easy to focus on when talking about the pandemic, we also profited from many benefits that are not usually expected at the Fringe. Because of cleaning protocols in place between shows, get-ins were not limited to five minutes as they usually are, with shows squeezed pretty much back to back; we had ample time to get-in and warm up in the space, whilst the tech team were able to set up and focus our lights without rushing. Similarly, as a result of the limited programme running this year, ticket sales were booming for most in-person shows throughout the city, and we were able to attract greater footfall and boost ticket sales beyond what our marketing budget could usually afford to expect, managing to sell-out our 150 seat capacity even without flyering and postering around the city on the scale that it usually occurs. Though these small rewards were welcomed, I’m not exactly sure they were worth the additional stresses, difficulties and tensions felt throughout these past months – nor are they worth the few grey hairs I’ve found at the ripe old age of 21. Regardless, if there is one thing I have learned from the past year – and more specifically the past two months - it is that it is important not to catastrophize every situation and recognize the silver linings where you can. At least we managed to put on a show, and I’m utterly proud of every member of the cast and crew and what we all managed to achieve in the face of such adversity.

That being said, though far from its usual bustle centring around the royal mile and sprawling across Edinburgh, the city did its best to embrace the spirit of Fringe in the best way possible. With the reappearance of live music on the Underbelly stage in Bristo Square, and the food festivals popping up in George Square Gardens, a tangible sense of a return to normality was undoubtedly felt and relished. I hold high hopes that, next year, the Fringe will return in full swing, with all forms of creatives and performers raring to showcase what they’ve been working on behind the scenes in the past year. I for one cannot wait to see the content that Fringe 2022 brings, and discover what the next year holds in store for myself and all my fellow creatives.


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