A baptism of fire (and buses and the baby jesus)

Gary McNair

My experience of the fringe started in Edinburgh as a punter in 2002 when our drama teacher took the 7 of us that were studying standard grade drama the unimaginable distance from Erskine to Edinburgh in the school’s clapped out early 70’s minibus. It’s only about 60 miles along the M8 motorway but given what we were about to be heading to, it felt like we may as well be going to Mars.

As with all memories, it’s all a bit of a hazy composite and as I look back on it my brain has clearly replaced certain superfluous details with convenient untruths to make for a more streamlined story. For example, despite the fact that I know we couldn’t have park our minibus on the Royal Mile, that just wouldn’t have happened, in the movie that plays in my mind of that day, this is what happens.

One of the best things our drama teacher did was to suppress our expectations by giving the event no hype. This was probably more to do with the fact that  our minivan would likely not make it all the way there. Having broke down on a shorter trip to the Lyceum last term he must have thought it best not to get our hopes up so we wouldn’t even realise what we’d be  missing out on if we were, once again, waiting by the side of the road for the AA to come and rescue us while we ration what would have been our interval sweets. Remarkably we did not break down this time. Once we reached the Royal Mile he simply told us to ‘go explore and be back here in an hour’ while he got himself ‘some lunch and some peace and quiet’.

As we turned away from him we glanced upon what could only be described, due our limited vocabulary and limited life experience, as a big crowd of f***ing madness- whatever this was, it was better than being back at school for double maths. We tried to take it all in, not knowing where to start, when handed a flyer for one of they nudey shows where you’re aloud to watch people take their clothes off. It was starting in 5 minutes. And it was free! We couldn’t believe our luck. We felt like we’d just found ourselves lost in an off license only to be handed a fake ID from the guy behind the counter. This was better than booze though because if school found out we could say “it’s not porn, it’s cabaret and cabaret is art, look it says so on the flyer”.

Ultimately we thought better of this extremely risqué activity because, if the story got out it reflects badly on our teacher. What if it hit the papers?!

We opted for a poetry reading in a bookshop. As we were watching a man from New Zealand read the anthology of Haikus he’d written about his goldfish, imagining what wonders would be going down at Arty Cabaret, the penny dropped- our teacher obviously knew about the cabaret show and he shuffled us away so he could go along alone so it’s just as well we didn’t go as we’d have been busted. Well, we dodged a bullet there.

At this point we of course had no idea that there were literally thousands of shows happening at the Fringe and that Arty Cabaret would not be our only chance to see naked people on stage. This we discovered later on in a very uncomfortable performance of The Taming of the Shrew in a basement of a pub in the new town where we were introduced to many parts of the body under one bright, harsh light and the term ‘interpretive dance’. We left in stunned silence and made our way up Nicholson Street to watch a homage to the Marx Brothers with their best skits woven into a loose new narrative which delighted my teenage brain and inner Groucho. Little did my teenage brain know, it was about to be blown apart by a full-grown baby Jesus in his crying in his nappy in the bowels of hell- that’s right, on a whim, our teacher’s ticket luck was in as he had booked tickets to Jerry Springer the Opera in mid-June. We all felt pretty smug as we casually wandered past a mammoth returns queue into the smash hit of the year.  Most of it did go over my head, but it’s bold irreverence as a daring spectacle has never left me. Chuck in a few street performances, watching and meeting people from cultures the world over and not forgetting our near romances with the members of a Spanish dance troupe in the Grassmarket, by the time we headed back to that minivan, our heads were spinning.

We were convinced that we’d gone on a special day, that nobody got an experience like that from just one day. The stars had aligned to give us enough stories to last until the end of the school year which had only just started earlier that week.

Now, 15 years later, having been performing and writing there for 6 years myself, I know that what’s amazing is that our experience that day was in no way special to us. And that’s what’s so special about it. Given all the things that happened to our innocent little brains that day, the fact that all I question about it is whether or not we actually managed to park our van on the Royal Mile just goes to show how special the whole thing is. But hey, that’s the fringe. That’s what happens when artists from all over the planet descend on a city for 4 weeks to celebrate art and being alive.

Happy World Fringe Day!

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