Lyn Gardner: The fringe can be a lonely place, so let’s look out for each other
This week, the first full week of the fringe, Edinburgh is still one of the most optimistic places on earth.
Even if it has rained non-stop over the first weekend, the vast majority of companies performing at this year’s festival will still have a smile on their faces and good reason to believe that their Edinburgh stint is going to deliver everything they hoped for last spring when they booked a venue and wrote their copy for the programme.
Most shows will still be looking for those important rave reviews, feel there is still time for the ticket sales to deliver a second and third-week bonanza, and are optimistic that all the programmers who have been invited will turn up, and that those longed-for meetings with theatres will materialise.
Critics are still buoyant too, convinced that there are as yet unearthed gems to be discovered such as last year’s most unlikely hit, Us/Them, a show for children about the Beslan school siege, or previously unknown student companies such as Barrel Organ or Breach.
Of course, by this time next week it will be a different story. Many will have had their Edinburgh dream shattered, had bad or indifferent reviews or no reviews at all, and poor audiences. They will be facing up to the fact that they are going to lose a ton of money and their show is not going on a world tour.
During the three weeks of the Edinburgh Fringe, many will go through a gamut of emotions from elation to despair
During the three weeks of Edinburgh, many will go through a gamut of emotions from elation to despair. And that’s just the audiences. For some performers, Edinburgh will trigger a mental health crisis born in part of the fact that there is nothing worse than finding yourself at the biggest party on earth when it seems as if everyone else is having a ball except you. Alcohol exacerbates those feelings of loneliness and isolation.
It can be particularly hard for those performing one-person shows who will often have production support over the first few days of the fringe, but then find themselves on their own for the long haul. Even critics are not immune. Just before leaving for Edinburgh, I had a conversation with a colleague who cited loneliness as one of the reasons she would not be at Edinburgh this year.
We’ve all seen the evidence and studies that suggest that creativity and exposure to the arts increases well-being. But while the arts and theatre are increasingly being employed to fulfil such agendas, who is looking after the artists? It was a question raised at Derby Theatre’s pre-Edinburgh Departure Lounge Festival last month, when I joined a panel of speakers for a session called Feel Good Facts and Home Truths that aimed to shine a light on theatre’s glorious achievements and epic failures.
One of the speakers was Priya Mistry, whose practice is based around the fact that she sees her depression as an integral part of who she is as a person and an artist. But as she pointed out, while many buildings that book her and her work accept that on occasion an artist will get physically sick and may not be able to do the gig, they seldom have mechanisms – or indeed the contracts – in place to accommodate those who suffer from mental illness. They may well have mental health policies in place for their permanent staff, but there is no provision for the freelance artists who pass through.
Research suggests that around a third of performers are likely to suffer from mental health problems during their career, which is higher than for the general population where the figure is closer to one in four. And the stress of situations such as the Edinburgh Fringe – when performers are far from home, often staying in poor accommodation, eating badly and burning the candle at both ends – can cause a crisis.
Over recent years, with shows from Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing to Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ’Til You Make It, the fringe has increasingly become a place where shows have shone a light on mental health, with performers often mining personal experience to do so. This year, there are so many that a new award has been instigated, sponsored by the Mental Health Foundation, exclusively for shows exploring mental health issues.
On a practical level, the Fringe Society will also be hosting a workshop offering an introduction to techniques for managing stress and distress.
But the best way for everyone working on the fringe in whatever capacity to manage mental health is to be kind to themselves and kinder still to each other, and be alert to others’ distress. It’s great that the fringe is breaking the taboos around talking about mental health and putting it centre stage, but it’s offstage that we most need to be taking care of each other.