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Lyn Gardner: Supporting performers in Edinburgh is crucial, but so too is supporting audiences

Max Hersey and Annie Saunders in Our Country at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Gema Galiana Max Hersey and Annie Saunders in Our Country at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Gema Galiana
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In recent years, a great deal has been written and discussed about the toll that a month at the festival can take on the mental health of performers and those working on the fringe. The Fringe Society has taken this matter seriously, and now holds a number of events and meet-ups during August to try to alleviate stress and distress.

Help is available, and now venues also take more active steps to watch out for those who may be struggling. Edinburgh can be particularly brutal for solo performers, who are often both living and performing on their own. Even if the show is going well, this city in August can be a lonely place. If it is going badly it can feel as if you are in one of the seven circles of hell.

I don’t have to perform a show, I am simply watching them. But by this stage in the festival, I feel constantly tired. Emotionally, it’s as if somebody has stripped away several layers of my skin. A show can leave me suddenly welling up. I found myself unexpectedly moved by the gig theatre show Electrolyte at Pleasance Dome the other evening, a piece about a young woman crushed by grief. I was also unprepared for how touched I would be by Henry Naylor’s solidly put together Games at Gilded Balloon about two German-born Jewish athletes trying to compete in the 1936 Olympics.

If we have belatedly recognised the need to look after performers, perhaps it is also time to think about how we might look after the audience better, too. A significant proportion of the work presented on the Edinburgh fringe is difficult, including painful testimonies of trauma and harrowing stories of personal pain. It can leave audiences feeling distressed, and sometimes in the rush from one show to another it can be difficult to process.

Some artists working on the fringe are thinking about how they can support audiences more fully. Our Country is a powerful, intelligent show at Summerhall in which the mythic and modern Americas meet head-on in an examination of a complex sibling relationship. During the first week, director Becca Wolff noticed a woman leaving the performance who didn’t look as if she had enjoyed the show. A little later in the bar Wolff noticed the same woman and decided to put her own ego aside and approach her to talk. What followed was a tender conversation about the woman’s own experience with a sibling.

Since then the company has made a point of issuing an end-of-show invitation to audience members to meet in the bar afterward to discuss the play – which includes not just sibling relationships but also mental health and wrongful incarceration – and any issues it might have raised for them. This is just as soon as the company has cleared the impressive 60kg set, which takes the form of a pop-up fort, which is built during the show.

Having to clear the space for the next company as quickly as possible can create a barrier between creatives and audience, and not every audience member is confident enough to walk up to a performer 20 minutes later in the bar without an invitation. But recognising that the work you have created might be difficult for some – just as Alexandra and Kate Donnachie do in Three Years, 1 Week and a Lemon Drizzle, their two-hander about the impact of anorexia upon family relationships – and extending an invitation to talk about it can be both a useful and generous thing to do.

Artists mostly take great care and responsibility over the material they create, and it only takes a small further effort to extend that care and responsibility beyond the show and into the bar afterwards. One of the great pleasures of Edinburgh is being able to meet your audience face to face to discuss the work, and an invitation to do that after the show is likely to benefit everyone – those making the work and those watching it.

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