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Lyn Gardner: The Edinburgh Fringe can bring out the worst in people, but also the best

The cast of The Afflicted at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Michaela Bodlovic The cast of The Afflicted at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Michaela Bodlovic
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I went to see a great show at Summerhall the other evening called The Afflicted. Produced by Scottish company Groupwork, the show is about schoolgirls in upstate New York who suddenly develop mass psychogenic illness.

Sometimes I think the Edinburgh Fringe creates a kind of mass hysteria that grips the theatre industry every August. People behave in ways that they would never dream of during the rest of the year – like calling their PRs at 3am because they have had a eureka moment about how to sell their show. Or calling critics in those early hours (yes, I’ve had that one) wanting to discuss in great detail exactly what you meant when you said the show was intriguing, but flawed. I am always happy to discuss what I’ve written, but never at 3am.

People who behave with the utmost professionalism during the rest of the year can suddenly turn into needy children during the fringe

A lot of this behaviour is fuelled by alcohol and tiredness. For more than 30 years of attending the fringe, I have seen people who behave with the utmost professionalism for the rest of the year suddenly turn into needy children. One PR told me that the job in Edinburgh was mostly about having the advanced parenting skills to deal with both clients and journalists – or in some cases monsters. It is amazing what a lanyard combined with a bottle of Pinot Noir can do to the ego.

But just as psychiatrists believe that mass psychogenic illness may be the physical manifestation of psychological stresses, so I suspect that the strain of a month in Edinburgh puts people under enormous pressure and makes them behave uncharacteristically. When a PR told one young company to call if she could help in any way, she definitely didn’t mean that they should ring after they got back to their flat at midnight, turned on the light and blew the fuse. You wouldn’t dream of calling your show PR if you were putting on a show in London and came home to find the lights were out.

But if Edinburgh sometimes brings out the worst in people it also often brings out the best too. One of the things I always find humbling when I am a little over-tired and tetchy is to remember just how difficult it has been for many presenting work in Edinburgh and how they have fought against massive odds to get here. With so much riding on this single week, it is not surprising that people get anxious and over-stressed.

There is a generosity of spirit born of the fact that everyone is in it together. The traditional boundaries start to dissolve, whether it’s the artists who rally around with cups of tea for the critic having a breakdown, or the shout-outs from the stage for companies and solo artists who are struggling to sell tickets; there’s the free career advice and help handed from one artist to another, and the technical trouble-shooting done by one company for another. The list goes on.

I have known of many instances where directors, producers, technicians and PRs – already busy with their own shows – have given help to others who might otherwise have simply thrown in the towel and gone home.

For many performing here, the shock of discovering that you often really do need to do everything can be enormous. Every year it feels like watching lots of young artists being dropped in the deep end of the swimming pool before they have even learned how to paddle.

For many, it will be the first time they have ever done a technical rehearsal and they will not just be performing their show, but also marketing it and perhaps dealing with being reviewed for the first time. It is a steep learning curve, but one which will stand them in good stead through the rest of their careers. The fringe may be the most brutal training ground, but it is undoubtedly an effective one.

But it is a place where everyone needs to look out for each other – there is no stigma about needing to ask for help, whether over technical advice or dealing with your own mental health. At this point in the festival when everyone is tired and feeling the stress, it is more important than ever.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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