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How immersive art and performance in Edinburgh renews a love of theater

The ensemble of
The ensemble of "Counting Sheep," a play about the Ukranian Uprising.
Counting Sheep

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Every August, the city of Edinburgh is transformed. The population of the Scottish town doubles to about 1 million people. Most are there for the same reason: festivals.

There are a dozen festivals in Edinburgh around the year. August has the four big ones: The Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and, the most important of all, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The city is full of creative people for all of August. Playwright Stef Smith described it best:

Edinburgh doesn't sleep for the whole month. There are street performers everywhere. You turn a corner and there's another piece of theater happening. You turn another corner and there's another piece of theater happening. It's sort of like Carnival but I suppose with more established theater happening in the background somewhere. 

This year, the Fringe had more than 50,000 performances of more than 3,200 shows. At every hour of every day in every corner of the city—in church basements, university lecture halls, maybe even a bar—someone or some ensemble is putting on a show.

It could be comedy, theater, music, acrobatics, spoken word, cabaret, dance, opera or something for children. More than 48 countries are represented at the Fringe, and the performers whose careers were kickstarted by the Fringe includes actors Hugh Laurie and Rachel Weisz, director Sam Mendes, composer Tim Minchin, comedian Mike Myers and “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah.

I traveled to Scotland not only to see the festivals, but to rediscover something that I felt was starting to fade: my own passion for watching live performances.

As the host of "The Frame," I spend a lot of time seeing shows and movies—maybe it’s theater one night, a film the next, maybe an art opening, or a concert over the weekend, and so on. Yes, it’s a pretty cool job, but it’s also that—a job, and I am constantly thinking about the interview that might follow, or what or who we can put on "The Frame" to tell a story.

And that part is a little scientific, maybe a bit sterile. But what is it like to enjoy a performance just for the show itself? To be as present in the audience as the performers are on stage? Where had that part of the equation gone?

It was something nagging at me just a little. So I guess that’s why I packed up my wife and two sons and went to Edinburgh.

The shows were uniformly astounding.

There was an improvised musical by a British troupe called “Show Stopper!” (the musical they made up was titled “Some Assembly Required,” and it was set in an Ikea store after the apocalypse).

The Chicago-based outfit Manual Cinema performed “Ada/Ava” with no dialogue—musicians, actors in silhouette and a team of artists working a bank of overhead projectors with hundreds of cut-outs told the story of two sisters.

And the circus/aerialist shows “Attrape Moi” (from Quebec City)  and “Tipping Point” (from Bristol, England)  left me and my family dumbstruck.


The very first show I went to is called "Last Dream (On Earth)," and as I walked into the theater I was handed a pair of wireless headphones. It's a show that is telling two parallel stories: One is about the first trip into space by Yuri Gagarin who is the Russian Cosmonaut. And the second story is about somebody who is trying to flee Africa and make her way across the Strait of Magellan into Europe.

After I saw "Last Dream (On Earth)," I tracked down Kai Fischer, a creator of the show. He said:

There's really nothing I can put on stage or anything that would get you anywhere close to just putting on a pair of headphones and listening to it like you would have listened on ground control, or like Gagarin would have listened on the spaceship. 

The same day that we saw "Last Dream (On Earth)," we went to the Edinburgh Playhouse for a concert called "Grit." It's music by Martyn Bennett, a Scottish musician who died from Hodgkins lymphoma in 2005. He was just 33 years old. As he was dying, he recorded an album called "Grit."

Greg Lawson was a friend of Bennett's, and he's a musician in his own right. He's a composer and a conductor. To honor Bennett and "Grit," he re-orchestrated the entire album for a 70-piece orchestra.

Then I went to the Traverse Theatre to see a one-act play called "The Girl In The Machine" by Stef Smith. She is a local playwright, unlike a lot of people at the Fringe who travel long distances to get to the festivals. She described her first time going to the festival:

My first experience at the festival going way back started when I was sixteen. I was part of a youth theater group. A bunch of us, maybe sixteen teenagers, we all wrote a show together and performed it for a week in the festival, which when you're sixteen feels pretty darn rock 'n' roll. It was my first taste of the festival — the first time I went to the festival, actually. I think at that point I knew that the Edinburgh Festival was really special. 

Stef Smith is a local artist, but there are performers from all over the globe—including two of my classmates from the theater department at U.C. Berkeley, Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin. They traveled to Scotland to perform their new show with their outfit, the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Their new work is called "Shakespeare’s Long Lost 1st Play (abridged)."

(L-R) Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Teddy Spencer first appeared at the Fringe Festival in 1987.
(L-R) Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Teddy Spencer first appeared at the Fringe Festival in 1987.
Reduced Shakespeare Company

I met with Tichenor and Martin after the show in the outdoor pub behind the theater. Tichenor explained what the Fringe had meant to them:

We started as a pass-the-hat act at Renaissance fairs in California, then in '87 a friend of the company said, Well you've done "Romeo and Juliet" in a half an hour. You've done "Hamlet" in half an hour. You should do the complete works. Somebody else said, You can take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The guys brought it here in '87 thinking, it'll be a lark and we can go back to our day jobs. But things started to roll, and we did our first U.K. tour in 1990, and then we ran on the West End in '92 and '93. Presenters from all over the world come and see us here ... I'd say about half of our work comes from Edinburgh.

I asked Martin what was worth seeing at this year's festival.

I saw this show "Counting Sheep" where the audience is participating in the Ukrainian civil unrest for the last couple of years and dancing and throwing bricks at the cops.

As  I was headed home back to Pasadena. I too went to see "Counting Sheep."

What was the most memorable thing I did or saw in Edinburgh? It’s impossible to say, really—there was so much that was so good.

I guess what I saw that was the most profound wasn’t actually on stage.

It was in myself—rediscovering that unbelievable, inexplicable emotion of being transformed by art, by performance, by music, by comedy. It’s why I was a theater student in college. And, I guess, it’s why I host "The Frame."

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