• Revellers

The Ghosts of the Edinburgh Fringe

Updated: Sep 26, 2019


Beautiful view of Edinburgh from the top of Arthur's Seat on a cloudy by bright day

The old adage goes: “If there’s anything at all you think you could do instead of acting, do that.”

There are a million reasons why but the most famous of them include the rigours of the battle, the pain of trying continuously and never succeeding, the outrageous level of competition and the perpetual rejection that you have to deal with on a daily basis. Sure, that’s all a real pain in the ass but simply focussing on the rejection side of things is short-sighted. There’s a whole form of personal torture attached to what comes after you haven’t been rejected: the job itself! Acting can and often is both physically and (often more potently) emotionally gruelling. And, trust me, this is coming from a girl who is some fathoms away from the Daniel Day-Lewis style of acting. I do not set out to totally inhabit the characters I am playing, I do not demand total privacy in the moments before I walk on stage… I abide by the Judi Dench method: no matter how serious the part and no matter how invested you are, one should always be ready to crack a filthy joke or laugh in appreciation if somebody else gets there first. Nonetheless, any project I do leaves me with a little bit of heartache. The bonds you form with your cast mates, the attachments you create with your character and the life you lead while you work are very difficult to step away from when the time comes.

I spoke about these ideas recently with a good friend who added his own thoughts on the sheer masochism of the job we do. “It’s a storm in a teacup” he said, “and if you’re good at what you do, it’s even worse. It can kind of scar you.” He went on: “The older I get and the more I think about it, the more I realise that acting is not actually that healthy a job! It’s weird and intense and sometimes dreamlike in a filmic, poetic kind of way,” none of which, we both agreed, is helpful emotionally. It makes the highs really bloody high and the lows painfully, powerfully low. And never was that more clear to me than on a weekend visit to the Edinburgh Fringe last week.

A woman sits on another woman's shoulders to attach posters and flyers to a pillar on the royal mile at the edinburgh fringe festival
Postering relentlessly on the Royal Mile

Visiting Edinburgh is like watching a never-ending montage over the credits of my early 20s. A friend of mine often refers to the pain he feels on returning to his university town because “there are ghosts on every corner” and last week I realised that that’s what Edinburgh is to me - and surely to countless others. I have performed at Edinburgh 3 times in my life, the first being at the tender age of 18, and I’ve visited it many more. Not one of those trips was mundane or average. Far from it - every single one was emotionally ablaze, fuelled with elation and despair (#SuchAnActor). So now there are ghosts on every corner of Edinburgh for me. Edinburgh is full of ghosts.

Why is Edinburgh in particular so bad? Well the way I see it, the Fringe is a melting pot for all the best and the worst of what our industry throws at us; it’s a relentless, vibrant, exhausting, exhilarating and emotionally draining whirlwind that lasts an unremitting 4 weeks. It spits you out at the end, half the human you were when you arrived, with certainly half the liver you came with, and often completely out of pocket (some very successful comedic friends of mine proudly announced to me last week that this year they broke even. For the first time. They’ve been selling out at the Fringe for years, been the talk of the town, and yet only this year - as they turn 30 years old - did they break even for the first time. It makes me feel nauseous.) What on earth are we doing?? The Fringe is a place where we literally pay hundreds - sometimes thousands - of pounds to endure a number of extreme physical and emotional challenges! Which brings me back to my main point (forgive the digression): I find Edinburgh a tough place to be now because it is the location of a million major ups and downs.

Edinburgh was the first place I experienced complete independence; Aged 18, I spent 10 days in a row seeing in the sunrise after drinking cheap white wine and £1 Apple Sourz shots in the Underbelly bar; I produced my first show in a venue that no longer exists and learnt the rudimental fear of finances; I argued with my best friend for the first time and we didn’t speak for two days before making up (tricky when you’re acting opposite each other on stage); I attended a ball in Talbot Rice Gallery and drank champagne with performers I idolised; I developed a horrible cough from lying in a coffin dressed as a vampire, trying to sell tickets; I had a first kiss with a boy from my early childhood who had seriously grown up when we ran into each other on the Royal Mile; The longest relationship of my life to date began its slow demise in a bedroom off Princes Street; I cried in Pizza Hut after learning uncomfortable truths about myself; I argued with James Norton over flyering!

A hand sticks out of a coffin holding flyers as an actor publicises a production of Dracula at the Edinburgh Fringe festival
The hazards of flyering on the Royal Mile

Even now, 9 years since I last actually performed at the Fringe, I can’t walk 2 steps without encountering a ghost. The smell alone, that distinctive foody odour (bread? yeast? Nobody knows), is enough to make my heart start pounding. I made this comment to comedian Daran Johnson while up there and (turns out I’m not that original at all) I was apparently the 3rd person that month to use the word “ghosts” in relation to my feelings towards the festival. The 3rd person! The reality is that it all renders the city very difficult to enjoy. I found my weekend tough. Ok, maybe that’s partly due to the constant haze of drizzle and the desperate glare in the eyes of costumed performers thrusting their publicity into my hand every second, but I think it goes deeper than that. It should have been a rousing, heart-pounding, joyful trip. On many occasions I was positively falling off my seat with pride, watching some of the people I love most in the world performing in sold out shows, being utterly brilliant and holding audiences in the palm of their hands. And yet I walked around with a somewhat heavy heart.

I blame acting!

Girl stands in front of sleeping trees world tour poster smiling
Beaming with pride this summer

It’s an addiction, and an addiction that (even with a Judi Dench mentality) demands that you to be open to all emotions, demands that you feel things and remember them, demands that you be vulnerable and - as much as possible - wear your heart on your sleeve. All of which is a ripe old recipe for some kind of muddled happy-pain.

It really is true: If there’s anything at all you think you could do instead of acting, do that. Shame is, for most of us in this industry, I really don’t think there is. The reality is that the emotional torment is part of the thrill. That’s probably why “normal” people think actors are such jackasses. The ghosts are welcome because they’re a necessary bittersweet side effect to a life well lived. For all the pain and heartbreak, would I rather have never done Edinburgh in my early 20s? Hell no! Would I rather have pursued a more traditional route in life rather than the rollercoaster I’ve strapped myself into? Abso-bloody-lutely not! Every tear is worth it and I receive every ghost with open arms. Come to me, memories. I plan on making a whole load more to add to the family, and when I’m old and grey I’ll revel in the bad times that still hurt decades later and the good times that make my chest physically ache with nostalgia for them. I’ll go further. I’ll probably put moody songs on in the background and fan the flames. I’ll put on the playlist that I listened to every morning on my cycle to rehearsals, I’ll get up a picture of that cast member I loved but never told, I’ll re-read diary entries about that press night bow that felt so climactic it was almost spiritual, transcendental…

The ghosts both of Edinburgh and beyond will live on, immortal. Because I enthusiastically let them. So really, who am I to complain?

What a jackass, eh

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