The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest of its kind in the world. It is an extravaganza of an arts festival which sweeps over the Scottish capital each August, transforming each corner of the city – be it pub, lecture hall or abandoned warehouse – into a theatre. Here you will see every show imaginable, from bizarre cabaret to world class theatre, all part of the greatest show on Earth.
This year, among the hordes of performers making the annual pilgrimage to the festival were two independent companies formed of UEA students.
Turn the Key hoped to capture child audiences with “Under the Erl Tree”, a devised fairytale inspired by the Grimms brothers’ Cinderella and the German folklore character of the Erl King. Using theatre, puppetry and live music, they tell the story of a girl who escapes a loveless engagement by fleeing into the enchanted forests where she encounters the malevolent Erl King.
Director Edel McCormack and stage manager Gemma Aked-Priestley in the director’s booth during the final performance of Under the Erl Tree
Pursuing a very different kind of audience, Creased Productions took their pun heavy comedy “Barry the Barrister/Barista” to the fringe. The play follows the story of Barry, who, after losing his job as a barrister because of a mysterious scandal, resorts to working in a café as (you guessed it) a barista.
So how did the two groups tackle the challenge of building a festival worthy show from scratch? While the rest of UEA forgot about campus life and disappeared to various continents, these students spent July wandering the empty corridors of Union House, tirelessly improvising, scriptwriting and playing with material until they had a show.
A month long bout of intense rehearsals may not be the easiest way to spend a summer, but it is certainly rewarding. Turn the Key director Edel McCormick talks of the unifying process of developing ideas as a team: “it was a really gratifying experience, as building the play became a complete collaboration.” Lizzy Margereson, director of “Barry the Barrister/Barista” similarly found that challenges were overcome by the commitment and work ethos of the team: “I was nervous about the devising process, but luckily the cast were really open and innovative people so we were able to develop scenes through play”.
Standing out from the competition on The Royal Mile can be tough
It takes one look at the hefty Fringe programme to understand why publicity can be more important than the show itself. There are literally thousands of shows on offer, all grappling for a decent audience. Hence the flyering fiasco of the Royal Mile – the city’s main high street – which is invaded each August by swarms of casts and crews, chanting their taglines and badgering passer-bys and pasting their posters on to every surface in sight. The street is the arrhythmic, slightly strained heartbeat of the festival. Amongst all the noise, it is a demanding challenge to gain enough attention. Turn the Key latched on to a gap in the market – children’s shows account for only 5% of the festival’s programme – and they adapted their publicity techniques accordingly: “the thing with flyering” Edel says, “was to maintain a sense of humour (…) our actors would often run up to children and talk to them in character, which they loved”.
Creased productions relied on the integrity of their cast and crew: “you can be as gimmicky as you like but ultimately if you don’t connect with punters they’re less likely to come”, says Lizzy, admitting that their original idea of giving out free coffee to people on the street didn’t really work.
And once the punters were in, the teams could finally get on with what they came to do… entertain! So how did the audiences respond to “Barry”? Comedy, after all, is a very delicate art and this one was somewhat of an acquired taste. “The humour isn’t for everyone” Lizzy admits “but I think it really caught some people (…) the audiences were generally good – as long as we had a couple of people in hysterics I think we did our job.” And Turn the Key’s younger audience? “We were thrilled from the reactions of the kiddies at the festival” says Edel, “they seemed to love it!”
Turn the Key Productions draw in passers by with their Under the Erl Tree song
But of course, it was not all work. The companies spent their free time soaking up the endless quirks of the Fringe and trying to relax, elbow to elbow, in their overcrowded apartments. After months of working, playing and resting together, a little friction would be expected, surely? Apparently not: “Honestly, it was the best time” Edel remembers, “we were in this wonderful apartment and we went out to shows together and cooked together. We were just this bunch of girls all living it up at the Fringe. It was brilliant”.
As stage-dwellers across the globe let their minds wander to August 2015, Lizzy speaks for everyone involved when she says, “I will definitely be back next year, it’s a bit addictive”. And for anyone who wishes they’d been roaming the Royal Mile this year, heed Lizzy’s advice: after reminding me that the whole show came from a joke that her and her friends shared in the pub, she says, “I’ve learnt that if you’ve got an idea just go with it. Make it happen – there’s no point in it just festering somewhere in your mind”.
Photos are courtesy of Jonathan Alomoto, a former Concrete photography editor. You can see more of his work here: www.cargocollective.com/jonathanalomoto