The feel of the festival is very ‘the show must go on’. Audiences pack socially distanced venues and no-one dwells too much on the fact that we have been locked away for so long
After spending a week at the Edinburgh Festival, I returned home yesterday feeling, as I always do when I tumble back out of this gorgeous, gothic city, watched over by an ancient volcano, like I have left Narnia.
I’ve lost count of how many times I have been up there to do a run of shows but it’s pretty much been every year since 1998. Of course the festival this year is nowhere near the size it usually is. I did not have to gently elbow my way through a throng of pigeon-stepping tourists on the 12 minute walk from my accommodation to my venue; and I did not arrive with fist-fulls of flyers thrust enthusiastically into my hands for other shows. Many a time I have been handed a flyer for my own show and have cheerfully assured the young marketeer that I will most definitely be attending.
My run at the festival this year was a work-in-progress in the truest sense of the term. I started writing it on the train up to Waverley station and was on stage with notes in my hand and hope in my heart. Natuurlik, in a work-in-progress show you will have ideas already and will pepper it with older material so your audience gets value for money. The more experienced a comic you are, the more able you are to make sure people have as good a time as they would have if they’d come to see you on tour, even if your structure and rhythm is a little ramshackle.
Stand up comedy isn’t like theatre or painting. You can’t create it in a studio away from the audience; you need them there from the beginning in order to make it, to see what works, what connects. The building of a show from scratch in Edinburgh itself is what I imagine the festival was like in the 80s, before most comics arrived with a polished show which they hoped would make them stand out to television and radio producers. Comedy is also very different to other art forms in that absolutely everybody thinks they are qualified to critique stand up, so it was nice this year not to have endless unqualified critics troop in and comment inanely on every show they were able to blag tickets for.
Just as Marcus Rashford prefers (I imagine) to play football on a grassy pitch, most comedians prefer to perform stand up in a comedy club, preferably with a roof. In lockdown, wel, we learned to do our sets online and thanks to the technical efforts of so many online clubs, these began to feel less like we were just sitting at our computers and performing into a void.
I will admit that at the beginning of lockdown I sulked. I couldn’t see online comedy working or being fun. The whole point of stand-up for me was to be in amongst people, feeling their energy, risking them hating you (let’s not analyse that). I felt like the only job I knew how to do had disappeared and I missed it. I missed hanging out with other stand-ups where there was no small talk and oversharing with strangers was normal.
Maar, as humans do, we adapted and evolved. Some online gigs now have a “front row” where you can see people sitting in their homes watching, see them laughing. You occasionally have a bloke strolling into shot in his pajamas and saying, “do you want fish fingers” as you deliver a carefully crafted routine. That’s OK. Seasoned performers have had far more hostile interruptions and, eintlik, it gives online gigs the same unpredictability of live gigs.
Zoom gigs even began to have “green rooms” where the performers could see and chat to one another before the show started. In a charity event for JW3, a Jewish Arts centre in north west London, I found myself in a Zoom “green room” with Boy George. Actual Boy George! We sat there and had a proper natter before the show and it remains one of my favourite, if a little surreal, online gig moments.
A large percentage of the Edinburgh Festival this year continued online and is reaching an audience who are so often ignored and uncatered for because the clubs are not accessible to them. Disabled people who can’t leave the house easily, people with young children for whom babysitting costs mean very few nights out, those in more remote areas – all found in lockdown that they were included.
Being back at the Fringe this year brought home to me how much I had missed, not just the festival, but Scotland itself. I performed in the pouring rain on an outdoor stage in a multistory carpark. Before we started the show, I sat with Fred Macauley and a bunch of other Scottish comedians in a caravan and I couldn’t help emotionally wail, “I missed your accents!”
The feel of the festival is very “the show must go on”. The audiences pack the socially distanced venues and no-one dwells too much on the fact that we have been locked away from each other for so long. By the end of my week there, I had a fully formed show which a different audience each night helped me build and that I’ll be taking on tour in the autumn (with a few more warm up shows at the Soho Theatre next week if you fancy) If you are up there in Narnia, go and watch everyone you possibly can. We have missed you.
For tour dates, visit shappi.co.uk