Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Chapter 101: The Edinburgh Fringe and Lessons Learned

Je m'baladais sur l'avenue,                                      
le coeur ouvert a l'inconnu,                                         
j'avais envie de dire bonjour                                      
a n'importe qui...                                                        

I was strolling down the avenue
Heart open to the unknown
I felt like saying hello
to anyone I met ...

 Lyrics Joe Dassin,  Les Champs-Élysées

I was still in my tightwire boots, in the kitchen, when this song came on at random and I soon found myself spinning across the kitchen floor in the arms of my other half. We whirled back to the outskirts of Lyon, to a time before kids. There is a Big Top in a field, a restaurant, with circus acts  happening all around, to which his cousins have brought us for the evening. We dine, we drink, we laugh, and on the way home in the car Joe Dassin comes on the radio. We sing at the top of our voices all the way home. Oh, Champs-Elysees dah dah dee dah dah. Oh Paris. Oh Edinburgh. 

Because the lyrics pretty much sum up my experience there recently, and my modus operandi. Simply happy to wander the streets, open to any and all opportunities. Going to Edinburgh for me was not just about the circus, it was a bit of a personal pilgrimage. My mother is from Edinburgh, I grew up spending childhood holidays up just across the Dean Bridge at my grandparents, and I hadn't been back since they died. Not in the daytime anyway. Edinburgh for me has always been a city of ghosts, bleeding history right down the Royal Mile. Now I was haunted by the fact I had no ties there. The fact that one of my sisters would be going up the following week, and hanging out at the Circus Hub to boot, made me feel another presence that wasn't quite there. But I had ended up staying, by chance, at an old hotel where my great-grandmother, one Margaret Mackenzie, used to be a hostess. Maybe channelling her spirit was why a fellow guest took me for the Maitre D', asking me where to sit breakfast one morning, and was hugely embarrassed realising his mistake. Actually, I was dead chuffed. Nae worries, I replied.

I love the uncanny, and trust in serendipity, "synchronicity" Kate Kavanagh* calls it, or grace, that for me confirms I'm on the right path, so while I knew folk up in Edinburgh, I had no fixed plans beyond booking a few of the shows in advance. I had a few goosebumps at Gatwick Airport, alerted to the presence of a kindred spirit on the brink of an adventure, and it gave a warm glow knowing I wasn't the only one, but this was a plane I had to catch on my own. Flying solo gives a certain vulnerability, you see, that encourages others to open up and open doors. I would never have got into Velvet off the cuff like that, for instance, if I'd had a friend in tow.

The Edinburgh Fringe was heart-breaking in a couple of respects. Performers are on a punishing schedule of several weeks back-to-back shows, and in circus there is an added physical risk that increases exponentially with fatigue, while operating on a very fine, financial tightwire**. Competition is fierce. I saw some notable, stellar performances play to minimal audiences, which was soul-destroying, and there were a couple that would have benefited from a different venue. But I was blown away by the beauty, skill and craft of the performances I saw, and uplifted by the courage, camaraderie and sense of community I found.

I learned a lot about the dynamics of location and space. The Circus Hub, comprising two Epcot-style tents, not so Dismaland*** and a central covered bar space, became a home from home for me. Located in the Meadows, traditionally the site of all things circus, it was a magnet for reunions and easy meets. I loved the shows I saw at The Big Sexy Circus City but the name plastered all over the kids practice zone area felt a bit odd, and not the best way to reel in crowds for the family-friendly matinees like Wings In My Heart. Also, unlike the Meadows, Fountainbridge is not quite the pastoral idyll its name might suggest, and feels a bit out on a limb, but worth the trek as once inside the tent the performers cast their spell. Underbelly at Cowgate, where I saw Pole, felt like every throbbing student union on a Saturday night, while The Famous Spiegeltent hosting Velvet in St Andrew's Square, had all the glamour and starlight as befitted its prime location. The Caves,  where I saw The Book of Love, had intimate echoes of The Vaults in London, while the ecclesiastical feel of the Assembly Checkpoint for Smoke and Mirrors was the perfect setting to bring home both the need for a spiritual connection in an age where "we think too much and feel too little", and the power of the circus to build those human bridges.

The weekend in Edinburgh has been a game-changer in terms of my writing as well. Meeting   journalists up there, inspiring and incisive, I think in another life how much I would have loved to be part of that landscape, and have an institution behind me vouching for my copy. And yet, back to vulnerability, through putting myself out there on social media and in the blog, I have a different, unique reach. In a year it is pushing 30,000 hits from all over the world and making connections that I find staggering. Not a day goes by when I do not question and challenge the wisdom of putting so much personal information on display, but that's what people respond to, and for me it is a show of trust, a prerequisite to establishing a vital connection when engaging with circus. Luceo non uro is the Mackenzie motto. I shine not burn. Well that's ironic. I train, I write, I connect because I burn. The lesson learned from this trip to Edinburgh is simply: Go For It!

le coeur ouvert a l'inconnu

While at the Edinburgh Fringe I saw 12 shows in 48 hours. Click on the show name below to access the corresponding post:

Circus Hub: Ockham's Razor - Cirk La Putyka's Dolls - Bromance - Elephant in the Room - Barbu - The Hogwallops
The Caves: Book of Love
Big Sexy Circus City: Wings In My Heart - Hitch!
Assembly Checkpoint: Smoke and Mirrors
Underbelly: Pole
The Famous Spiegeltent: Velvet

*Kate Kavanagh writes The Circus Diaries and is currently guest blogger for the Greenbelt Festival where she has been soaking up the synchronicity and offering a fresh perspective at

** See Patrick Collinson's article in The Guardian on the broken business models at The Fringe

***Dismaland: Banksy's "Bemusement Park" in Weston-Super-Mare:

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