Joe Canuso recaps the hits of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and discusses the impact international art makers have on Exile productions.
As one of several artists invited by The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative* to travel to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I feel incredibly honored and grateful. Having produced and acted in the Philadelphia Fringe from its inception and having performed in the Prague Fringe Festival, I know what a unique experience this can be for an artist. Not just for the fact that there are so many different performances to choose from and to tailor to your particular tastes and desires, but also for the chance to mingle and interact with so many artists from so many different cultures. We are really lucky as international artists that wherever we go we share a certain brotherhood with other artists that allows us to make instant connections. Although we share this common DNA, we are all so different in our multinationalism. And that is what is so inspiring. When I meet artists from other cultures, I can't wait to pick their brains. And when I watch them perform I revel in their unique performance language. I want to swim in their world for a while and then come home and turn their inspiration into something that I can do that will resonate with our audiences in the same electrifying way.
There is no grander stage than the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It is the granddaddy of all festivals and it offers the chance to experience the most diverse offerings and rub elbows with the most people. In my nine days there (I went four days early and met up with the Philadelphia group for the last five days) I saw 25 performances and also found time to visit two museums and one book festival. I saw 16 theater pieces, 2 dance pieces and numerous monologues, cabarets, musical offerings and tons of clowning. I saw two shows from Poland, two from France, two from Australia and others from Romania, Spain, Russia and South Africa. The rest were from various parts of the UK. Also, having the opportunity to have some shared time with other artists from Philly was a chance to exchange ideas and hear what moved them.
For me, since the work we do at Exile is on a much smaller scale, I really appreciate the opportunity to see productions on a grand scale that would be unthinkable for us to produce. Such was the case with Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir the production by the legendary Ariene Mnouchkine and her company, Theatre du Soleil. It is about a group of artists and bistro workers making a silent movie in 1914. But it is about so much more. It is about the making of art and why we create dreams. The whole experience began when we boarded a van for a half hour trip to an abandoned hanger at the airport which served as the giant soundstage for over 30 actors and musicians to create this massive piece. But it felt like a journey not to somewhere back in time but to somewhere in our emotional landscape that “dreams of being back in time.” And for the next four hours I was the director of my own dream world. I could sit back and watch the making of a film and the beauty and hilarity that ensues. Or I could focus my attention down on the film within the play and get caught up in the passions of a group of socialists trying to find a utopian society. The play showed us the artifice and the magic at the same time and it was breathtaking.
Another show that had the same affect but on a completely different scale was Bullet Catch written and performed by Rob Drummond. The premise of the piece was that Rob was going to perform the infamous magic trick where he catches a bullet in his teeth from a gun fired by a volunteer from the audience. What the audience gets is 75 minutes of slowly built tension as we get closer and closer to the moment when the gun is fired. It is about why we want magic in our lives and on our stage. But it is also about how much of our disbelief we will let go of to make that moment happen. It is about how we as an audience can see the artifice and choose to let it go. It is about how we want to believe so badly and how the theater allows us that sacred space in which to do so.
One of the joys of a fringe festival is the opportunity to see performances that push the envelope and question our expectations of how we view live performance because there are so many events that are in non-traditional spaces. One piece that played with my expectations was a dance piece called (Remor) by a company from Mallorca. The performance took place inside a wooden box inside a room. The box represented a prison cell and only 15 people could watch at one time. We were given flashlights to shine on the two dancers who created this claustrophobic movement piece about longing and isolation. Although the piece was only 11 minutes long, it fully captured the horror of a world with no escape except to a place that your memory contains. Another was a dance-theater piece called Caesarean Section by Teatr Zar from Poland. With 3 performers and 7 musicians on stage it incorporated Corsican, Bulgarian, Romanian, Icelandic and Chechen songs and music. The theme was suicide and the life forces that pull us back from the brink. It was a full on assault of our senses from the opening moment in the dark when we hear glass being shattered on stage and the lights come up to reveal ten people on stage in bare feet. As the glass is swept into a trough that runs down the middle of the stage and becomes a river of glistening shards the music builds to a feverish pitch as glasses of red wine are kicked over by bare feet and the wine runs like blood across the stage. We hold our breath as we watch the dancers roll across the stage always a moment or an inch from danger. It is an essay in pain and self destruction and it is so achingly beautiful.
But the work that resonated the most with me were the pieces that were closer to our aesthetic at exile. I saw a piece called Bitch Boxer about a female boxer that was one of five new pieces from a program called New Voices, Old Vic. The one woman show was so personal and passionate and became a story not just about boxing but about her relationship with her father. But what was just as thrilling was the audience, which was filled with mostly young adults under 25. And the excitement in that room was electric.
I guess the highlight though for me was Mies Julie by a company from South Africa (which is now opening at St. Anne's Warehouse in NY). It was an adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie and it couldn't have been more relevant to what is happening right now in that country. I was in South Africa last summer and I was able to see in some small way how difficult and challenging those personal relationships are as people struggle to deal with a new world order for them. This production lays all of those issues on the table and it never pulls any punches. It is about race. It is about class and it is about land reparations. But it is ultimately about two sexually charged people trying to deal with and sort out all of their desires and fears and hatreds in this specific space. And what you are left with, after an hour and a half, after they and the audience are completely spent; is that this issue will never be resolved until this generation are all dead. This was the kind of acting that we aspire to at exile. And it was so thrilling to see them set such a high standard. This was the holy grail: to find an emotionally charged subject and have very brave actors live in a moment of truth that challenges both them and the audience. For me I hadn't been that jazzed by an actor’s performance since I saw Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.
As I write about this experience we are going through our own fringe festival here is Philly. I have seen it grow considerably in the last 15 years and I feel proud to have been a contributor to that process over the years. A festival only truly works when you have the full experience of tasting as much of the different offerings that are available and talking to people as you go and sharing those experiences. Being at the Edinburgh festival that started it all makes you also appreciate what a good thing we have here. We as artists need to make ourselves more available to the people who support our work. I am left with the memory of running into Rob Drummond in the Traverse Cafe having a coffee and just going up to him and talking about his play Bullet Catch and how gracious and engaging he was to talk to. Or of our group meeting with David Greig after we had seen his play The Letter of Last Resort, and how happy he was to meet with us and tell us about his process even though he was obviously a very busy man and was curating a series of new works for the festival. These opportunities are very special and it is important to know that we are all a part of this process.
*The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative (PTI), a program of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, was established to foster artistic excellence and advancement in the region's nonprofit professional theater. As a means to enhance the creative capacity of local theater professionals, PTI sponsors seminars, lectures, and trips to other theater centers. PTI hosted a trip to the Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe for eight leading theater professionals in August. Goals for the trip included the following:
To see world-class work
To be exposed to and perhaps gain introduction to respected theater professionals from other countries
To view ways in which multiple artistic disciplines meet
To experience new approaches to traditional forms of theater
PTI hopes that such experiences will impact the artistry of trip participants long-term.