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Report from Edinburgh

I asked Melia Bensussen the Chair of the Performing Arts Department at Emerson and a distinguished director to scout talent for ArtsEmerson at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival and Fringe. She just returned and kindly offered these observations. Rob

I hailed a taxi on the streets of Edinburgh, rushed from a new English play about two Jamaican adolescent identical twins that (against the backdrop of Princess Diana’s uber-romantic wedding) refuse to speak except in private to each other, and arrived just in time for a long “queue” to be let in to a tiny fire-trap of a theatre space to watch a new musicalized version of Antigone by a young Scottish theatre troupe. Two out of the six events I was to attend that day, in a flurry of theatre-going that lasted five days and gave me a rush of energy and new perspectives on the art of attending the theatre.

Getting ready for a day at Edinburgh is like preparing for a day in the wilderness: You need good walking shoes for running from venue to venue, a bottle of water in your pack, as well as a few snacks since regular meals are out. A rain-jacket is crucial given the weather in August, although I was very lucky and 4 out of the 5 days were sunny and relatively warm. You carry your festival guide, a local paper or two, and voila, you’re off to wade through art and culture.

Truth is, however, nothing can prepare you for the sheer chaos and energy of the Festival.
The street performers grabbed me at once – the most elemental form of theatre: jugglers, sleight-of-hand masters and fire swallow-ers and, in one case, a particularly unnerving juggle-with-machete-and-chain-saw combination. As a gifted magician who held us all in sway pointed out, it’s the most honest kind of theatre: you pay the performer after you’ve seen the show. Each street-act ends with a similar spiel, with your entertainer pointing out that the performance you’ve just witnessed should be worth 5 to 10 pounds sterling before they pass their hat. (And yes, it is always a hat.)

That was the cost for most of the performances I was to see that week. At our current exchange rate each ticket averaged between $8 and $15, with the occasional $20 ticket thrown in. As I chatted with other festival attendees in the endless “queues,” I discovered theatre-goers from around the world, particularly the UK and the States, who don’t attend as much theatre in one year in their hometowns as they do in one week in Edinburgh.

This then is what I’ve brought home from Edinburgh: a desire to recreate theatre-going as a destination, theatre-viewing as a multi-layered social and intellectual activity, theatre as chaotic and surprising and great fun. We, in our communities, get trapped into an overly-stolid and ultimately stultifying view of the art form: buy your tickets months ahead, spend too much perhaps on each one, plan carefully, and ultimately, prepare ourselves to be disappointed. What event can pay off after the kind of planning and obsessing we all indulge in before walking in and taking our seats? What if we just show up to an interesting place and see the first show that beckons to us? What if it is relatively inexpensive so if we don’t like it we don’t worry about it; what if it surprises us with its spontaneity and rawness?

I came back from Edinburgh re-energized to work on our short play festival—the Pop-Ups that will be a part of the Paramount’s opening next month—and to see how we can, all of us in the Performing Arts community and at ArtsEmerson, create a similar kind of happening environment in downtown Boston – an energy that invites our audiences to see a number of performances a week, and to feel excited just to be in the midst of our spaces and a part of our community. – Melia

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