The year the audience came in from the fringes

Jamie Leptien was refreshed by some exciting developments in audience participation at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“So do you like the Fringe?” I ask my taxi driver. “Oh aye: you get people complaining that town is packed an’ all, but they’re the same people who’d be moaning that there’s nothing to do in Edinburgh the rest of the year, you know?”

I was glad to hear he wasn’t one of the begrudging locals. It also got me thinking that I was most definitely not in the Edinburgh he lived in for 11 months of the year – when it is not full of culture vultures scavenging for five-star shows, comedians hustling for their big break and actors earnestly convincing you they’re worth your five Sterling Pounds. For a whole month, the Fringe literally creates a city within a city: an estimated four million visitors and performers swamp Edinburgh, a figure almost ten times its population. But unlike, say Venice, where visitors also outnumber inhabitants, the Edinburgh Fringe gives a strong impression that it’s genuinely happy to see you. Because whether you’re rich, poor, the Guardian Theatre Critic or just some bum from the Trinity News, you’re all audience members. And while it goes without saying that performers love an audience, the competition created by 34000 performances in three weeks means that Fringe performers really are delighted to see you. So they should be, you are giving of the most precious currency in the city of the Fringe – time. When it has been estimated that it would take over five years of back-back theatre viewings to see every Fringe show, you don’t part with your time easily. The consumer-friendly side effects of the high price of time include the shortening of shows, shows running at all imaginable times of day and many free shows, so that all the conventional reasons for not going to the theatre are effectively erased.

One performer who understands the concept of value-for-time is Megan Riordan, whose show Luck is dictated by timed bells, ringing out mid-show to hurry her onto the next topic. Luck was part of a strong Irish contingent at the Fringe, including the Gate’s Friel plays, the prize-winning Guna Nua production Little Gem and the dance spectacle RAW, which I’ll get to later. The piece is autobiographical, Riordan’s life as the daughter of a professional and addicted Las Vegas gambler. But key to the piece is Riordan’s switching of roles, from sexy hostess to gambler to daughter in minutes. The effect for the audience is unsettling: one minute Riordan is offering you a plate of ‘traditional’ Las Vegas cheese ball, the next you are watching a tearful Big Brother-style confession of the pain caused by an absent father. And while she is highly critical of a life in gambling, she is also obsessed by it; the piece is designed to raise questions about the nature of a life dictated largely by luck. Towards this end, the unfolding of the play is itself decided by luck. Audience members seated at tables on the border between stage and crowd are asked at various points to draw a card, roll a die or flip a coin to decide what action the star will perform next. But is this luck, destiny or chance? Are these all one and the same? Is the play really down to pure luck, or has Riordan rigged it all, like the Vegas casinos which she describes in detail? These questions echo in the mind of the viewer long after the breathless one-hour is up.

The second Irish piece I saw was RAW. In the impressive setting of an old military drill hall, RAW aimed to interpret ‘the dynamics of a night out’ into Fidget Feet’s trademark ‘aerial dance’ style. On a much larger scale than any theatre piece I saw at the Festival, six physically outstanding dancers translated the modern night-clubbing experience into a fantastic series of bizarre rituals, often performed while moving high above the stage suspended by wires or while performing intricate balancing acts. Yet all the excellent acrobatics in the world couldn’t distract me from the nightmarish concept of the play. Imagine going to a Blade Runner-themed night at The George on some sort of hallucinogenic drug and you’ve got a fair idea. Catfights were played out with faintly ridiculous ‘Mortal Kombat’ style sound effects, while a buff male scantily clad in faux-futuristic clothes performed a pole dance. On a platform above the action, a God-like DJ reigned in manic style, playing generic dance music throughout. All this was clearly intended as a grand metaphor for the stimulant-fuelled insanity of the modern night out. I personally found this hard to relate to – but maybe my nights out just aren’t apocalyptic enough. While RAW was an energetic affair whose technical brilliance provided more than ample entertainment, the concept seemed indulgently conceived and often cringe-inducingly realised.

By not engaging with the audience directly, RAW seemed out of place at a Fringe where audience participation was finally making the crossover from comedy and panto to ‘serious’ theatre. At Rebel Cell, it was hard not be surprised as the show’s rapping lead actor had the audience shouting ‘bomb Tesco’ with two middle-fingers raised high in the air. His cry of “put down your Guardians” seemed representative of the challenge being put to the audiences across the Fringe to become (inter) active spectators at the theatre. And the audience rose to the challenge, even being nominated ‘Performer of the Festival’ in sections of the British media. The truly cutting-edge at the Fringe, such as the brilliant Forest Fringe venue, were championing audience interaction to great effect. On the one night that I wandered in after hours, the stage had become a dance floor and the dialogue a dance as actors and spectators both let loose when the DJ spun ‘The Bare Necessities’ and couples acted out a shambolic speed-dating session by the bar. While not technically theatre, the scene seemed to embody the change to come in the theatre world, with performers and audiences on equal footing. Whether this change can be affected outside the welcoming city within a city that is the Edinburgh Fringe remains to be seen.