Hitting the Fringe wall

Mark Allen needs some time out...

For comedians, the Edinburgh Festival is a giddy, whirling carnival of excitement. For an entire month, hundreds of us are unleashed on the city in a tsunami of exuberance as we rush from gig to gig like nectar-addled bees fiending for our next fix of the good stuff.

We revel in the heady rush of performing several times a day and relish catching up with friends and colleagues we might only see a handful of times a year when we are fortunate enough to be on the same bill together. The excitement is contagious and this constant buzz fuels the performers just as our late-night excesses fuel the Edinburgh economy.

But it’s not sustainable for an entire month. At some point during the festival, every performer will hit ‘the wall’. It may be one week in or they may make it to the final few days before they finally want to lock themselves into a darkened room and hide under a table until it all blows over, but it will happen. It’s as inevitable as an irksome drama school student flyering you somewhere inappropriate (my personal favourite was when I was sat on the toilet and someone slid a flyer under the door).

When you hit the wall, the festival takes on an entirely different character. Suddenly the prospect of performing six gigs a day is no longer embraced with child-like enthusiasm. Instead it is approached with a sense of heavy-hearted dread as you rue the fact that you ever booked these slots in the first place. You begin to tackle them with the same disingenuous bonhomie that you see on Taliban hostage videos. It feels like somewhere unseen, someone is pointing a gun at your head and you have to act like everything is fine just to get through it alive.

These fleeting moments of despair are perfectly understandable. You can’t continue rushing around the city surviving on a mere four hours sleep, half a battered haggis and a lurid-coloured energy drink without it having some effect on your state of mind. Fortunately however, there is an easy way of combating this. It’s so fiendishly simple that it is often overlooked by performers and audiences alike, so I thought I’d highlight it for all and sundry. S l o w d o w n.

It really is that straightforward. Stop what you’re doing for five minutes, sit somewhere on your own and reward yourself with a brief moment of respite from the madness of the festival. A tiny snatched instance of self-reflection before you haul yourself up once more and fling yourself back into the giddy fray. That’s all it takes to reset your mind and steel yourself for another assault on your senses (and your liver).

My personal ‘hitting the wall’ moment came precisely 15 days into this year’s festival. Things had been going very nicely indeed – good audiences, great feedback and some excellent bouts of both tomfoolery and jiggery-pokery with fellow comedians. In short, a textbook festival.

I was taking everything in my stride and I wasn’t even particularly phased by unexpectedly having to change the venue for one of my shows or having to cancel a show due to a power cut at my other venue because someone forgot to pay the electricity bill (a story too long and possibly too legally sensitive to go into here). But after just over two weeks it all got a bit much for me. I started to miss my wife, my cat and my house, and I began longing for conversations that didn’t begin with ‘How is your show going?’ and ending with ‘I’ll see you in Brookes Bar later, yeah?’

It was when I became unnecessarily angry about someone flyering me while I was having a quiet pint with a friend that I realised I needed a respite from the Edinburgh bubble. It was clearly an overreaction to call them an inconsiderate shitbag so I thought that for my own sanity, I should take a moment to get away from it all.

I decided to walk up Arthur’s Seat. In case you don’t already know, Arthur’s Seat is a huge craggy hill that overlooks Edinburgh’s old town. You can see it sporadically as you walk around the city and it can either seem like an uplifting display of the awesomeness of nature or an oppressive reminder of your own insignificance - depending entirely on whether the sky is clear blue or a dark, brooding grey.

On this particular day, it was grey but I was feeling determined. I turned my phone off, didn’t tell anybody where I was and gamely embarked on the trudge to the top in order to get away from it all and to clear my head.

It’s odd that trekking up a hill whilst grunting, sweating and occasionally swearing is considered down time but that’s how it felt. I kept turning to look behind me at the increasingly impressive view, feeling strangely more energised the nearer I got to the top. As I climbed the final ascent and reached the summit, I was greeted with the astonishing 360 degree view of the city in twilight. Breathtaking.

And as I stood surveying the scene and taking in this moment of isolation – seemingly miles away from Edinburgh and the festival of lunacy that engulfs it for the month – I heard a familiar voice. ‘Hello Mark’.

Somewhat taken aback, I turned to see fellow comedian Ivo Graham stood there. Even when I’d escaped to the most remote part of the city it seemed that I still couldn’t escape the festival. ‘How’s your show going?’

We sat and chatted for a while as we looked down on the remote city below and it felt reassuring to be sharing this moment with someone who was going through the same thing. Because being on top of Arthur’s Seat put the whole festival into perspective. Edinburgh seemed so tiny and insignificant when put into the context of its wider surroundings – with the sea and the tumbling hills surrounding it.

All of the stress and the mania and the delusion that was currently taking place below seemed almost laughable as we sat surveying it from afar. And it was that moment of calm. That brief respite from the bustling, hurried jamboree beneath us that helped to lift my spirits and galvanise me once more. I hadn’t just climbed Arthur’s Seat, I had climbed the wall and an air of optimism engulfed me as Ivo said goodbye and started the descent back to the city.

I sat there for a few minutes longer taking it all in before preparing myself for the climb down, when I heard the excited, chattering voices of an approaching group of children. It was a group of drama school kids who had just made it to the top – presumably as a group bonding exercise for them or an attempt by their teacher to tire them out.

It took less than a minute for one of them to give me a flyer for their show (some kind of musical about something they weren’t yet old enough to fully understand). But far from being annoyed by the inappropriateness of it as I would have done a few hours earlier, I felt oddly reassured. Because it proved that although I’d turned my phone off and taken a moment to flee the hustle and bustle of the city below, I wasn’t missing out on anything.

The world was still turning, things still remained the same and people were still trying to plug their tawdry shows at every available opportunity. It just became a lot more tolerable when given a little perspective.

Published: 27 Aug 2010

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