Postcards from a busman's holiday

What Geoff Norcott learned about Edinburgh...

I just had my best Edinburgh yet and I wasn’t even doing a show. I was doing comedy in the evening– two sets at Jongleurs, compering The Late Show at the Underbelly and a daytime show – so, luckily for me, I was able to spend most of my day as a punter. Consequently, I learnt more about the festival in two days than during the entire duration of my solo show in 2006.

The first thing that I realised, belatedly, is that the Edinburgh festival is a truly fantastic cultural event. Sounds painfully obvious, but in my previous visits I’ve followed the typically blinkered comedians approach and only patronised shows by friends and colleagues. While I did some of that again, I decided to spread my wings and tried to look at the festival through the eyes of a punter, not only thinking about what the festival could do for the careers of performers.

I started before I even got to Edinburgh as I’ve been whetting my appetite by devouring any festival related media. Miles Jupp’s voice has accompanied most of my visits to the gym over the last couple of weeks as host of the entertaining Guardian podcast from the Gilded Baloon. I’ve been scanning all the pullouts in broadsheets, logging in to chortle at 3pm everyday and recording anything on television relating to the fringe.

By the time I arrived I felt like a bit of an Edinburgh nerd. Despite having worked with Rhod several times before, the coverage of his hotly tipped show had me nudging my wife in the Pleasance Courtyard telling her, ‘That’s Rhod Gilbert over there,’ before she reminded me that she met him twice when we worked together in Manchester and Bristol.

I felt a bit of a dick when I found myself a little tongue tied on meeting Reg D Hunter, despite knowing that I would be compering him onto stage a little later. However, these guys have been all over my media for the last few weeks and the fanboy had annexed my professional self.

I saw a show I would never have seen last year, a complex and challenging one-man play by Ben Moor. I was arguing about the show afterwards with my wife and friend in the way that I imagine a million audience members have done in cafes and courtyards since the festival’s inception.

I saw Stephen Grant’s show, Second, and laughed like a drain. Afterwards, I indulged in that typically punterish activity of trying to explain his amazing cyber-compering and views on the first and second-class stamp system with sublime incompetence.

I watched Ian Stone’s superb Where’s The Down and had one of those moments with another audience member where, despite the fact that we didn’t know each other, the fact that we had both laughed hardest at Ian’s superb dissection of sympathy fatigue, using London rivalries, gave us an instant kinship.

I actually stood and watched some of those bizarre mini-plays on the Royal Mile rather than thinking of them as subordinate desperados in a rightfully comedic world.

I watched street performers too and, most surprisingly of all, my wife and friend persuaded me to go and see State Of Matter, an all-male dance troupe, at the Udderbelly. i was against it initially, not least because the marketing seemed so fixated on these guy’s naked torsos. However, after the opening ten minutes, I suddenly started to enjoy dance in a way I hadn’t before.

They weren’t even the most professional looking, synchronised guys, but something in the face of the performers, the simple pleasure they all took in their art it, moved me.

I looked at the engaged punters around me and reflected on my own solo show in 2006. I got fairly decent reviews from all the publications that came to see me and focused on them in the immediate aftermath, reading them again and again for pointers…or salvation.

At the end of the festival my wife gave me a printout of comments that had been made about my show on the edringe website by the audience members. They were hugely positive and supportive – more in number than was relative against my respectable but modest audience figures – but I took the printout from her and filed it carelessly.

Having spent as much time watching the audience as I have watching the performers this year, I realised that I’d overlooked what really matters. It seems so stupid as to be almost fatuous to mention, but the relationship between you and your audience at the festival is the single most important outcome. Not the reviews, not the audience numbers, not even the losses you make.

It’s very easy for me to say all this from the safety of a couple of days of paid work and a jolly nice time. However, if I do perform a show at next year’s festival, I want to remember how I felt this weekend and try, if possible, to look at the losses (whatever form they take) not solely as something staked on career development but as part of an artistic pilgrimage with relevance beyond career progression, beyond financial statistics, though not necessarily beyond a simple, happy smile that two punters exchange, before leaving your auditorium.

Published: 25 Aug 2008

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