The Edinburgh Festival is coming, and for the first time in fifteen years I’m not going to be there. It’s a strange feeling, but not a bad one. The festival is relentless, and I am not relentless any more, if I ever was.
It’s fair to say that in the early years of Forest Fringe we never seemed to sleep that much. If this sounds like a boast it is because it is, or at least it used to be. Our days would begin around 8am, frequently jolting awake with the sickening realisation that we were already late, stumbling through the empty grey streets of Edinburgh to begin clearing the detritus from whatever horrendous party had taken place the previous night. Beer bottles and wine bottles and empty glasses and other less predictable remains blistering the floor of the venue – duck feathers, cardboard, tinsel, neon powder paint, tin foil, circuit boards, bubble wrap, sleeping people.
Once this mess was cleared the artists would begin arriving to rehearse whilst we mopped floors and unknotted thick, sticky clumps of electrical cabling, finishing just in time to open to the public at midday. From that point on we were collecting tickets, moving lights, organising the queue of people snaking down the stairs to the entrance, persuading passers-by to fill out the gaps in quieter shows, grabbing lunch when we could, an occasional beer to keep you going, smoking thin cigarettes on the steps outside, resplendent in our exhaustion.
The shows would run until 1am, sometimes later, and then there were the parties which would run until 3am, some nights till 5am, and beyond them there was the rest of the Edinburgh festival reaching out for you with its monstrous, glittering arms.
I remember this rhythm. The feel of it. The weight of it. I remember feeling proud of my exhaustion; our lack of sleep was evidence of something good about ourselves, only we couldn’t exactly describe what that thing was, only the tiredness itself – the two or three snatched hours of semi-inebriated rest that I would tell you about with woozy bashful boastfulness, a not-so-secret secret we would share whilst I rubbed my eyes and leaned against the bright red doorframe, checking the time before the next performance.
Looking back on those years now, I think I can identify two main causes of this misplaced pride.
The first is the theatre in London where I worked in the year before Forest Fringe. This theatre, like many theatres, inspired incredible devotion in the people who worked there, young people attempting together to realise almost impossibly ambitious projects with the most meagre of resources, resulting in a kind of collective relentlessness that was both exhausting and intoxicating. Many people worked late, some almost competitively late; writing emails and funding applications whilst audiences drank and laughed and clapped upstairs, eating takeaway food on the theatre steps, all the time nurturing a camaraderie, a shared understanding that for us at least this was more than work, and that this must not be the case for those people who chose to go home on time.
It was in this environment that I learnt what I thought it looked like when you really cared about something; it looked exhausted, bleary eyed but wildly righteous, a look shared across a darkened office, across other people’s unattended desks. And lurking somewhere in that look was a judgement that it took me a long time to realise I was making – a judgement about your level of commitment to a project if you weren’t willing or able to push yourself to this same unsustainable degree.
The second reason for our sleeplessness was the Edinburgh Festival itself. Whilst the fringe has undoubtedly always been something of a party, over the 10 years we were there, we watched it mutate into something bigger and more horrifying; a month-long 24/7 wonderland, an astro-turfed theme park of bingeable culture and sponsored consumption stretching from George Square all the way to the Cowgate, a vast Heineken-themed paradise that sits on top of the actual city with all the sensitivity of the cartoon cock-and-balls drawn on the foreheads of the comedians leering down from their giant posters along every street in the city.
And as if the literal thousands of bars and venues that make up the festival weren’t enough, deep within this plastic fantasia are hidden a daisy-chain of pseudo-exclusive VIP areas for artists, journalists and anyone else the venue is trying to impress, each of which stays open pretty much until the sun comes up. Despite being made up of tents, basements and other rooms too small or weird to host actual shows, there is a seductive cardboard glamour to these private bars, enabling us to flash our members’ cards, or blag our way in, and believe for a few fleeting seconds that we are Hollywood royalty.
And isn’t that feeling, in the end, one of the most important things about a festival like the fringe for people like us? Being a young independent theatremaker can sometimes be dispiriting; earning very little, performing in tiny fringe theatres, living in shared houses in unglamorous parts of town. It can leave you questioning, often, whether there is any point in carrying on. And so the wonderful feeling that what you do is desired, important even (if only in the fairy-light phantasmagoria of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) can help you keep going when otherwise you might not.
I enjoyed late nights spent feeling like I was important at the Edinburgh Festival, maybe too much, striding out into the city from Forest Fringe at 3 in the morning, disappearing into guestlisted parties or Underbelly’s members bar, a pound shop Joan Crawford, living the moderately high life in a festival, if not a city, that never slept. Turning back up at Forest Fringe every morning after two or three hours of sleep, ready to take out the recycling and clean mud of the floor, felt both like a righteous demonstration of how much I cared, and evidence of how wild and radical and young we obviously were.
In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep Jonathan Crary describes the slow erosion of the space we make for sleep by the forces of capitalism. At the beginning of the last century people slept for around 10 hours a night, now the average adult in North America sleeps each night for only six and a half hours. The cities most of us live in remain in a state of perpetual illumination, with everything from supermarkets to bowling alleys to warehouses and factories operating on 24/7 time, the city forever in motion.
Meanwhile even in the relative quiet of our houses the blue light emitted by our smart phones suppresses the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, keeping us awake late into the night, faces illuminated in the otherwise dark, moving through virtual shopping malls of infinite size and endless distractions. As Crary states:
“There are now very few significant interludes of human existence (with the colossal exception of sleep) that have not been penetrated and taken over as work time, consumption time, or marketing time.”
This sentence could also perhaps serve as a useful description of the Edinburgh Festival, its all-consuming fairground of venues, shows, bars and food stands, its wall-to-wall posters, the artists propping up its 4am bars, a thick stack of flyers perpetually weighing down their bags. The Edinburgh Fringe is the internet come spectacularly to life, a 24/7 city in microcosm, boiled down to its most vivid and compulsive elements. It is where sleep goes to die.
To Crary sleep is important because nothing of value can be extracted from it and consequently it is our final line of resistance against the apparently ‘irresistible forces of modernization’; it is where our conformity to capitalism must end. Indeed, in sleep we reclaim another kind of space. A space of vulnerability, which necessitates care and protection, which demands a kind of social order outside of the vicissitudes of production and consumption. Sleep then, is not only important because as yet we can’t buy anything in it, it is perhaps also the place from which we begin thinking about a world outside of capitalism – a space of mutuality, community and care uncorrupted by the principals of competition and individualism. To sleep perchance to dream.
We hoped and still hope for Forest Fringe to also be a place from which to begin thinking about a world outside of capitalism. But we were also young and we mistakenly thought the best way to do so was to stay up as late as we could. We worked until we cried and we went to all the parties, which may seem like opposite things but are perhaps part of the same thing, part of exactly the set of ideas about the world and how it works that we thought we were resisting. We were resisting those ideas in some ways, but in others we were in fact perpetuating them too.
I was nineteen when I was first involved in the festival, working as a box office supervisor for about £2 an hour at C Venues and sneaking off mid-shift to my other job as a ghost-tour guide on the Royal Mile. I was thirty-three last year when Forest Fringe, the project that I and my friends Deborah and Ira have run for over a decade, hosted what may be its last event at the festival; a big party intended to raise money for a group of new artists to come a re-animate the festival in the way we had tried to do when Forest Fringe first arrived in 2007. In the end we gave that money to two new projects, Live Art Bistro’s 12-hour-long festival- within-a-festival All These Things, and DICE Festival, three wild nights of performance determined by the roll of a dice. Both are courageously ambitious, defiantly impractical projects, where every artist involved will be paid for their labour. They represent a necessary challenge to the festival, its tendency to artistic conservatism and its brutal free-market economics.
The story of any radical project in proximity to the Edinburgh Festival, or any festival like it, is necessarily the story of a conflict, of recognising both the times when we succeed in changing the festival, and the times when it succeeds in changing us. Or, perhaps this is also just to say, that if you are going to be in Edinburgh this summer I’m sorry I won’t see you there, but take care of yourself, and make sure to get some sleep.