There are few places on the Edinburgh Fringe where you can talk about community in any real sense. Communities are fleeting, formed and broken in the space of hours, built on drinking and career development and the shared space of intense experiences. Forest Fringe, however – in much the same way as Northern Stage at St Stephen’s – feels like an exception. The community is still transitory, in place for just a few short days in the middle of a festival, but it is real nonetheless.
Forest Fringe’s new home in the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith naturally invites this sort of community. It’s open, light and relaxed; the sort of place – unlike most venues on the Fringe – where you might actually want to spend some time. While it’s a slight trek from the city centre, this also works in its favour, as visitors stay at the venue between shows, taking time out from the rest of the festival. Artists linger and chat, families gather on the scattering of tables and sofas, and co-director Andy Field dashes cheerfully up and down the space. The atmosphere is somehow tranquil and buzzing at the same time.
Given all my thinking about community, it’s perhaps fitting that the first show I see in this space is Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker’s I Wish I Was Lonely, which meditates on communities both real and virtual. Thorpe and Walker want to consider connection in the digital age and how the way we relate to one another might have been essentially altered by the little black boxes we carry around in our hands or jean pockets. How is it possible to miss someone when they are only ever a text or a tweet away? And if we can never really miss people, how can we love them?
Thorpe and Walker’s playful, poetic look at our habits of communication – throughout which we are instructed to leave our phones on and answer any calls we may receive – is balanced yet troubling. They acknowledge the positive possibilities of mobile technology alongside the negative, but it is with a guilty, fearful attitude towards the strange affection I hold for my iPhone that I leave the performance. I can see how it so often acts as a barrier between me and the world, yet its weight in my hand as I reclaim it from its spot in the middle of the performance space has the sensation of relief.
Perhaps the most powerful moment, however, does not involve our phones at all. For a painfully lingering two minutes, we are all asked to maintain eye contact with the person sitting opposite us – a simple but extraordinarily difficult task. As giggles ripple through the room, Thorpe and Walker make us acutely aware of the vulnerability involved in truly connecting with another human being, without the interrupting chirrups of our beloved electronic devices.
I’m reminded of this moment later the same day in another Forest Fringe show, this time at the Forest Centre Plus on the other side of town. Towards the end of Only Wolves and Lions, a spirit bolstering three hour retreat from the madness of the Fringe, we all share a few minutes of silence together. Having shared silence with a community of strangers twice in one day, it’s startling to reflect on how rarely we sit in silence with one another. There’s always noise, always some interruption. To switch off that noise and step briefly out of the busy flow of everyday life feels at once like a luxury and a strangely radical act.
Only Wolves and Lions, which by its own confession has something of a paradox at its heart, deliberately occupies this comforting yet radical space. It takes the form of a meal, collectively cooked and eaten by a group of strangers, each of whom contribute a raw ingredient. It attempts to be radical in its collective gesture and in its debate, but it knows that it is also inevitably nostalgic. As performer Unai Lopez de Armentia acknowledges in a childhood anecdote about his native Spain, the gathering of communities to cook, eat and talk together is a tradition that seems to be gradually dying out. As we perform this piece together, we are clinging onto something as much as we are trying to craft something new.
Whatever its internal contradictions, however, Only Wolves and Lions is a beautiful, generous, heart-swelling experience. Its simplicity works in its favour, using silly games and the necessity to work together to forge a sense of community far quicker than other, more seemingly sophisticated pieces. Together we concoct recipes, cook them and enjoy the resulting feast. Nothing particularly innovative, but the warmth generated by these collective activities is quietly extraordinary, reminding us that the sharing of food is as much about ritual and relationships as it is about nutrition.
The experience also does something strange to time, which moves at a different pace to the relentless treadmill of the festival outside. Moments stretch out, inviting the possibility that the time for these rituals is there if we only make it. Thinking about this and about I Wish I Was Lonely earlier in the day, I privately resolve to set aside a week’s holiday in which I will switch off my iPhone and cook three course meals with friends every night.
Similar ideas – if differently tackled – are also studded through The Future Show, Deborah Pearson’s lingering meditation on events still to come, and the four pieces that I have already seen ahead of Edinburgh: A Cure for Ageing, Walking: Holding, Stand By for Tape Back-Up and what happens to the hope at the end of the evening. Time, its passing and our relationship with it feature heavily across all of this work, while Tim Crouch and a smith’s show is perhaps the programme’s most explicit meditation on the community that is briefly and often superficially formed when we gather together in a theatre space.
If these pieces are all linked by considerations of time and community, then America is the other overwhelming theme that connects the extra two shows I manage to catch. In the epic yet intimate Wild Thing I Love You, Ella Good and Nicki Kent invite us on a search for Bigfoot that takes place entirely inside a tent somewhere in the bowels of the cavernous Forest Centre Plus. The show, whose charming and delicate homemade aesthetic is all VHS, maps and miniature models, recounts Good and Kent’s road trip across rural America on the trail of this mythical creature, gathering a community of believers along the way.
Although it is Bigfoot who is always being pursued, Wild Thing I Love You is as much a piece about what we choose to believe in, and the enduring importance of such beliefs to certain individuals and communities. There is also something distinctly American about it all, from the pop-culture detritus of all the road trips embarked on by those who have gone before Good and Kent, to the sustaining mythology of a nation whose sense of identity has always been built on dreams.
Hoke’s Bluff, meanwhile, is a mash-up of every portrait of small-town America you’ve ever seen. Again there is a community, but this is one that has only ever existed in celluloid. By turns infectiously energetic and quietly contemplative, Action Hero’s lyrical dissection of American mythology takes on the candyfloss-light high school sports movie genre, brilliantly hijacking its plotlines and clichés. There’s the underdog team, the star player who isn’t performing, the troubled cheerleader girlfriend, the climactic make-or-break match – it’s all there, in garish red and yellow.
This chronicle of the local baseball/hockey/football/basketball team – all are interchangeable, because it’s not really the sport that matters – is delivered by Action Hero’s Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse in their own accents, with a deadpan tone drained of all American high school peppiness. Their subject is always at a distance; this is a recycled American story, told using recycled American tropes, by a pair of British artists. It’s a story about stories, a fictional narrative about an already fictional world. The show is, as a result, a sort of pastiche, but there’s also a mournful beauty somewhere underneath all the movie sequence spoofs and frantic flag waving. And it is this mournful beauty, rather than the music or the popcorn or the wildcat mascot, that lingers.
Also lingering around the edges of these shows is the work that I miss in the all too short time I’m able to spend in the Out of the Blue Drill Hall. I wish that I’d found out from Harry Giles what I owe, that I’d sang along with Sam Halmarack & The Miserablites, that I’d joined a friend or stranger in a car for Andy Field’s audio piece Motor Vehicle Sundown and gone on a second imagined road trip.
But in the moments snatched between and around shows, I do discover some of the other, quieter pieces of art embedded in the space. I’m oddly moved by a man in a polar bear costume in Fevered Sleep’s installation The Skin You’re Living In, before being hit by a flood of my own good memories while looking at Invisible Flock’s giant memory map, part of Bring the Happy. In the middle of looking for other installations, I stumble by happy accident upon Rob Daniels’ disarming Tiny Live Art, which meticulously recreates moments of performance art on a miniature scale. And just before leaving for the last time, in some more of those squeezed minutes, I end up musing on time again while listening to a snippet of Fuel’s While You Wait podcasts.
Perhaps because of the fluid, mobile identity that Forest Fringe has established – an ever-shifting community and set of ideas that is playfully nodded to by Andy Field’s introduction to the programme (another delicate, gorgeously crafted little gift that I don’t fully discover until sitting down to read it days after the festival) – the space of their work is one of questioning and of possibilities. These possibilities peek out from artworks, smile at us in the cafe and glint in the reflection of a mobile phone screen. That temporary community formed in the inviting space of the Out of the Blue Drill Hall is gone now, existing only as a shared memory and a retrospective construction (far too fleeting, like my time at Forest Fringe) that I’ve pieced together with these words. The possibilities that it ignited, however, still remain.
All photos by Jemima Yong, Forest Fringe photographer in residence.