THE EDINBURGH DIARIES / 2004
A series of petulant kneejerk dispatches from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
As some of you know, I'm up at the Edinburgh Festival for the month, doing 24 pretty much consecutive performances of Harry & Me, a show about my unpleasant experience of sharing prime time TV space with Harry Secombe 15 years ago. I also mentioned to some of you my intention to let of bit of steam about this brush with the mainstream in the form of an e-mail diary. Hope you don't mind sending this bulk, and if you want your name removed, do let me know. Not sure how often I'm going to be able to do this, but this is quite a long one for starters. I've already been here a week, so this is my first dispatch from the Edinburgh Festival. My show is at a venue called the Gilded Balloon, which I'm told is a good one. When I told people that I was performing there, their first reaction was to say 'didn't the Gilded Balloon burn down?' Well, yes it did couple of years ago, but its moved somewhere else now. Beautiful building, but cramped spaces - an old GB employee was half joking when he said that the tiny space I'm performing in will probably have been turned into two spaces by next year. Actually, the venue is really called the Metro Gilded Balloon, and like a lot of the bigger venues, there are heavy levels of sponsorship - you have to utter the name of some bloody product just to tell someone where you're performing - The Smirnoff Underbelly is another example. Seems like the tail is wagging the dog. Bad start. I had a call from my flatmate on Tuesday telling me that our flat in London has been burgled. I've got most of my valuables up here, but its hard to tell if any of my stuff will have been stolen until I get back. Felt very down about this, but as a taxi driver said to me to me a couple of days ago, 'there's nothing you can do about it...just enjoy your show.' At least, I think that's what he said.
I got East of England Arts Council funding to be up here, so there's no real financial risk for me, which is probably the only time this will be the case for me in Edinburgh. As a result, I was advised to budget for a few luxuries - as a result, I have a publicist for the show while I'm up here. I felt very ambivalent about this - the cost is one thing that sticks in my craw. But on the other hand, I've been performing in one way or another for over nine years, supposedly 'doing well', but for some reason, my work has never been reviewed, or written about beyond the listing page, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get some copy. The publicist certainly seems to know her stuff, and knows people (important for a publicist, that), and apparently, reviewers are due to attend. Only one interview so far, with a representative from the NHS magazine. Not sure my story will aid anybody's recuperation. Its a very different approach up here, almost a different language. Seems there's a different threshold about what people are willing to do to get that audience. For instance, the publicist suggested to me that The Scotsman Newspaper, wanted peoples 'interesting' Edinburgh experiences for a daily column. She suggested I could tell them about my break in. Essentially being asked to exploit my own misfortune, I half heartedly said yes, then immediately regretted it. Haven't heard anything yet, so perhaps I'll avoid the embarrassment.
The whole press thing is by turns fascinating, and gut wrenching. I attended the press launch for my venue yesterday, an almighty piss up of biblical proportions. I turned up in casual dress, with no real sense of what I was supposed to do. I soon found out - it seemed the approach for many performers was to 'perform', pirouetting around in full costumed regalia...wall to wall leaflet swapping. Its almost pointless looking through the brochure for the festival - I have no idea how anybody can make a decision about what to go and see - everything has to be taken at face value - every show is the best on the Fringe, every show is 'unmissable'. I've just performed my second show today, and so far, the nightmare stories of single figure audiences are yet to materialise. In fact, they have been pretty good audiences. Who they are, I've no idea. I've spent the last few years griping about always getting the same audiences on the live art circuit, so I'm about to complain. I've been told that the show could become a 'cult success'. Ha! Faint praise! Who knows, but I hope the technician manages to stay awake for the duration of the festival. Got very thrown today when I looked up before a big lighting change to see her with her eye lids clamped shut. Seems that nobody sleeps up here, other than in the day.
Then there is the Richard Pryor thing. I told some of you about this before I left, but for those of you who don't know, there is this thing called - get this - 'The Richard Pryor Award for Ethnic Comedy', and I was asked if I wanted to throw my hat in the ring. At stake is a grand and a statue - whether it would be an effigy of Mr Pryor himself (who is currently laid low with Multiple Sclerosis) I don't know. But basically, they will come and film the show in Edinburgh, and send him the tapes to view in LA or wherever he is. He will then pick a winner. Its been quite a controversial notion - one high profile black comedian has already declared his intention to boyott - we all know the arguments about pigeonholing yourself. However, this same comedian was willing to be shortlisted for the Perrier Award last year, which was boycotted by many comedians who objected to Nestle (who own Perrier) pushing powdered milk in the Third World. Again, I didn't really think too much about it, but it did get me thinking about how such a thing could totally backfire. I mean, it sounds cheesy enough - and is my work really 'ethnic comedy'? And who is this really aimed at? Lets face it, the Mobo awards are all won by white people these days. So is Justin Timberlake is blacker than I am? Answers on a postcard.
2: SCOTCH MISSED
Hello again. Hope you enjoyed my opening installment. I've just re-read it - perhaps it was a little negative - anyway, here's more of the same. Lots more news for you - four shows so far, with very mixed audiences. Well, mixed in the sense of audience numbers - I've gone from 25 to 50 to 9 and back up to 40. The publicist seems to be doing her job - Apparently, I've had visits from The Metro, Times, Independent and the Scotsman. They never actually tell me about this until after the show, presumably so I don't try and impress whoever I think the reviewer is, but today it was obvious - I think it was the lady sat there scribbling in a pad. Does anybody else find that disconcerting? I still don't understand how you can really get a sense of a piece of work, writing about it whilst watching it - she had her nose down, jotting away during key parts. I got a call on Sunday telling me that my show was in the 'pick of the six' in the Scotland on Sunday paper. A good start apparently - but am I paying for this? The endorsement has been glued onto all my posters. Will this make a difference? Well, up against other popular favourites such as 'Ladyboys of Bangkok' and 'Puppetry of the Penis', who knows? The press thing is very strange. I just had a call from a man at the Times wanting to talk to me about the show. Well, actually, he didn't seem that interested in the show, but in the potential 'controversy' related to its content. Most of you would probably know that Harry & Me is about the time when I was allegedly asked to join my school choir to make it look more 'ethnic' for the sake of a TV show. Well, this journo really seems to want to put a spin on this, and I'm sensing he wants this to look as though I'm on some campaign for retribution. He actually asked me how many black people there were in the choir before I joined. I had to explain that this was 15 years ago, and I can't remember actual figures. And, I also tried to explain that the inability to remember, and how memories change over time were also key elements of the show. This obviously isn't such good copy. He said he'd come to see the show tomorrow, but it would only leave him half an hour to write the article. I think I ended up sounding totally evasive, like some politician. I'm sure he'd get a better soundbite from the Ladyboys. We'll see.
Audience reactions have been much more valuable. I guy who sat in the front row yesterday said to me that I made him feel very uncomfortable, but he still enjoyed the show. Relative to the content, someone else asked me if I noticed he was the only black audience member? It is actually something I'm aware of, especially as I've been told that this piece makes the audience very...er...racially self - conscious. This is in relation to the part where I suggest that a particular section of the show would work better 'the less black people there are here.' Sometimes the audience really laughs at that bit, and other times, not so much... Went to the Fringe Opening party last night - yet another piss up with appalling snippets of bad shows. The moment of clarity about what all of this is about came when seeing US stand up comic Scott Capuro doing his 'wouldn't it be great if you had a clitorus in your ear, eh ladies?' type routine in the bar downstairs, only to happen into him in the bar upstairs half an hour later doing the exactly the same schtick verbatim. Not unusual I'm told. No wonder so many comedians are 'troubled' people.
3: MC GROUNDHOG DAY
"...Deacon sounds like a slightly desperate individual eking out a so-so show..."
So that's my starter for 10. Or rather 3 - stars, that is, in The Scotsman Newspaper (out of a potential 5). Now, for those of you who don't know, I'll explain the implications of this 3 star review for my "sporadically amusing" show. Basically, 5 stars from the Scotsman, and that's it - crack open a six pack of Bud, and kick back as the punters come rolling in. Next is a 4 star review where you may opt for a cheaper brand of lager, but nonetheless, you're in the top 'percentile'. Then, there's the MOR three star people - seems that's most of us, and we're all supping Irn Bru. The Scotsman also contextualises these star categories by comparing them to a range of cartoon dogs - a sporadically amusing conceit. It ranges from Scooby Doo (5 stars) to Scrappy Doo (1 Star). Apparently, I am Deputy Dawg. Maybe its not fair for me not to show you all the full review, but I really can't be bothered transcribing it. Suffice to say, it wasn't so much a critical drubbing (far from it - apparently I am "technically adroit"), but more a critical shrug of the shoulders. Anyway, I know his name, and I could quite easily find out where he lives. So, it seems the initial word of mouth interest has dried up - the audiences do seem smaller, and yesterday, I had two walk outs. I was hoping this was due the show's hardcore offensiveness, but that's unlikely - off to see the Ladyboys no doubt. They didn't even have the nerve to do it to my face - it was only when I left the stage a couple of times briefly that I heard the door going.
Not only do the audiences seem smaller, but they also seem quieter. I think I'm going to have to get out of the habit of judging the success of my work based on laughter. Oh yes, something else from the review - my show would benefit from "less of a reliance on his old school uniform for laughs". I get through one pair of ill fitting school trousers per show. There's a part where I do some Michael Jackson style posturing, resulting in a split gusset. And of course, these are trousers designed for a 7-8 year old - that's the joke. Anyway, down to my last pair of the ones I brought up with me, so I've been wondering around Edinburgh trying to find shops that sell school clothes in bulk - problem is the process of working out whether these trousers will fit you -i.e. surreptitiously holding them at arms length, then as close to your waist as possible without looking...well...you know, a bit odd... Ok, running out of credit, but I'll be in touch again soon. I'm supposedly in the Sunday Times this weekend, so look out for that. Thanks to everyone who replied individually - I have a day off early next week, and I will endeavour to reply to all of you. Kind regards, Deputy Dawg.
4: BATTERED & FRIED
Hello Again. I'm having a day off, so I thought now would be a good time to check in again. Some very strange paradoxes are starting to occur. I mentioned in my first mail out that somebody suggested the possibility of my show being a 'cult hit'. Well right now, I'm a pretty small cult. We could euphemistically describe it as a 'fun sized' audience, with numbers shrinking to an all time low of seven a couple of days ago. I still don't know if people are bullshitting me, but apparently, I'm told this still ain't too bad... Out of this seven, I had two more people again walking out. I'm assuming these people haven't paid for their tickets. Interestingly, their departure was a little bolder than the last lot - rather than waiting for me to leave the stage briefly, they made for the exit when my back was turned. Jesus, if this happens again...one of my props is a baseball bat, so at least I have the option of using that with extreme prejudice.
Yesterday, I had three people in from Bedford, and hence maybe they had a better handle on a few of the in jokes (i.e. they were giggling, pointing and whispering to each other throughout). Anyway, the paradox I'm talking about is the collapse in audience numbers relative to the sudden spurt of good press the show has started getting this weekend. If you've seen the film The Sweet Smell of Success, you'll understand what I mean when I say that the publicist has gone from being a bit of a Sidney Falco to er...if not...anyway, although the interview I did for the Times was 'bumped' by a pair of Japanese mime artists, there was a great review in the Independent on Sunday, (I'm "an exciting discovery", and "zany" apparently - God I hate that word...so much for being taken seriously), a feature article in the Sunday Times (this was only in the Scotland edition), and an online review in The Stage, which should be in print at some point this week. So, we've been going around slapping quotes such as from these all over the posters. Would you come and see a show described as being "an ambivalent mix of anger and humour" ? So, what difference it will make I don't know - people seem to respond to star ratings. Its a lot easier to slap five stars on your poster, rather than getting people to read a good, but lengthy review. Therefore, it seems like the lukewarm three stars I received from the Scotsman remains the benchmark. Incidentally, I've written that reviewer a letter in response to his response. I know I should let it go, but I can't let him have the bloody last word. I went into the venue press office and asked if they knew how I could contact him to give him the letter. The first thing I was asked was, "its not abusive is it?" I explained it was a measured and intelligent response to an ill thought out piece of hack work. I realise this kind of petulance could backfire, but I was actually very nice and...sympathetic in the letter. I would include it in this e-mail, but it's two pages long, and I'm sure none of you have that much spare time. Talking of how people decide to go and see things (5 star reviews? word of mouth?) I'm just overhearing a conversation whereby two people are discussing what to go and see. Now, I realise its hard enough trying to decide what is worth an hour of your time in amongst the morass of stuff going on, but the fame factor seems to be a major thing. Basically, the conversation is centered around a show that's had a lot of publicity here - can't remember what her name is, but its the woman who provided the voice for Bart Simpson, doing some sort of stand up show. So, she's got a kind of vicarious cultural icon status, but apparently, the show is awful. I saw a preview skit she did at the opening party, and yes indeed, its just a woman doing what appears to be an uncanny Bart Simpson impression. But hey, its TV related, so lets go see it. You've heard of them so, yes, it must be good. The other suggestion they are now making is to go and see "that one who was in Cold Feet." Lots of Edinburgh regulars I talk to bemoan the sort of marginally successful comedians (maybe they've been to TV a handful of times) who come up here and produce some lazy, rehashed piece of bullshit, because they know they won't neccesarily have to struggle for an audience. Seems to me that people really need to vote with their feet, but won't, because maybe half of the frisson is seeing somebody famous in the flesh. A similar thing seems to be happening with certain acts who were hits last year. I went to see a show by a guy who won the Perrier best Newcomer Award last year. It was a good show, but in a half empty auditorium. Maybe the success he'd had the previous year led him to believe he'd be guaranteed a big crowd - somebody I was with who saw him last year in some dingy garage sized venue said this show was no where near as good in comparison. its a shame - why is it assumed that success should culminate in playing at venues where to those in the back row, the performer will appear to be one and a half inches in height? Its nearly the halfway point in terms of performances, and the thing that worried me most (repeating the same show everyday) hasn't been such a problem. The responses of the audience is so different each day, that in itself makes for an interesting challenge. One thing that pissed me off initially (I now now have an amused, stoic acceptance of it) is the sound leakage of rapturous audience reponses from whatever the show is going on next door to mine. Believe me, its extremely rapturous, and either they've got a huge crowd, or there is one, 50 handed person in their audience. Anyway, I'm getting slightly muffled secondary applause at serendipitously appropriate moments, and also at annoyingly inappropriate moments - perhaps you have to be there. Had a friend vistiting for the last couple of days, and took him to see a show I was convinced he'd love. As it turned out, he sat in stony silence as i laughed like a drain. Anyway, i'm still happy folks. A few days ago, I was mindful of Kenneth William's last entry in his diaries before he topped himself: "what's the bloody point?", but I'm starting to realise that audience numbers and reviews aren't the be all and end all, despite writing unpleasant missives to any reviewer who crosses me. Personal growth, and love of our fellow man is far more important than all of this.
5: DOING PORRIDGE
I appear to have pulled a muscle in my neck and have had trouble turning my head fully for the last few days. This should be my penultimate diary entry. It has been pointed out to me that my musings have become 'increasingly bilious', so perhaps its better if I limit my communications a little. I've mentioned to several of you who replied that its probably not half as bad as it sounds in the e-mails. I guess its because I only really feel inclined to write when I'm having a hard time. Good news and stories of happiness and success are boring. Anyway, its been very up and down the last few days - I had a vast (albeit brief) improvement in audience figures, seemingly on the back of a very good review from the Metro newspaper. Despite my bemoaning the inherent flaws in ratings based on 'numbers of stars', I have eaten my insincere words, and slapped the Metro's Four stars all over my posters. No quotes, no review extracts, just four bloody stars - see what happens when the boot is on the other foot? I promise I will never talk about reviews again, but I have to admit it has become something of an obsession after a nine year review drought. A woman from the Guardian called Lyn Gardner was in this week, who spent the performance furiously scribbling in her pad with an increasingly concerned expression on her face. She left before the end of the show. Just one final interesting little nugget. I was described by one paper as being "fiercely intelligent", but with the following caveat - "trouble is, he's also fierce, and audience members cowered away from him." I certainly have no recollection of physically threatening anybody, but a few days ago, one woman was quite vocal in her sighing and tutting during my 'wading into the audience' bit - but maybe its because my costume is starting to smell. There is the odour of nearly twenty performances in my little green sweater. Anyway, to be described as being fierce is a new one on me - its possibly my own paranoia, but there is a sense that your average audience gets turned off by the 'angry black man' element - but maybe I'm reading too much into that. As anybody who saw my Colin Powell performance in Birmingham this year would know - I'm not angry, I'm reasonable.
Incidentally, I didn't get to the final shortlist for the Richard Pryor Award. Not wholly surprising, but I've a feeling that I was never going to be 'stand up' enough. It has got me wondering about where my work sits in the wider scheme of things - I mentioned a few days of bigger audiences, but lately, things have reverted to type - single figures all the way. I was talking to one of the Press Officers at the venue, and explained that despite a lot of good write ups, this is not translating into audiences. Is it the subject matter? Is it the fact that it can't be defined as simply comedy or theatre? Or (as I think is the case) is it the fact that nobody outside of the mainly London based Live Art circuit knows who the hell Robin Deacon is? What has been heartening though, is that a lot of the people who have come to the show have responded in a really fantastic way - its funny, because of the conveyor belt nature of things here, you rarely get to chat to people after performances, but I've bumped into a few people subsequently, and they've been so positive and supportive. So, a happy note to end things on then - I'll only do one more diary after this one, as I've a feeling I'm starting to repeat myself.
6: AFORE YE GO
Arrived back in London with my tail partially between my legs a couple of days ago. Thought I'd let the dust settle a bit before my final instalment. My thoughts so far are the following. Edinburgh is a machine. You feed your hopes and aspirations through one end, and god only knows what will emerge at the other end of it. Maybe its not as arbitrary as all that, but it was very hard to see any kind of rhyme or reason to the whole thing. However, with a little hindsight, it seems things are beginning to fall into place. I've already come to the conclusion that the venue was totally wrong for the show. This is a difficult problem to surmount though, as from what I could see, there was very little in the way of actual programming going on. Its just a free for all in terms of who gets which space or slot. Ironically enough, the venue I ended up turning down in favour of the Gilded Balloon had a much more interesting programme of events. Also, timing - 2.45 is a fucking non-time to be doing a show in Edinburgh. I was initially under the impression that earlier was better, so as to avoid the problem that everyone goes to see the Bart Simpson woman or some such bullshit in the evening. However, it was only in the last week that the alarm bells started ringing when I noticed the sort of shows that Harry & Me was sandwiched between. Seems I was in the lame student theatre productions hour.
The audience figures plummeted during the last week. The low point was six, apparently the average daily audience across the fringe. Actually, on this day I was advised to cancel thirty minutes before the show, due to the fact that I'd only had one booking. So why did this happen? I suppose I wasn't very hands on in terms of my involvement in things like flyering. I just found the idea of standing around on the Royal Mile prostrating myself (like everybody else) at the feet of indifferent tourists an unpleasant and undignified proposition. I also found being on the receiving end of such behaviour profoundly irritating, so I wasn't about to subject anybody else to it. However, it may well have meant I was playing to audiences of seven rather than six. At the time, I would probably have said that would have been worth it. Or perhaps the subject matter was viewed as being 'too heavy'. I don't think poster helped in this regard, and I still regret not using the original image of my school photo with my face whited out. However, in the run up to the show, I was 'advised' to use an alternative image (a dark, sillouette of my face with some writing on it), on the premise that it would be more suited to the Edinburgh context. I actually really hate it with a passion, especially in hindsight. For me symbolises nothing but loss and adbication of control...a marketing wet dream. I'm starting the feel like my acceptance of certain things that went against my better judgement (merely because I had no sense of how the festival worked) was wrong. In fact, I'm pretty surprised at how willingly I betrayed on my own intuition in many cases. It was strange about the poster though - everybody else (audiences, friends, peers, colleagues) seemed to like it except me.
The replies of support following my amusingly scathing Lyn Gardner review were very much appreciated, but the up and down nature of the festival was borne out about half an hour after reading the review, when I was told I was critics choice in the Metro newspaper for that day. I managed to ruin even this good news by pointing out that the Metro also sponsors the venue I was performing at. Just how many backs are scratched and cocks sucked over the four weeks of the festival? But to be honest, Lyn Gardner's comments did get me thinking. A friend of mine made the point that perhaps in the context of Edinburgh, things like having a good director, or at least an outside eye are important considerations. I'm wary of slickness in work, but perhaps this is what is expected in a place such as Edinburgh. This has been an ongoing issue in my work in general, but in terms of this piece, if there is a problem, it maybe lies as much in the fact that I can be a pretty erratic performer. Doing the show twenty four times consecutively made this especially obvious to me - but I'm not a jukebox. Perhaps my ongoing suspicions about what happens when a live artist ventures out into the world beyond the live art circuit have been confirmed. My feeling is that audiences at live art events are amongst the most forgiving, and that because much of the debate is still centred around what live art is, there isn't much time for discussing whether an individual performance is any good or not. It all depends on ones existing perspective I suppose. A traditional theatre critic could view my ramshackle, untutored approach as being ill disciplined and unprofessional. On the other hand, maybe those who don't have a sense of, or sympathy towards a live art aesthetic are in a position to give a more honest appraisal. Reviews written by peers, friends and colleagues in Live Art Magazine and the like are maybe to be taken with a bigger pinch of salt. I'm not saying Lyn Gardner was right, but I also don't want to sound like I'm bleating about being 'misunderstood' by the mainstream press. After all, many other journalists from comparable publications seemed to 'get it'.
Perhaps the biggest mistake was in the categorisation of the show. Months before the festival, I had to submit my entry into the Fringe Guide, with the choice of listing it as either comedy or theatre. Although the show was a bit of a categorical grey area, I plumped for the latter. I'm not sure why to be honest - maybe it was because of my fear that comedy on the fringe is primarily viewed as being stand up, with all the pressure for requisite belly laughs that goes with it. Looking back, I don't know why on earth I thought the word 'Theatre' encapsulated what I was trying to get at . I want Harry & Me to work on the premise that comedy and laughter aren't necessarily the same thing, but it increasingly dawned on me that I had allowed a category to define the work, rather than the other way round. My moment of clarity came a week ago, as a sat in a Noble and Silver performance, watching their multi media and art school mannerisms. A few years ago, their show picked up a Perrier Award, with many of the plaudits related to them pushing boundaries. But is it that their work is inherently innovative as comedy, or does the trick lie in it being described as comedy when it clearly isn't in the traditional sense? Perhaps the context of Edinburgh would make something appear to be more unusual than it would be at some esoteric live art festival. Or maybe its comedy just because you say it is. I'm sure these are simple questions to anyone other than me. That's it anyway.