Fringe: Going solo in Edinburgh

There’s never been a shortage of one-person shows at the Fringe. This year, there appears to be more artists going it alone than ever before. All begs the question: Why?

Simple: in these times of austerity, it’s obviously more cost-effective to produce a solo show than it is to finance an ensemble cast. When you add travel, accommodation, costuming, production, etc, to the mix, it soon all adds up when there’s more than one of you on stage. Even then, solo performers have the writer, director, and lighting people to consider.

For some audiences, though, watching a storyteller jabber on by themselves for an hour can be a bit taxing, too.
Something, however, seems to have changed this August.
Not only are more solo shows garnering great reviews, they’re selling out, too. Just ask 29-year-old Gary McNair from Erskine, whose Fringe First Award-winning show, A Gambler’s Guide To Dying, has stowed out the Traverse day after day. A sweet Glaswegian tale about his dying grandad – who bet on himself to live until the new millennium – it’s about as great a piece of storytelling as you’ll ever likely to see.
Then there’s Toby Peach (The Eulogy Of Toby Peach) and Rebecca Crookshank (Whisky Tango Foxtrot), whose one-man, one-woman shows at the Underbelly has seen audiences laughing, crying, and wanting photos taken with them after their show.
One of the reasons for their success is the stories are so deeply personal. The other, is that solo performers have learned how to truly engage with an audience, how to make their subjects accessible.
Surrey-born Peach, who contracted cancer at the age of 20 (now 26 and four years in remission) has audiences up on their feet, cheering, and giving him high-fives as he documents his inspiring battle with the disease.
34-year-old Crookshank, on the other hand, offers a comic insight into the dark underbelly of military life, whilst overcoming abuse, alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies in the process. It’s compelling stuff.fringe

  • Q: From the moment you came up with the idea for your show, how long did it take to finally get it onto the stage?

TP: I created a short five-minute story for BAC’s London Stories back at the end of 2013 and I have been writing since then. The last 18 months have included a process of writing and scratching the work before a work-in-progress at Plymouth Fringe Festival, before coming up to Edinburgh.

RC: I’ve had the idea for over ten years. I think I needed to distance myself from it, though. I started writing the material in February 2014, then in May 2014 I was supported by Arts Council England to research and develop the material. In February 2015, I shared a scratch, which was terrifying but essential for the process. The script evolved throughout the many drafts and here we are 18 months later.

GM: It was about seven years from concept to completion, but that doesn’t really reflect the effort. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell but I knew I could only tell it when the time was right.

  • Q: What made you think ‘I have to produce a show’ about it? 

TP: The response to the short story was really positive, but it was through exploring the world of cancer again, in that story, that made me want to delve deeper. Then I realised I didn’t know anything about this disease that had tried to kill me, or the treatments that had saved me. That realisation shocked me, as the word is everywhere and, unfortunately, it is something we are probably all going to have some experience with, either directly or indirectly. My original notes were full of science about cancer and the wonders of the treatment, and then it was about finding a way to make these accessible to an audience.

RC: In 2012, I saw Charlotte Josephine in her show ‘Bitch Boxer’ – I was hooked, totally inspired by her solo performance. I work with a lot of young people and the more time I spent with them, and the more distance I had from my time in the RAF, the more I felt I had to say. I continue to experience and witness misogyny and I felt my story could shout about that and encourage zero tolerance. I wanted to explore and celebrate the positives of making aspirational choices and following your calling. Many of the young people I work with have no idea what they want to do and the pressures that surround them are intense. My experience of depression and my desire to escape wasn’t really dealt with at the time. I felt angry about that and wanted to use that energy to create some art.

GM: Instinct really. Sometimes you just think to yourself ‘I have to tell this story to a room full of people’. Thankfully, my instinct was right on this one.

  • Q: As your show is biographical/ autobiographical, what challenges did you face in choosing what should – and what shouldn’t – go into the piece? 

TP: This is where the outside is so important. I have been working with Dave Jackson, who has directed the show and helped sculpt it since I turned up to him with a handful of stories and notes 18 months ago. His role has been imperative in making a show that is engaging for an audience, as I would talk about various stories and he would want to dive into some that were interesting to an audience listening. Some I didn’t think were important or interesting myself, until I realised they weren’t common. This is because you become desensitised to the world you are creating because it is your story.

RC: My director and dramaturg Jessica Beck was so great at challenging me to justify the content. Together, we were able to rediscover my story and filter out anything that didn’t connect to the core of the piece. To find the core, we had to try out everything. I have so much material, so many original letters, diary entries and archives. I hope to put it all into a novel one day.

GM: It’s not so much a challenge as a constant case of being respectful to people, which is quite easy for me as I like people.

“I have had to look

deep into a time in

my life that I

wouldn’t really

like to revisit”

  • Q: How much input (if any) from other people went into it? 

TP: Dave Jackson has been working with me to sculpt the piece, offering the outside eye and suggestions on directions I can write about. We have a fantastic creative team who have created work for the show. As the show has been rumbling around inside my mind for a while I have tended to offer up thoughts on what I have envisaged and the team have taken those ideas and made them a reality, usually drastically improving my ideas at the same time.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh Fringe 2015, courtesy of Cecilia Cooper-Colby (56)

RC (pictured left): Interestingly, part of the show was inspired by the dress. I originally worked with the designer Anne-Sophie Cochevelou to create a piece which captured the vision of the piece. We were going to use it for the marketing only, but the design ended up inspiring a character, a whole monologue, and the end of the show. It was like a eureka moment. I think those things happen when you allow yourself time in the process of development. Jessica Beck was integral to my development as a writer. I can’t recommend working with a dramaturg enough, I’ve learnt so much.

GM: Loads, making a solo show is an extremely collaborative process. The first big input came from my co-pilot in life, Katy McAulay, she really helped me edit down the first batch of material down to the key points. Then, the director, Gareth Nicholls, did a great job of helping me select what needed cut and what needed still to be found, in order to make the show as strong as possible. Then there are the other artists involved: Somon Hayes’ lighting design and Michael John McCarthy’s beautiful score with extra sound design from Gareth Grifiths. So it’s a big team operation.

  • Q: Do you feel like you’re reliving anything when you perform your show?

TP: The creation of the work has been an intense one, I have had to look deep into a time in my life that I wouldn’t really like to revisit but it has been necessary to explore them. I think now I feel more comfortable as the show is made; I am sharing it with others, and so there is an interaction. For many months, as it’s a solo show, I have been rehearsing either on my own or with Dave and it can be quite difficult to recount those dark memories every day as you devise the work. The show is easier to do when it is complete, as I am able to go on the full journey, which (spoiler alert!) includes a positive ending so I leave feeling positive about the experience myself, too.

RC: I think the most important thing is to share your story with the audience – if I’m connected to it then hopefully they will join me. As it’s autobiographical, I can’t shy away from any of the content.

GM: No. Never reliving. Revisiting some emotions, definitely, you have to access certain feelings and emotions that the stories are tied up in.

  • Q: What kind of feedback do you receive from your audience? 

TP: The audiences have been really lovely so far and have really embraced the storytelling. It can be difficult to watch at some points, but I’m happy that by the end this is all worth it, as audiences are leaving with a better understanding of what cancer is and how it can impact on a patient. The audiences are leaving with smiles on their faces and many have mentioned that it makes you both laugh and cry. It’s a bit of an emotional roller-coaster.

RC: Audiences have been moved by the content, laughed a lot and been stunned by the original footage. Serving and ex-serving men in the military have said the show should be shared with young recruits. Other women from the military have come forward with their personal experiences, both positive and negative. Some people said they wanted to ring their family afterwards and say they loved them! One of my students said the show had a profound effect on her and made her reconsider her further education choices and take stock of what she really wanted to experience.

GM: They have been amazing. There have been lots of tears and lots of cheers – they’ve been, on mass, one of my favourite audiences.Flying solo at Edinburgh Fringe

  • Q: Do you think everyone needs to be an actor in order to present their own solo show? If so, why? 

TP: No, I don’t think so, I think you need to be able to tell a story that is compelling to an audience and be clear on why you want to tell this story. Everyone can tell stories.

RC: I think we’re all storytellers and if you have a desire to share a personal story and the core is universal you should go for it. You need to be able to sustain the connection and take the audience on the journey. This requires skill, heaps of energy, and trust, all of which can be learnt then applied.

GM: Everyone has a story to tell, you just have to be comfortable and tell it with conviction in a way that is engaging for the people in the audience.

  • Q: The themes in your work are hard-hitting. What are the positive aspects to come from sharing your experiences with a public audience? 

TP: That it makes this difficult subject accessible to an audience. My hope is that if – and sadly there is a high possibility – any of that public audience have to experience cancer, either directly or indirectly, they enter that world with a slight incline of what they may face, and that may support them or allow them to support others. The show aims to deliver a message of hope, showing that we have come so far; that we are giving people the chance to live with and beyond cancer, and that only our progression can give more people that hope.

RC: An open dialogue about other people’s experiences of aspiration, identity, mental health and harassment. It’s amazing how people want to open up to you.  I hope the harder hitting aspects of the show can resonate so we can encourage zero tolerance and empower each other to make more positive choices in our behaviour towards one another.

GM: Sharing experience is what we live for. We love to know that other people have gone through similar things to us. That’s how we build our empathy and compassion.

  • Q: Is performing a solo show much more difficult to convince people to attend? 

The Eulogy of Toby Peach, Edinburgh Fringe 2015, courtesy Richard Davenport 1

TP (pictured right): This is my first experience of doing a solo show but I think people aren’t afraid of solo shows – they know what to expect and some people enjoy that type of storytelling, some prefer multiple characters. It’s a question of taste, but if a story is told well I think it can engage regardless of the amount of people on stage.

RC: When flyering for the show I meet so many enthusiastic people. I think audiences like to hear a true story and connect with the person who is sharing it. I’ve seen many of them in the audience, so in some ways I think it’s easier.

GM: I think all companies take time to build a reputation and a respect with a crowd, whether you’re a dance troupe or a solo gymnast.

  • Q: What would you say to someone – who wanted to turn certain parts of their life – into a monologue or one-person performance? 

TP: Be brave with your storytelling, as you may need to delve deeper into parts of your life that you have moved on from, in order to deliver a performance that honours your story. Also, be clear on why you want to create the work, what does the story say to an audience member.

RC:  Take your time to develop the work. Write lots, don’t edit anything at first… just free write. Visualise and clarify what it is you want to say. Create a show which excites you and will challenge – if you’re connected and excited by it, the audience will come with you. Work with a dramaturg.

GM: I’d say go for it. But always think about why you’re sharing. I think it has to be because you feel that the world has to know it. It’s not therapy.

  • And finally… Tell us a little bit about your experience in coming to Edinburgh. What were your first impressions? How have you found being involved in the Fringe so far? What do you like/ dislike about it? 

TP: I am starting to settle into the world of the Fringe and Edinburgh, too. This is my first time to the city and it’s been fantastic to be here when it is buzzing with activity. I’m looking forward to being able to explore more and head off to see the fantastic shows that the Fringe has on offer. I have noticed that a lot of the shows I want to see are at the same time as mine so I can’t see them… can we change this?

RC: I felt like the new kid on the first day of school. It’s a beautiful city and the buzz is incredible. I used to navigate aircraft but my sense of direction is awful! I’m still getting my bearings. The audiences here are up for anything, there’s a strong sense of support for the festival and all of us sharing work here. The other artists and performers I’ve met are so generous and quick to share top tips. It’s a wee bit chilly but that’s ok as I can wear my sequin jumpers and cammo jacket combo.

GM: The Fringe is unlike any other festival in the world. It’s just incredible how big it is. It has been fantastic to see the city so busy and the vibe this year has been overwhelmingly positive. For me, personally, it has been a real honour to be back at the Traverse for the second year in a row. It’s my favourite theatre in the world – the premier league of venues. To have sold out every show so far and to have had my show received as well as it has been is an absolute joy.

Words: Barry Gordon

The Eulogy Of Toby Peach, Underbelly, Cowgate, 2.50pm – until 30 Aug

Whisky Tango Foxtrot, Underbelly, Cowgate, 4.30pm – until 30 Aug

A Gambler’s Guide To Dying, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, Various times – until 30 Aug