August 1996 was my first Edinburgh Fringe. I was with some friends doing a couple of Christopher Durang one-act plays. I didn't really know what was going on, but I seem to recall having a blast. I lived on tins of Castlemaine XXXX and bagels with lots of Phillie cream cheese. I fell catastrophically into debt and discovered that I'd been thrown out of university. I smoked too much. Our flat had four or five people and only two beds; I slept on the couch in the sitting room. It was the summer The Spice Girls became famous with Wannabe and that England lost to Germany in the European Cup. Independence Day came out in the cinema and we all cheered to see the White House destroyed by aliens. We drank at The Pleasance and The Pear Tree and saw more comedy than we could afford.
I was 20.
The next festival for me was 2000. It was improv comedy that time. A two bedroom flat for ten of us, further out of town but a nice neck of the woods regardless. X-Men came out that summer and once again I was broke, bouncing cheques and living on boxed wine. I didn't see many shows that time out. I still smoked. We sat around the dining room table and chatted endlessly into the wee hours, squeezing the shiny bag of wine came until the last drop splashed into our cheap, tarnished paris goblets. David Gray’s White Ladder seemed to be on repeat. Sometimes we played Goldeneye on the N64, with the curtains drawn and the light catching the smoke from time-to-time. We shared the space without ever seeming to invade each other’s space. Hoppy discovered Piemaker, which we renamed Piemaster as they master all pies. Hoppy slept half in a cupboard, with his feet sticking out into the main hall. Our venue was in the basement of a church and we made our bemused audience laugh more often than not.
The following year and back again for more improv. A soulless student residence for home and a hotel lounge bar for a venue. I’d just graduated and joined the wine trade. I was still broke. Some friends ran one of the more popular venue bars and our local served good whisky. I drank a lot of schnapps by accident and lot of whisky on purpose. The show got smaller crowds than the year before and, for whatever reason, the vibe seemed a bit strained. There were love triangles and other polygons. The dynamic altered and the passage of time perhaps wore us down. The previous summer could not be repeated, in spite of our efforts, and it all seemed a bit of an anticlimax. It was still fun, but not as much. Maybe we went looking for something we weren’t going to find.
It’s been 8 years since I’ve performed in the Fringe. I’m still broke, but less so. I don’t smoke. I’ve got a degree and a job and a pet and a flat. I can drive. I’m in better shape and I don’t drink as much. I’m ostensibly grown up, in a city full of performers who refuse to do so. We’re doing Hamlet and improv comedy. Not at the same time. Last night, my first night in town, we went to The Pleasance and The Pear Tree and Piemaster. The city’s busy, in perpetual motion. I bought a bottle of malt and we put a dent in it. I bore the cast with my old man banter, my observations of change and my tales of Fringes past. In the past I would have been drunk. Instead I slept well and woke in the morning without pain, not missing the miasma of cigarettes smoked the night before.
Today I ran around Arthur’s Seat and ate bagels in Elephants & Bagels. Their coffee’s excellent and their wifi connection is free. Tonight’s the dress rehearsal for Hamlet. The cast has changed yet again and our time runs too long. Calamity befalls all productions, right up until the lights come up, and ours is no different. Right now we long for the routine, for the comfort and thrill of being in our stride. Until then it’s stress and unease, a sense of impending doom and the nervous banter that precedes unanswered questions.