by Brooke Allen
In February of 2014 I retired after 30 years of navigating the moral minefield that we call Wall Street.
I was looking forward to a stress-free retirement.
My problems began when I spent the month of August, 2014 in Edinburgh for the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The summer I was there 23,762 performers from 51 countries put on 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.
The month started out well. My wife and I rented a centrally located flat with five spare beds that were soon booked with friends and relatives who wanted to visit for a few days each.
The first week was awesome because we got to spend time with European friends we hadn’t seen in years.
Things went downhill rapidly. We were taking in five or six shows a day and the effort of getting worked up to host each new set of guests was exhausting. Ten days into the month I was beginning to slip into depression.
Then Robin Williams died.
Robin Williams was loved by all those who knew him and his work. His death cast a pall over the Fringe.
What’s more, I was overdosing on entertainment.
I felt as you might if you eat so much cake you begin to choke on it. If I attended a less-than-stellar show I’d say to myself, “Well, there went an hour that I’ll never get back.” I spent a good deal of each day asking myself, “What am I doing here?” I wanted to bail but felt trapped because our entire month was booked with guests who expected to have a good time.
I wrote to a friend who just had a newborn child die. I asked him if he knew anyone in Edinburgh with whom I could have a serious conversation. He responded that he did not, but he forwarded a letter his wife and he had sent to their friends asking them not to try to cheer them up following their child’s death. They said, “We feel like we have been thrust deep into the fire of self-discovery.” He quoted Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist philosopher: “There are so many ways that have been dreamed up to entertain us away from this moment.”
My friend’s letter put my circumstances in perspective. Did I really have anything to complain about? Of course not.
Perhaps my problem was that I needed to engage with my environment differently. It occurred to me that the serious conversations I needed to have were with the people all around me who were working so hard.
I identified the first person I wanted to speak to from the catalog of shows. Phil Jupitus stood out not only because he is well-known but also because he seemed engaged with the Fringe more than most. Not only was he performing separate shows as a comedian and a poet, he was also teaching himself painting by copying masters at museums around the city.
I caught up with him at one of the national galleries and explained what I was going through. He understood immediately and recommended the book,Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neal Postman. He helped me see that the Fringe wasn’t about me. It was a trade show and workshop and it did not exist for the audience; we were merely extras in a far larger drama. The Fringe was for creators, not consumers.
I decided to put my internal critic to sleep and engage with people rather than judge them.
Where Else Can You Work So Hard?
The first person I talked to was a 27-year-old man handing out fliers advertising a show.
I asked him, “How are you?”
He said, “Fantastic.” When I asked him how so, he said, “I work 11 months a year and save every penny. Then I blow it all at the Fringe.” He explained that he’d been putting on shows at the Fringe for four years and every one of them lost boatloads of money.
I asked how that could make him feel good. He said, “I am performing in two shows a day, crewing on two more, and the rest of the time I hand out fliers. When else do I get to work 18 hour days for 28 days in a row?”
That’s when it hit me. As a retiree, I did not miss having an income. I missed working really hard at something that won’t succeed if I don’t give it my all.
I’m Not The Only One Depressed
Next, a smiling young woman handed me a flier and began talking up her show.
I looked her in the eyes and asked, “How do you feel?”
She stared at me for about six seconds and then burst into tears.
She said, “I feel terrible.” Then she explained that she had to quit her job and used all her savings to bring her show to Edinburgh. People would glance at her flier, say “This looks like it sucks,” and throw it in the trash. She said, “That’s me they are talking about.”
I told her I’d go to her show if she would let me take her to lunch afterward. She readily agreed.
I was only one of three audience members, and although her show hardly sucked, it wasn’t very polished. At lunch she told me that she was living on packet soup and this was the first time she’d eaten at a restaurant in many months.
I asked her if she felt like quitting and she explained that it is an Edinburgh tradition that even if only one person comes to see you then the show must go on. And if you have no audience at all that’s even better because nobody is judging you. Once I got to know a little bit about her I became impressed by her courage, and that blinded me to her faults.
Fringe As Therapy
The third person I talked to was another young woman who was exuding enthusiasm. I asked her how she felt and she said, “Wonderful.”
When I asked her why, she said, “Because we’re not very good, and that’s OK.”
She explained that she’d been suffering low self-esteem for a decade and had tried every form of therapy she could find: Freudian analysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, reiki, acupuncture – even fortune telling and astrology.
Then someone said, “You don’t need therapy; you need to go to the Fringe.”
She said it was working. She wrote a show and she (plus two friends) took it to the Fringe. They were learning not to take other people’s harsh judgments to heart and how to treat themselves with kindness.
I took my whole family to her show, and I can tell you it was good – but not great – and that is why it worked on so many levels. Had they been better performers the lesson would have been lost.
The Edinburgh Fringe is an open access arts festival. That means that if you can find a place to put on a show then you may do so, no matter who you are. Don’t judge performers too harshly. Give weight to effort, pluck, and grit.
Self-expression & Participation
The Edinburgh Fringe is about self-expression and it exists because the participants created it, not because the audience asked for it. Find ways of participating other than merely sitting in the audience.
The Fringe is not about making money but is best seen as an act of gift giving. Performers and producers give their best efforts and audience members give appreciation and financial support.
Don’t allow yourself to be entertained away from the moment. Acknowledge the person handing you a flier, managing a venue, or performing on stage. Care about people and they will care back.
If you can keep these four principles in mind during your time in Edinburgh you will have an entirely different experience then if you merely expect to be entertained. If you take to heart what you learn then it will change your life.
The first thing I’m producing is called the Secrets of the Fringe Walking Tour.
As we stroll about Edinburgh, and meet other participants, I’ll tell you about my experiences in 2014 and encourage you to stop judging others by how they make you feel. Instead, I’ll show you what the Fringe means to the people who are making it happen.
I’m also doing a lighthearted show called: (Cut the Bullshit) Len Bakerloo Speaks Truth to Power. I was inspired by my 30 years on Wall Street, where every single employer I’ve ever worked for has either gone bankrupt or been bailed out by taxpayers due to a scandal or malfeasance.
I will show you that the most harmful bullshit isn’t the bullshit others spew but the bullshit you believe. I’ll teach you how to uncover beliefs that can harm you and I’ll show you how to speak truth to power. Every attendee will get a copy of my Cut the Bullshit Game to take home and play with friends.
(Note: If you did not go to Edinburgh you could have caught my show in New York at 59E59 Theater on July 12, 13, and 19, 2016.)
This story first appeared in Bootsn All on June 13, 2016.