Risk It: Dispatches from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

September 7, 2014 / Michael Leibenluft, Fall Program Fellow


Last month I traveled to the U.K. and saw nine different pieces at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Reflecting on it all, I'm trying to draw connections between the various performance experiences and glean how it could inform my own work as a director.

There's tons to say, but one thread I'm particularly interested in is the role of chance and randomness in much of the work I saw. Many of the most thrilling performances I attended weighed heavily on unplanned or random factors; they embraced chaos to reveal the risk and vulnerability that makes live performance thrilling.

Hammersmith's Secret Theatre presented A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, a marathon of physical and emotional tasks that expose and grill a performer for an hour-long performance. At the beginning of each show, the "protagonist" is chosen from a hat by a member of the audience. The night I attended the actress Cara rubbed herself raw facing a myriad of challenges from trying to make a tire levitate to answering a series of insinuating questions about her girlfriend. I was taken by how the simple and quirky construct of the evening ultimately seemed to function in the same manner as a conventional play. Cara's subjection to the tasks and earnest drive to overcome them gave us the thrill of the "first time" and an unobstructed view of an individual striving and struggling at the center. Yet this performer thrown out to sea was encompassed in the assuring choreography of the piece, the swiftness with which the other actors arranged and led each sequence and the ensemble's oversight regarding the parameters of the experiment. And at the heart of the evening was the same tension underlying each performance we witness: our joint impossible act of imaginative escape. In the same way we partially suspend our disbelief when attending a performance but rarely succeed in entirely doing so, we know Cara will fail but feverishly hope she will succeed when confronting the evening’s challenges head on.

Also at the Fringe, Livingstones Kabinet from Denmark presented Klip, a "cacophonic darkly comic live collage." Where the Secret Theatre employed randomness to conduct an ongoing exploration or experiment, Livingstones so fully integrated chance into their creative process to the point that it definted their aesthetic. The piece begins with a projection that reads something to the effect of: "This performance was created from a series of random and unrelated acts. If any meaning is derived therein on the part of the spectator, it is wholly unintentional." The piece is certainly fractured, containing original songs, frenetic movement sequences, and monologues with poetic, imagistic, and highly punctuated text. The program describes that "most of the raw material in KLIP, text and characters, has been created by playing parlour games." After generating clips of material inspired by various written prompts, the group "repeatedly cut up, pasted, and rearranged" the structure. As a spectator, I felt like I was taking in a rich, detailed, and rather surreal painting or novel. Time was an aesthetic quality in each individual piece, but I was unconcerned with a larger "arc" or deeper link between moments.  Yet my mind found links anyway in its own obsession with meaning -- echoed gestures or words popped out and were deeply satisfying. I think it was a testament to the presence of the performers and the freedom and ingenuity of the material that it could exist in such an associative and fractured form yet still provide a type of resonance and maybe even meaning, at least for me.

By contrast, the Actors Touring Company's Blind Hamlet, by Nassim Soleimanpour (also at the Fringe), had almost no visual component. Instead, the entire text of the piece is recorded by Soleimanpour onto a small voice recorder. A stage manager starts the show by pressing play, and the playwright's recorded voice guides us through the piece.  We are offered glimpses of his world (he is in Moscow awaiting eye surgery that will leave him blind), but Soleimanpour seems more interested in us, the future audience of a play he is currently writing.  He works as both director and writer, meticulously instructing members of the audience to come on stage, voice their fears, interact etc. I was astonished by the simplicity and beauty of the whole event. The recording is soothing and evocative, and it is a pleasure to simply listen, as a group, in darkness. As an audience we were so taken with our own image, fascinated by the three spectators selected to go on stage and interact. All we really wanted was a chance to be intimate together as strangers. We cherished our presence together in the room, yet the irony of it all was that the entire experience was controlled by something static and inanimate: a recording! After leaving the theater, I was struck by our obedience.  We had followed every rule of the machine -- and believed every word (even a rather big lie on the part of the writer that I will not disclose here). It's a crucial reminder of, in general, how badly the audience wants to make it work.

Earlier this summer, I worked as an instructor for a student trip to rural areas in Western China.  The company trained the staff in what they refer to as "risk management," or a collection of principles that allow us, as leaders of the group, to allow for and even promote safe risk-taking on behalf of the students The idea is that we as instructors are not capably of eliminating risk, nor would we want to. Students thrive on challenges and new and unforeseen possibilities. But we need to understand these risks and their potentialities to ensure a safe trip. 

As a director, I want to rethink, rearrange, and reconsider my risk management. As with the three performances I attended at the Fringe, I want to more deeply embrace chance as a cornerstone of any creative process. And I want to acknowledge that the risk that comes from chance is an essential ingredient in what makes live performance thrilling and terrifying. As a director, I find it instinctual to want to control and order (perhaps in the same way I found it instinctual as a spectator to create meaning and comply). Yet part of my control must also be a deliberate surrendering, and embrace of the chance, randomness, and risks of life.

Also, a shout out to DP Alum Rachel Chavkin whose wonderful Confirmation was another superb offering at this year's festival.