Her profile to the audience, Charlyne Yi begins to sing a ballad about her recent breakup. In the blink of an eye she turns one hundred and eighty degrees to reveal her counter profile, now dressed as the lamented boyfriend; Yi is, quite literally, split down the middle. It was then, as she offered his side of the story in a unique one-person duet, that I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or New York for that matter, and most certainly not Hollywood. I was at the Fringe.
Only in Edinburgh, more specifically, only at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, could a performer of such eccentric talent as Yi be able to showcase herself as the fundamentally awkward, childlike and kindhearted comedian that she is. Edinburgh is in many ways the anti-Hollywood, as it is one of the few venues where artists of great and no importance may explore, develop and create without worrying about things like plastic surgery, box office and Q ratings. Rarely has a moniker been more telling than that of the Fringe, as what takes place in Edinburgh is very much art on the margins.
The Fringe can trace its roots back to 1947 when a handful of performers arrived in Edinburgh uninvited, in the hopes of appearing at the recently inaugurated International Arts Festival. They did not make the bill, but decided to perform anyway and thus began the tradition of rogue performers infiltrating the festival. This guerilla approach continued until 1959 when the Fringe became its own entity.
The Fringe has subsequently gone on to eclipse its more traditional older sister and is now the largest arts festival in the world, showcasing approximately 2,000 shows in dance, music and theater over the course of three weeks in August. The performers run the gamut from the untested high school students performing in the remote outskirts of Edinburgh, to the highly acclaimed show business veterans taking the stage in packed auditoriums throughout the city center.
Highlights of this years festival include: Camille O’Sullivan (pictured above), a Hennessy Cognac poster girl in her native Ireland, who sings heartbreaking arrangements of Kurt Weill and Tom Waits while sipping red wine and hanging from a swing; Baby Wants Candy, an American comedy troupe based out of Chicago who perform a fully improvised musical in just under an hour; “Death of a Samurai,” a theater piece from Japan which somehow manages the herculean task of mixing Shakespeare, anime, samurai films and traditional Japanese myth without collapsing in on itself. And of course, Yi, the Asian-American semi-celebrity, perhaps best known for her brief scene stealing turn in Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit film “Knocked Up.”
The 24-year-old Yi, a wisp of a woman, exemplifies the sense of possibility and earnestness at the heart of the Fringe. In the same way that Edinburgh can be described as the anti-Hollywood, so too can Yi be considered the anti-standup. Anyone attending her show in the hopes of seeing the traditional premise/set-up/punch line formula will be sorely disappointed, as Yi favors a less structured, more abrupt approach to her show, which is appropriately titled: “Charlyne Yi Dances on the Moon.”
Yi addresses comedy laterally, coming at it from angles heretofore unconsidered; she floats ala Neil Armstrong from moment to moment with a fragility and honesty rarely encountered live or otherwise. Even her musical comedy is not traditional fare as she steers away from the standard acoustic guitar favored by most comedians and instead chooses the much more random, yet far more refreshing harp and keyboard.
Though the Fringe does provides an outstanding venue for artists to evolve (relatively) unencumbered, let it not be said that it is entirely free from the often-times oppressive heat lamp that is the business of show business. The majority of the artists at the Fringe are not in Yi’s position, that is, established with a management team fully financing their endeavors; as such, for many, the Fringe is all about exposure and careerism. This is particularly the case with comedians, and the Fringe is up to its ears in comics hoping for their big break.
While offering a multitude of genres, the festival is decidedly comedy heavy; this saturation of stand-up is due in no small part to the time constraints placed upon performers. The hour-long running time, which most venues adhere to, is far more conducive to an easily adjustable stand-up act than to a pre-conceived dramatic piece. Hence the majority of posters that paper the streets once tread by Sir Walter Scott and David Hume are of various comedians all hoping for the most important thing a performer can receive at the Fringe: good word of mouth.
And it is, quite literally, word of mouth, as there are no massive studio ad campaigns or market research surveys to be found in Edinburgh. The Fringe is simply too short and too raw for such high-tech shenanigans; rather, success at the Fringe is almost entirely dependant upon the kindness of strangers, which occurs primarily while standing in one of the interminable queues that all spectators at the Fringe are subject to. Inevitably, long lines and liquor lead to conversations between festival denizens about what should and should not be seen. These seemingly innocuous dialogues can ultimately wind up making a career, but such buzz can also prove to be lethal as well. Yi, by most accounts, had a difficult time of it in her early shows and the word of mouth was not good, which meant her “Dances on the Moon” was dancing at the half-price booth by the second weekend.
While agents, talent scouts and other showbiz types will always be with us, it is the spectators and performers who take pride of place at the Fringe, as it is first and foremost a celebration of art and the possibilities it engenders, the courage it fosters and the life it can bring forth. Somehow the Fringe paradoxically manages to be both a transcendent event and a moment of immediacy—and it is from that space that life is found.