Edinburgh Feature: The Sick of the Fringe

Image: Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn 

The relationship and influence of science within theatre is demonstrated incredibly frequently in the themes and topics discussed on our stages but its contribution is often overlooked. This year Edinburgh Fringe Festival is being introduced to a new and intriguing initiative which will attempt to remedy this. Commissioned by The Wellcome Trust, The Sick of the Fringe (TSOTF) is a curated series of events putting a spotlight on the variety of biomedical concepts that stimulate fringe artists every year.

This is a programme of events headlined by keynote talks from leading contributors in arts and science. From Simon McBurney talking about perception, to actress, comedian and disabled rights activist Liz Carr, to Sir Colin Blakemore talking on synesthesia and what happens when we hear colour and taste sound and mix up our senses, the line up demonstrates the sheer variety of perspectives within this marriage of professions. I spoke to curator and theatre-maker Brian Lobel, who conceived TSOTF, to discuss the importance of providing a platform for medically inspired theatre and to gather a community of those working on these issues.

Lobel himself has been recognised for putting his personal medical story on the stage and believes this is an area rich in storytelling potential despite a lingering consensus that these stories are perhaps too personal to share:

“I’m glad I’m an artist who toured work around my body for a long time, I feel now prepared to actually help someone network and help connect these dots and say here are some really exciting possibilities. I am a storyteller and many of the people who do this work are storytellers.

“I think they are bold to tell these stories about their bodies that no one wants to hear about, that are uncomfortable or stigmatised. I think we need to get stories that aren’t dry, that aren’t just in scientific studies, that are real stories.”

It is an often quoted piece of advice that artists should write and use what they know when creating theatre, and is certainly something practiced amongst the speakers taking part. Personal medical stories, however, are not necessarily easy to find spaces for despite their educational and theatrical advantages.

“When you see Bryony Kimmings’ show with Tim Grayburn, you start to understand a little bit more about the experience of someone living with someone with a mental illness. That’s a story you rarely see because it doesn’t market well. We get these stories and they are really powerful.”

What is offered by these shows, that tackle the stark realities of diseases that can ravage our minds and bodies, is a human perspective that can explain and relate what can be complex science to an audience. I am reminded of Charles Bukowski in Notes of a Dirty Old Man, “an artist says a complicated thing in a simple way.”

An amazing component at the heart of TSOTF is the platform it offers artists performing at the fringe who are tackling bio-medical issues by setting themselves a challenge to find each of their speakers an opening performer who is overtly, or covertly, discussing the same topics.

“We’ve asked our speakers to identify the questions they have been thinking about whilst preparing their talk, and what we’ll do is curate a performer from the fringe, who we will see live, to be an opening act who might reveal something interesting about the questions.

“Liz’s last question – which is really quite profound – is ‘what does it mean to be someone that no one wants to be?’ and that’s a very emotional question that might relate to disability, as I think she means it, but also might not. So our goal is to find out who else is talking about this issue, and how else does it manifest in interesting ways. Part of this work is to try to build a community, so we’re alerting many different curators and artists and reviewers to try and be aware of these questions, so we can try and cover as much as possible.”

The list of leading figures appearing in this event, accompanied by their unprejudiced search for opening performers, is an ambitious and exciting project to embark on for Lobel. “It’s an amazing logistical nightmare from which I am very thankful that we have an amazing producer Tracy Gentles working on it because no good programming happens without an amazing producing team.”

The results of this could prove to be an invaluable theatrical and scientific resource, utilising the vast networking opportunities that are so integral to the fringe with an open invite to artists. As this community develops so will the information and insight available for creation and study – a receiver of inspiration for brave, personal, and insightful theatre.

Find out more about The Sick of the Fringe performing at the Edinburgh Fringe 10 – 28 August. 

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