It’d had been four years since I’d last brought a show to the Edinburgh fringe. I’ve always said that I wouldn’t just go every year, out of habit, just because it’s what people like me do. I’d only go back if I had something new to show. Well, I had something new to show. I had the idea for “Mat Ricardo vs The World” three years ago, but had ummed and ahhed about the details, until taking the plunge and starting the year-long “Everyone can challenge me to learn any trick” process last Summer. Once I’d started that ball rolling, there would be no stopping it from ending up in Scotland.
I got myself a nice intimate venue, well-suited to the intimate conversational nature of the show, and perfect for only just having room to do the bunch of brand new tricks I was bringing with me. Alongside that, after an 8 year absence, I fancied a return to street performing at the fringe, too. It’d be hard work, but fun work, and during a month where I sometimes find the basics of life difficult, busking has, through all of my adult life, always been a place of comfort and safety.
Street performers have worked various pitches around the Royal Mile since wayyy before the Edinburgh Fringe Street Events Team was even considered. Years before the high street was a frenetic flyerpocalypse, a cacophony of competing publicity stunts, a jungle of sweaty cast members in matching branded shirts all desperate for your ass in their seat, before any of that, it was just a street. With self-regulating street performers, slowly, year on year, turning it into a place where, if you couldn’t afford to go see a venue show, or felt that it wasn’t for you, you could still see a show. The fringe of the fringe, perhaps.
But you know how gentrification works, right? Same way it always does. The artists find a place nobody is going to, and they make it cool and interesting. And people start coming to see what’s going on. And as soon as lots of people start going to a place, the non-artists move in to capitalise on that. Capitalise and monetise. They grab those crowds and sell them things they didn’t go there for. And then, after a while, the neighbourhood doesn’t look so cool and interesting any more. It looks like a TV channel that used to air good shows, but now is mostly adverts. And the artists start looking for somewhere else to go.
That’s how the Royal Mile feels to this street performer.
The street is full crammed full of stages on which venue shows can advertise themselves. The placement of those stages, and the performance pitches is made without any genuine input from those using them, and by people without the experience in crowd flow to place them correctly. This year, one of the best natural street pitches in the world – West Parliament Square – was a shadow of its former self. Its a beautiful spacious square, just off the busy high street, but thanks to the gorgeous architecture on three sides, miraculously quiet and placid. You could fill it with huge amounts of people, or pull them close and make use of the silence to do something intimate. But it had been broken. A stage had been erected on the pitch. Street performers use the street – our artform and the work we create is shaped by the unique environment in which we work. We create for the street. The stage took away some of that magic. It took away the street performers ability to define their own performance space, the size, the shape. Many buskers just avoided working it entirely. But the stage wasn’t put there for us anyway. It was put there for the occasional venue group who were offered spots to advertise their show. The street performers who had created that pitch, were sidelined in favour of, well, basically, anyone else. They were given a full PA system, which we weren’t allowed to use. They were given guaranteed timeslots, which we never have. They were given a stage and a backdrop, which made it harder for us to do our shows.
It made some of us feel, to quote John McClane, pretty fucking unappreciated.
And I’m not even touching on the huge fringe branding which, alongside some newly mismanaged pitch placement, killed any audience flow into the square. Or how all of this is done in association with a branding deal, which means street performers end up doing their shows in front of a logo for a corporation whose funding has made our jobs harder. A logo which was on boards that also suggested that people give us not what they thought each show was worth, but “wee change”.
But like I said, you know how gentrification works, right? Once the artists feel that they’re no longer welcome, they move on. That’s what street performers have always been good at. Being flexible, finding the pitches, growing something. There are more and more unofficial street pitches at the fringe, and more and more people deciding to use them. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years, you see less and less of the really great international street acts on the Royal Mile. They’ll be elsewhere in the city, growing a new pitch, just like they did before.
Rant over. But, y’know, it had to be said, I think.
That aside, my fringe was absolutely delightful. In past years, I’ve struggled to keep heart and soul together. There were a couple of years – one in particular – where the fringe broke me. In recent years, though, I’ve learnt more about the things that give me the best chances of keeping my mental health on an even keel, so I had more tools to use to give myself a better time. And I ended up having the best time. Not that it wasn’t hard work. Boy howdy, an hour on stage every day, followed by a 45 minute street show, and then a bunch of late night cabaret spots? That’s a trip to the gym, right there. But for 90% of the time I had a smile on my face and as much of spring in my step as I could muster. My new show worked. It became, quickly, pretty much exactly what I’d wanted to it be, in feel and style. I think it’s my best work and I love performing it. Additionally (and there’s no way to say this without sounding like a massive asshat, so I’m just going to steer into the skid..), the entire run was completely sold out. Every single show, full. Which has never happened to me before, and is patently ridiculous. At past fringes, I’ve performed to 4 people. More than once. So to open my venue door and see a queue stretched round the corner and up the stairs? Come on. Stop it.
And there was hanging out. Lovely, lovely hanging out. With old pals – cabaret and busking familia who I’ve shared the fringe trenches with many times before, who understand each other in that unspoken way that bonds you through stuff. Plenty of new faces to cut out and stick into my mental scrapbook of nice times, too. Daytime whisky with Cory, Midnight chats with Colt, bad Italian food with Naomi, and of course, too many cocktails with Hannah. All helping to reassure this shy, solitary boy that I’m not, as I often feel, just a little lumpy meteorite drifting through space lucky to have not smashed into dust against something bigger, but rather, part of an almost impossibly complicated family of systems, all with neat, elliptical, intersecting orbits. Our gravitational fields pulling and pushing us into a balance that allows us to keep going.
And keep going I shall. I’m taking the new show on tour, so if you happen to be in Milton Keynes, London, Birmingham, Darlington, Camberley, Nottingham, or Cumbia, then do yourself, and, frankly, me, a favour, and grab yourself tickets right now.