Reflecting Back: NZ in Edinburgh
Reflecting on the last four weeks in Edinburgh, Dione Joseph offers her final thoughts on the festival fever and New Zealand on the international stage.
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The most appropriate place to be reflecting upon a festival experience, I believe, is at approximately 30,000 feet in the air.
Ideally, of course, one would be in business class. Here you would have the luxury of being able to stretch the muscles, creative ones obviously, without having to worry about the consequences of your actions to those around you – the majority of whom in economy class resemble Watties sauce bottles that have been unforgivably squeezed. By a family of fourteen.
But in all honesty a lot of writing happens in flight mode. And with 26 hours available on the Air New Zealand flight home from London (via Los Angeles) this was the perfect opportunity to write out an aerial exegesis. While cities and countries, indeed even continents, slipped past beneath me it was a chance to pause and reflect on the experience of the last four weeks that took place in the Scottish capital.
Home to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Edinburgh Book Festival (not to mention seven other festivals running concurrently between July-November) the city seems to have held its breath creating an atmosphere of pungent undiluted festival craziness. Over 3000 shows were in the Fringe this year with the largest ever number of free Fringe shows; a quality selection of curated and commissioned work in the International festival paying tribute to the memory of the First World War and a wonderful array of local and international writers at the Book Festival. I was fortunate enough to be accredited media personnel at these three particular festivals and gained a rather unique, if somewhat overwhelming, insight into the theatrical chimera that is often rather reductively referred to as, The Festival.
This year over 250 creatives from Aotearoa roamed the streets of Old Town and New Town tumbling down from the vantage point of the mound, milling around George Square Gardens till the early hours and transforming Teviot Square and all its off-shoots into a throbbing conglomerate of frenzied artists. These included not only performers across theatre, dance and live music but writers, producers, publicity and marketing folks as well as staff from Creative New Zealand, the British council and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. During the month of August the presence of a small country with a flair for talent was made obvious amidst the huge mass of productions from across the world, and I believe we did ourselves proud.
My month in this ancient seat of royalty was entirely theatre dominated and on this occasion I was here as a stage critic, and in fact the only NZ based critic at the festival. In brief I could wrap up my experience with the following truncated statements:
Forty five shows. An average of five hours sleep per night. More liquid refreshment than was probably good for me. Endless walking. Actually mostly running from venue to venue. Some brilliant work. Some less-than-average work. Smatterings of sunshine. Cloudy and damp walks across the meadows. Press gatherings. Zombie gatherings. Kiwi gatherings. Plenty of gatherings especially in spaces where there was an audience and a story. And so on.
During my time I had placed an unequivocal focus on New Zealand theatre, conversations with Kiwis and looking at our place on the international stage. I also managed to cover the majority of the Australian shows, as much international work as possible, twelve interviews and amidst the mayhem, managed to pop down to the Scottish parliament for the second International Cultural Summit. Not too bad for my Edinburgh Festival initiation.
But when people ask the inevitable ‘how was Edinburgh?’ the short answer and all-encompassing answer is the following hyphenated response:
And that’s the polite version. A cobbled stone city normally home to a modest 495,000 people swells to well over a million during the month of August. Traditionally grand and elegant, the city and its citizens cast aside any pretences to abiding by convention and societal dictates and instead embrace a month of utter indulgence. There are no rules and a sense of fervish desire to consummate the artistic experience through excesses runs rife through the town.
It’s everywhere: Posters of shows line the streets and the voices of those unabashed salesmen and women ring out through all hours of the night incessantly competing for punters. The latter rove the streets hungry for a visual feast, a comedy night-cap, a transformative avant garde world and so many more unspoken desires and cravings all projected onto this seething platform of artistic freedom.
And I’m not trading in literary metaphors for the sake of it. The landscape is converted veritably into a carnival site – at times so captivating the world would spin dizzily with the delights of brilliant showmanship, candy floss moments found themselves in unexpected dark rooms and make-shift theatres and then there was the epic, the bombastic and the sacred that illuminated the show grounds only for a few ephemeral moments before the gaudy lights twinkled again reminding you that fairy lights are at best pretty but painful lies.
Because in actual fact, personally as an artist and having been in conversation with many other artists, the underbelly of the Festivals is dark. This is a breeding ground for intense display of creativity, skill and stories from around the world but simultaneously, it also harbours a rather grotesque streak. Competition, intense and unforgiving, dictates that it ultimately comes down to how brilliant (not just good) the work is and as much as we would like to pretend otherwise, how well it is marketed, particularly in the Fringe.
Eight NZ companies made up the Creative New Zealand season at the Edinburgh Fringe (while Lemi Ponifasio’s I AM premiered at the International Festival) giving emerging and mid-career artists an opportunity to be seen at an international level with potential for touring, new commissions, and also for collaborations. A laudable effort by all and it gave many of us a space to connect with ‘back home’ amidst the bedlam.
New Zealand work is genuinely of a very high standard (based on my 45 shows across the Fringe and International and also five years as a stage critic in New Zealand and Australia) and resonates in a particular way both for Kiwis overseas and international audiences – and yet there are often questions that I and many others have debated in the wee hours at the Assembly’s Club bar. A few of these included:
Is our work, as the Guardian summarized, “likeable, heartfelt but unsophisticated”? What does that actually say about our work? Should we care? Do the star-ratings truly reflect an accurate reflection of the work? Is there room to have a conversation, debate and engage with the work after it has made its debut at what is effectively the largest international performing arts market?
There is no adequate way to offer any answers to these questions but it is essential, indeed of urgent importance, that we do continue to question. Our work has a very specific place on the international stage but does it need to brandish a flag of ‘New Zealandness’? If so, does this brand reflect our own ongoing and fluid notion of identity and nationhood or are we responding to what the world expects? Is there a risk that as more of our work tours and travels beyond the borders of our immediate neighbours that we tend to think of satisfying the palate of international audiences? If so, are we risking a compromise of the very qualities that make our work unique?
And so on.
Reflecting upon Edinburgh from my current vantage point (pun intended) and with the benefits of retrospect the one thing I can conclude, however, that Edinburgh is an intense experience – one that eludes boundaries and parameters, defies expectations and has a certain intangible power. It is an arena that defies you to risk.
Not just creatively or artistically but on a deeply personal and visceral level. And in truth, the festival can be unforgiving for those who don’t rise to the intensity of the occasion.
As New Zealanders it was fortunate we could rally together and support each other across the board, not just in providing the proverbial ‘bums on seats’ but in fact raising awareness of the incredible diversity of work that is born and grown in New Zealand. Straddling genres, questioning paradigms and evoking the unspoken and unheard narratives of our peoples New Zealand at Edinburgh raises the standard for work from the Pacific and brings a specific southern hemisphere perspective to the conversation.
But the reality is the conversation at this level, astute and critical, engaged and reflective, has only just started on the international stage and it is our responsibility, as New Zealand artists and all those involved in the industry, to ensure that the circle continues to get bigger.
Because only as the circle gets bigger, I believe, will the conversation get better.