Welcome to the Fringe

In 2001, David Greig travelled to the West Bank to work with Palestinian artists as part of one of a number of projects supported by the Royal Court (London). As Greig describes on his website, on this and subsequent trips he experienced first-hand the difficulty faced by Palestinian theatre-makers: ‘Conditions for theatre making in the West Bank are very difficult indeed. In Gaza, theatre making is impossible.’1 He describes the difficulty faced by Palestinian artists wishing to travel within the Israeli Occupied Territories, let alone internationally. By contrast, in 2014 the Israeli company Incubator Theatre received state funding to travel to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Greig was one of a number of UK artists to sign an open letter calling on the festival venue to reconsider its programming decision.2 The decision was not reversed; however, subsequent demonstrations forced the show’s closure. Greig describes his ambivalence about this result: ‘I support the cultural boycott and I am in solidarity with my colleagues in Palestine, but seeing a show shut down sits badly with me.’3

In response to these events, Greig launched a crowd-funding campaign to create a resource to enable Palestinian artists, and Israeli artists who reject state funds, to come to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. After raising £10,000, the project, Welcome To The Fringe, developed into a collaboration between Greig, Forest Fringe, and the Gate Theatre (London), and received additional support from the AM Qattan Foundation and the British Council. In 2015, Welcome To The Fringe hosted twelve Palestinian artists: storyteller Fidaa Ataa; poet Alice Youssef; stand-up comedian Ayman Nahas; performance artists Farah Saleh and Yazan Eweidat; the Al Shaghaf music group; and the Al Harah theatre company. The visiting performers were partnered with UK artists who were performing elsewhere in the Fringe, and Forest Fringe hosted an all-day performance showcase. Collected here are reflections and responses from some of the guests, partner artists, and organisers.

Andy Field, co-director Forest Fringe

Free is a difficult word.

Farah Saleh performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Farah Saleh performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Forest Fringe is free, except that it’s not free. At least a couple of times in the last decade very kind supporters of Forest Fringe in the press have described it as a ‘miracle’. I used to really like this description, but more recently I have wondered whether it perhaps obscures the enormous amount of collective effort required to make the festival happen. It is not a miracle. It is a consequence of several people working unpaid for many months a year to fundraise, organise and curate a two week long festival every summer, a festival attended by artists who similarly donate their work (both artistic and productive) for free.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is also free, except that it’s not free. One of the central tenets of the festival is that it is uncurated, open to everyone; free, in other words. On their website the festival describe themselves as ‘proud to include in our programme anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.’ But concealed in that second clause are an enormous number of hidden obstacles. These include basic financial things like the cost of hiring said venue, plus accommodation, promotion, even entry into the fringe programme. They also include more intangible constraints, like the difficulty of presenting any work that doesn’t conform to the theatrical format dictated by large commercial venues keen to maximise their profits; hour long shows, repeated every day, with minimal turnaround time, in black-box end-on spaces. The festival is free in the same way as a free market is free; unregulated, producing virtual monopolies able to manipulate conditions to their own benefit. What this results in is a system which is efficient and profitable, rather than creatively adventurous, socially responsible and artistically supportive.

Sara Shaarawi, working as translator for Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Sara Shaarawi, working as translator for Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

The free labour that sustains Forest Fringe is a response to these conditions. It is a collective choice and an act of political and economic defiance. Forest Fringe is a free space held open by artists, for artists; a space in which we can resist the restrictions of this free market and imagine something more beautiful in its place. Nowhere has this ever been more the case than with Welcome To The Fringe.

By some standards, the artists who were part of Welcome To The Fringe have always been free to come and be part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. No one has ever banned them from attending, and when they did so this year, no one attempted to censor the work they presented. However, this is to misrepresent the political and economic conditions under which those artists live, as well as to ignore the invisible barriers to participation in the Edinburgh Festival that I’ve briefly described above. It is certainly nice to welcome everyone to your festival, but if you fail to recognise the conditions that prevent many of those people from ever attending, then that welcome is essentially meaningless.

Fida Ataya performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Fida Ataya performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

For Forest Fringe, Welcome To The Fringe was not an easy project. We worked very hard and very late into the night. With the help of the artists themselves we bent the spaces we had to fit shows that shouldn’t have been able to fit in them. We squeezed an entire miniature festival into the space of a day. We did everything we could to support those artists and realise their work in the way they wanted, even when it meant stripping out and completely rebuilding our main theatre space in under 24 hours. And our experience was only one fraction of the effort by David Greig, Henry Bell, the British Council, the Al-Qattan Foundation, friends, supporters and the artists themselves that enabled this whole project to happen. What did happen was in the end something truly wonderful – a day of unexpected joy and collective reflection, of incredible variety and unpredictability, a day rich in conversation and possibility. A day of welcoming. A beginning of something, I hope.

Edinburgh in August remains a unique and occasionally magical proposition; a meeting of remarkable people and a dizzying, exhausting, unrelenting celebration of artistic energy. And whilst the spirit of inclusivity enshrined in the idea of the festival may far too frequently fail to be realised in practice, there is no reason why this should always have to be the case. But realising the openness to which the festival aspires will require effort. A welcome is duty of care, as well as an act of greeting.

Tania El Khoury, Welcome To The Fringe partner artist

What was remarkable about the Palestinian artists who performed at Forest Fringe last summer is that they come from different parts of Palestine or the diaspora and each have a different relationship to their identity and to living with the occupation. As a group, they did not offer one narrative and they refused to offer work packaged as ‘resistant art’. For they know that resistance is a daily struggle and that art is an important part of it.

Farah Saleh makes work that is interactive, beautiful and international. She uses dance and dance requires no translation. Farah’s piece at Forest Fringe was delicate in the questions it asks, the themes it touches on, and the game-like participatory form. As an audience, it is when you feel the safest during her piece that the artist chooses to ‘hit’ you with difficult questions, demanding from you to literally take sides. You were just happily willing to pass the ball, but will you be willing to support the cultural boycott of Israel?

Trailer for Free Advice, which Farah Saleh presented at Welcome To The Fringe

Farah Saleh, performance artist/choreographer, Welcome To The Fringe guest artist

I have heard and read a lot about the Fringe Festival for several years and I was looking forward to witnessing how the whole city of Edinburgh was going to transform into a festival, and how I was going to be immersed by a festival/city. In my performance I was questioning the role of the artists in social and political change, raising questions around Cultural Boycott against Israel, racism in Europe and happiness. In side conversations I had the possibility also to discuss the aesthetics of the performance. I believe the political and the artistic are very much connected. My piece Free Advice specifically addresses this issue. I see myself to a certain extent as an artist activist, and I always look for the tension between activism and aesthetics in my performances, so that one doesn’t take over the other. I would like to keep them both alive and kicking!

Christopher Haydon, Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre Notting Hill (London)

Ayman Nahas performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Ayman Nahas performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

My key memory of Welcome To The Fringe is of just how funny the stand-up comic Ayman Nahas was. Comedy can be a very difficult thing to translate – not just across linguistic but also cultural barriers. And watching Nahas do his first ever set in English was a huge joy. Inevitably his material touched on the political situation and he made a series of very sharp insights which were provocative in exactly the right way. But more than this, it was great to see that the political context did not completely define his work. Rather he ranged over a whole series of topics and in doing so allowed us to see him and his work on its own terms, rather than through the primary paradigm of the conflict that overwhelmingly dominates most narratives about Palestine.

Alice Yousef, poet, Welcome To The Fringe guest artist

Before flying to Edinburgh, I knew the Fringe was big. I didn’t expect it to be as massive, beautifully chaotic, and full of eye-opening experiences. I knew in advance that our hosts had been working tirelessly to make sure our stay would be unforgettable, and these expectations were loaded with an intense need to assure my performance met what was also expected from me as a young poet reading to an international audience. I was thrilled by the idea of the free festival at Forest Fringe, since the concept of arts for free/ donation goes hand-in-hand with the accessibility of arts to a wider spectrum of people. It showed me that you do not need substantial amounts of money to make good art and to have an audience, and this concept is one I carried with me to Palestine where there is usually a lack of funds for the arts in general, and spoken word poetry in particular.

Alice Yousef performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Alice Yousef performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Henry Bell, poet, Welcome To The Fringe Co-ordinator

Along with the extremely high quality of the pieces from Palestine presented to the Fringe, it was exciting to see the engagement that took place between the Palestinian artists and their Scottish counterparts. Particular highlights included comedian Josie Long’s excitement about the work of Ayman Nahas; Loay and Adham from the Shagaf Ensemble playing into the night with local folk musicians on Rose Street; and watching how, in just one week, Alice Yousef’s performance style took on elements from local poet Rachel McCrum and the exciting and diverse performance poets she saw as part of the Shift collective. It’s a delight to think that there was space within Welcome To The Fringe for artists to develop their work and careers.

If I said a lot spoke to me and inspired me to write and reflect, people might think that I am exaggerating. The spirit of Edinburgh as a city of literature and art was by itself a great factor, and the kindness and welcoming nature spoke to me quite a lot. The amount of people on the street and the performance of the Fringe were quite staggering. During my stay I was touched by the various shows I was able to attend — in particular the SHIFT/ collective spoken word performances. Peacock Blue by Rachel Amey was a very personal show to me — the topics, the reality of the language and being paired with BSL interpreting added to the liveliness of it all. The Fringe also allowed me to listen to Don Paterson read, and I briefly bumped into the British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, whom I had been reading and wanting to meet for years. The International Book Festival [which happens at the same time] also allowed me to talk about children’s literature and the situation in Palestine with one of my idols, children’s author Elizabeth Laird.

I was also very lucky to be paired up with poet Rachel McCrum, who was very generous with her time and mentoring me, taking me along to show me the city, giving me tips on performance, writing and the multifaceted lives of poets. During our time we enjoyed talking about all sorts of personal and professional issues, beginning with our favorite poets, literature, zines, and histories, and ending with food, dance, and other personal tales. This sharing with Rachel and the audience of personal stories could not have happened if the environment wasn’t friendly or comfortable for me, giving me the confidence and freedom to share and speak my mind.

Al Harah Theatre performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Al Harah Theatre performing at Welcome To The Fringe. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.

Rachel McCrum, poet, Welcome To The Fringe partner artist

Things that I remember from the day. The storyteller, all eyes and stretched faces, her bent back telling as much of the story as her English words, suddenly animated and alive on stage. The letter refusing the visa of the photographer, printed and framed in all its banal, imperturbable viciousness. Alice refusing to eat Jaffa cakes, the poetry suddenly opening my eyes to the insensitivity of that. Conversations with Alice all over town, dreaming of poetry in vans traipsing from Montreal to Mexico, from Glasgow to Gaza, taking poems and performance all over the place. Being able to link Alice, after she’d left, with one of her poetry heroes Naomi Shihab Nye, who I bumped into at the Book Festival. They’re still in contact, exchanging poems between Jerusalem and America. Circles and circles and circles overlapping. That’s how things start.

The political and the artistic are interconnected. This is a question I am still wrestling with in my day-to-day practice of writing, and even when I am reading my work to an audience. It is something I am always aware of, being from a politically charged country and heritage. I am not a very outspoken person when it comes to conducting my day-to-day life, but when it comes to art, something always changes, and I find freedom to voice my concerns whether trivial or core to my life. Using art as a catharsis to the reactions that I see in my country and elsewhere has brought some politics into my work. Personally, I also try to work on poems and pieces that are geared towards the ‘artistic’ pertaining to the originality and the individuality of myself as an artist. Yet, art is a weapon against injustice, colorfully making an ugly picture beautiful and presenting it to the audience is at the heart of what I do. When I can, I try to separate ‘the bigger picture’ or politics from artistic practice, but since it is always a process of trial and error — sometimes it works and results in a purely artistic piece, and other times it gets overwhelming. But I find myself striving to remain human, hopeful, and truthful as much as I can, no matter the circumstances surrounding the work.

Alice Yousef performing ‘As I am Completing This Poem’ at Welcome To The Fringe, 23 August 2015

Harry Giles, poet, Welcome To The Fringe partner artist
What I remember most clearly was how seamlessly the different artforms fitted together throughout the day — traditional storytelling, contemporary dance and performance, stand-up and performance poetry and literary theatre — it felt like a statement of what should be obvious but isn’t, that Palestine produces contemporary and traditional artists of all varieties. It refigured Palestine as not just a warzone, not just a site of occupation, but a vital centre of culture. That in itself is a very political thing to do — but important too is the implicit recognition in the day that being a site of occupation also puts up literal and figurative walls to prevent that culture being heard. I was so glad to be able to listen for a day.

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Notes:

  1. David Greig, ‘Welcome to the Fringe’ (2 August 2014) <http://www.front-step.co.uk/2014/08/02/welcome-to-the-fringe/>.
  2. ‘Israeli theatre company should not be included in the Fringe’, The Herald (Scotland) (18 July 2014) <http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/13170560.Israeli_theatre_company_should_not_be_included_in_the_Fringe/>.
  3. Greig, ‘Welcome to the Fringe’.

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