If you are to go up to Edinburgh in August, you need to declare your allegiance. Are you there for books, comedy or theatre?
That is the traditional view, anyway. Those in the ‘books’ camp delight in the deck-chair laden grass of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, listening to modern greats such as Zadie Smith and Michael Frayn read and discuss their work, or engaging in debate, or undertaking creative writing classes. The ‘comedy’ camp clutch beers in plastic cups as they guffaw at acts in the Gilded Balloon or the Underbelly, whether they be top level stand-ups or student sketch groups, looking only for their next laughter fix. The ‘theatre’ camp pay rapt attention to listings at the Traverse and the Assembly Rooms, and may be heard bemoaning that the ‘fringe is more about comedy this year’.
But do these apparent factions represent a genuine divide in material, or just a stereotype that no longer reflects the overall nature of the Edinburgh festival? Are the demarcations between ‘books’, ‘comedy’ and ‘theatre’ elements of the festival pervasive or merely a matter of categorisation in the guides? I take the view that, however they are pigeon-holed, all the ‘acts’ share a common thread, which is particularly apparent when considering them all as ‘new writing.’
When you go and see a good stand-up, what are you looking for? Obviously—an ability to make you laugh. But think about how they make you laugh. They develop a theme for their material, and a starting point, working from there through various motifs, deploying those motifs for comic effect to bring fresh giggles at exactly the right moment, bringing you at the end of the piece back full circle to appreciate the full comic effect.
Is that so different from what we expect of short stories, or from dramatists? For Shappi Khorsandi in Dirty Looks and Hopscotch (‘comedy’) we went on a comic journey about her relationship with her ex; with Alan Bissett and Words Per Minute (‘books’), it was an equally comic if slightly squeam-inducing journey of spiders; and for David Ireland in Most Favoured – Scenes from a play I will never write (‘theatre’) there was a comic look at a not so immaculate conception. So far, so similar.
Some may argue that the difference lies in the performance. But up in Edinburgh, you expect everything to be ‘performed’ to some extent, and there is little differentiation between the genres here, particularly given the prevalence of the monologue. An author may be reading from a book, but they may very well have not a scrap of paper about them (a la Alan Bissett’s impressive memorised performance) as though they were a stand-up or an actor; similarly, an actor may be seated and reading from a script as in the Dream Plays or be part of a fully realised performance. And of course there may be comics who are reading from their hands, but the less said about that, the better.
I saw fifteen ‘shows’ this year, and although these would roughly demarcate into seven ‘comedy’, two ‘books’, six ‘theatre’, what was more striking was the commonality: the need to shape material into a cogent narrative with a strong voice; the desire of the artists to say something fresh; and the high performance ethic in each one. Whilst clearly outside the confines of the Fringe, each genre delivers something very different, and may deploy different skills, I found whilst up there that I could deny comics such as the excellent Chris Martin the ‘new writing’ tag.
So my own allegiance at Edinburgh? ‘New writing’, in whatever form that takes.