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Jillian Lauren

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Ghosts at Summerhall

Posted: 08/08/2012 9:11 pm

I'm performing my solo show, "Mother Tongue," at a venue called Summerhall, Edinburgh's newest and biggest arts venue. Summerhall is located in the former Royal School of Veterinary Studies (nickname: The Royal Dick, after its founder William Dick, and still the name of the café/bar). My gay BFF is convinced that this is a good omen. "There's no way you're going to suck at the Royal Dick," he told me. Which is an enormously ironic statement, seeing as my memoir is about doing exactly that, albeit in a different context.

But all Royal Dick sucking aside, Summerhall is a terrifically cool space, with a fascinating community of international artists lounging in the courtyard, trolling the hallways, wandering in and out of its nearly 500 rooms (some filled with art, some abandoned, some undecided), playing music, watching films, hanging from the ceiling fans, getting naked, and making art in all mediums. I'm tickled to be performing alongside an installation by one of my personal heroes, Carolee Schneemann.

I'm performing in the Red Lecture Theater, which is located on the first floor of Summerhall, around four or five twisty turns and down a flight of stairs to the basement. In front of the rows of seats are long ledges on which aspiring veterinarians used to take notes and my audiences have been happy to rest their drinks for the hour. My director DJ Mendel and I both love the room. It's technically not perfect by any means, but it's intimate, the rake of the seats is just right and there's a nice energy there.

The dressing room is another story altogether. It is perhaps the creepiest dressing room ever. Or certainly the creepiest I've ever experienced. It's small and cold and smells of cat pee and paint, as if someone just slapped a fresh coat over God knows what stains, what smells. A door opens into a labyrinth of dark corridors (dark corridors in which Victorian veterinary experiments took place) and there are doors along the wall, with small windows in them and locks on the outside. Which is to say, cages. My dressing room has cages in it.

On our first day in the theater, as I was sprawled out stretching on the stage, an ancient man hobbled in the door, leaning on a cane. He talked to DJ for a while and in a thick Scottish accent told him he used to work there. He said he had been a porter and had loved the job because everyone there used to help each other. Then he said, "I can't help you with that dead girl, though." And indicated me, lying on the ground.

Then the man walked out. Our lighting designer Ian Garrett came in not five seconds later and insists he didn't see anyone leaving. Weird old guy or Scottish ghost? Other spooky facts: The manager of the space told me that they have no vermin at all, which is almost unheard of in these old buildings. And that the seagulls won't fly over the building. Won't go anywhere near it, in fact.

I'm undecided about the ghosts, but I do know that I can't stay in that dressing room for more than five minutes at a time. I'm usually someone who cocoons for hours before a show, but somehow the cages and cat pee and ghosts have inspired me to be more social during that crucial pre-performance time. Or maybe it's the festival atmosphere itself that has emboldened me. There is so much fascinating stuff to see that I don't really want to hide out in the dressing room anyway. I'd rather sit in the café with the Italian performance artists and Balkan musicians and Chinese acrobats and then walk right out onto the stage.

 

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