Up at six two days ago, up with the sun, and the sheep grazing on the Pentland hills; I can see them from my window, where I'm renting a room from a Scottish family needing a bit of luck and extra income in these hard times. No one else awake, yet; just me and the sheep. I got the Fringe Flu, an affliction that comes with the damp and cold that has just finally yielded to sunshine. Not really sick, not too sick to think, just too sick to be in the middle of Fringe Crazy. Forced to step back from it, as the reviews roll in on Twitter like a furious tide of kisses and kicks, two stars for this one, five stars for that; someone's toasting her cast, someone's firing his director.
There's drinking for celebration, and shared misery, or just the company, in wee bars all over Edinburgh this rainy day and night. The excitement of the Festival going off like a sprinter in the 400 meters, well, that's wearing thin. And the 400 meters go by in a flash, don't they? And then where are you, after?
And I woke up thinking about two shows I've seen at Fringe, Desperately Seeking the Exit, and Dirty Barbie. Desperately Seeking is the story of a theater disaster, told by the man who lived through it; Peter Michael Marino had both the good fortune and the misfortune of getting his very first musical, an adaptation of the film Desperately Seeking Susan, produced on the West End, and destroyed inch by inch through rehearsals. The title of Marino's show comes from one of the more savage reviews. There's a lot of wit and acting craft on display, but the thing that sells the show to people who aren't in the theater, is the beating heart of a real man at the center of it. If the show were just inside gossip about stars, I wouldn't give a fig for it. But there's a person there, an open-hearted person. He's sharing a wild experience, with uncommon honesty.
Dirty Barbie sounds like a comedy about sex. It isn't. It's the story of a little girl growing up in the American South, a closely observed story, and there's a lot of tragedy tucked into its corners. Mostly, I hate autobiographical one-person shows about surviving a dysfunctional family. It invites competition, in the kind of Monty Python-esque way of comparing who had it the worst. I love that sketch of theirs, when the old blowhards start to compare their childhoods, each story more bizarre than the next, each new story told to top the previous tale of woe. Living in a ditch? "Luxury! We would have loved to have a ditch of our very own!"
Just as I was fearing the worst, the show took a turn. And there was the writer/performer, DeeDee Stewart, stripped of the defense of creating a character, direct address to the audience, telling us about "the work." It's not about talent; there's talent everywhere. It's about who is willing to do the work. That somewhere, right now, someone is deciding to get up, and do the work. That's when Dirty Barbie became about something else entirely, and brought me back to Desperately Seeking the Exit. It's not applause, ticket sales, or four star reviews that make us artists. It is doing the work.
It's easy to be desperate if you're a writer, performer, actor, singer, and most desperate of all, a comic. It's easy to stay up all night with your eyes glued on the Twitter feed, waiting for word of a review. It's easy to obsess over the number of tickets sold, the size of the audience; both can be disturbingly small here, even for great work. It's our default position, where our many nagging insecurities take us when they come out to play, and drag our egos around like so many rag dolls. And we can say this is not about us, it's about our work; at several moments in his show, Peter Michael Marino calls his musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan his "baby." We all get that, we understand it. Protect our babies, yes, that's what we do. If we can. Sometimes, at three in the morning, and the review comes out with fewer stars in it than we hoped, we can't.
But here's the thing tugging at my sleeve just now; what if, instead of us creating the art, creating "our babies", the art is actually creating us? I wonder what would have become of Peter Michael Marino if his show had become a big hit. Maybe he'd be as kind, as supportive of other artists, as understanding as a teacher, if his path had been one of smooth success. But he sure as hell would never have written Desperately Seeking the Exit.
And if DeeDee Stewart had been in simpler circumstances growing up, would she still get up every day to "do the work" needed to become that empathetic presence on stage radiating joy and acceptance? Would she even think to look back on childhood, and make sense of it for all of us?
There's a play by Martin McDonagh called The Pillowman. You wouldn't know it from the title, but it's the greatest play ever written about where art comes from. I won't spoil it for you, if you haven't seen or read it. But it taught me, years ago, that the art is not so much "my baby" as it is the thing that is actually creating me. If I do not become a person who radiates joy, or shares a journey with total honesty, then my art will fail. Peter and DeeDee have created art, and that can't be measured in stars on a review. Great art has to come from great souls. And struggle is the only way to do the work.