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Monica Bauer

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Pussy Riot in Edinburgh

Posted: 08/18/2012 10:45 am

You'd think that the World Day of Action for Pussy Riot, held on the day of their sentencing (no one ever imagined they wouldn't be convicted by the Russian court), would bring a crowd of outraged artists at the world's largest Fringe Festival into the streets. After all, there are over 2,600 shows at the Fringe! So it was a bit surreal to find only 35 people in the audience for the only action taking place in their behalf in Edinburgh. Now, to be fair, I am not an investigative journalist, and perhaps there were other meetings being held elsewhere at Fringe; but if there were, they were so small as to be insignificant. Which raises the question, was this gathering so small as to be "insignificant"?

First, some perspective; it is almost impossible to publicize anything well in the middle of the Fringe without a highly paid publicist. Edinburgh is like a 127-ring circus, and the press has gone all overwhelmed and A.D.D. at the same time. So many shiny people! So many stunts and sideshows! Look, over there, somebody's eating a sword and breathing fire at the same time, with help from a dance company from Beijing!

And the good people who put this event together at the last minute were not promoters at any of the big venues, the ones with dozens of press agents hanging around, looking for crumbs of news about George Wendt or David Hasslehoff. No, the good people who put this event together were gathered at a smaller, newer venue in a quieter section of town: the Sweet Venues in the Grassmarket. The Grassmarket reminds me a bit of Strawberry Fields in Central Park, crossed with Boston Common, but bite-sized. Edinburgh's street names tell its history, and the Cowgate is a long narrow street that leads to the Grassmarket. So that all makes sense. On either side of the rectangle of grass are shops and many, many small restaurants. If you look up at the right spot, you get a spectacular look straight up a cliff to Edinburgh Castle. The air here is more relaxed. Nobody's thrusting flyers in your hands every two feet. There's space and room to breathe and have a beer and a snack.

The Sweet Venues have four theaters carved out of areas from the International Hotel, with a wide variety of Fringey things; music, theater, even magic acts. At Edinburgh Fringe, each Venue curates its own mini-festival, and all these added together with the free festivals become the Fringe. The Pussy Riot event was hosted by Sweet Venues because their Venue Manager, director JD Henshaw, decided the event was a necessary thing for somebody to do at the Fringe, so he worked with a few people and just did it.

Three young actresses from the Tit for Tat Theater came on the small stage at Sweet Venue's Theater Four an hour before the verdicts were handed down, and each one spoke from actual testimony given by the women of Pussy Riot on trial. They spoke simply, without any attempt at "acting," using a translation made by the poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha made the translation available to playwright EV Crowe in London: the Royal Court Theatre was having the same readings at the same time as our little group at the Fringe.

The first actress to speak, read the words of Nadya Tolokonnikova from her testimony on August 8th in the Khaminochevsky Court. "It is not really Pussy Riot vocalists who are on trial here. If that were the case, then what happened would have no significance. On trial here is the state system of the Russian Federation."

And there was that word again: "significance." It threw me back into the early days of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, otherwise known as ACT Up, begun by playwright/activist Larry Kramer and many others. I wasn't part of it, but knew people who were, and some of them didn't live to see the new drug cocktail that their actions pushed into quicker clinical trials. It threw me back to the playwright/activist who became his country's president, Vaclav Havel. Few people recall what started Havel on his way to national prominence; in 1976 a Czech rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe were arrested for the crime of rock and roll. The movement that grew up around this outrage was called the Charter 77 Movement for Human Rights, and the spokesman was a playwright named Vaclav Havel.

A few years ago, Tom Stoppard's play Rock and Roll was on Broadway, and I took my daughter to see it. She liked it, but wasn't moved by it. She didn't know the history of the Plastic People of the Universe, the crushing totalitarian nature of the old-style Soviet system was already a dim memory hardly discussed even in college courses. What is that cliché about the need to remember our history?

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival held an event in solidarity with the Pussy Riot artists yesterday. About 35 people attended. About 10 took part in the direct organization and performance. Was it significant?

I attended a discussion at Fringe Central last week about the ways art and political action can be intertwined. The fact that a group of people in the middle of a mad attempt to create art without going bankrupt took time out to talk about politics and arts was a good sign. Thoughtful people said thoughtful things. We like to believe that our work is more than just for laughs or entertainment. There are plays in Edinburgh about every possible social issue; the rights of women, gays, workers, plays pointing to oppressive social orders and dream-killing regimes. You could spend your days here seeing nothing but young comics making jokes about tits and testicles, or you could spend your time seeing what makes you think, feel, and yes, on occasion, laugh. One of those plays is about gay marriage; that's mine. Is any of it "significant?" We sure as hell hope it is.

 

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