It’s August, 1988. I’m almost 41 years old and I’m living in white bread Santa Monica, waiting for a black stretch limousine to pick me up to take me to LAX. It’s the first, and probably the only, limousine I will ever take in my life, and in less than 12 hours, I will be in Edinburgh, capital of proud, tartan Scotland, and home to the largest arts festival in the world. Founded in 1947, the same year I was born, the Edinburgh Festival and the even larger Festival Fringe hosts them all: theater, dance, jazz, tv, folk music, comedy, all the aural and moving arts. For three weeks every year, the last two of August and the first of September, this historic, medieval town in the north of Britain explodes from a quiet city of less than 500,000 residents into a joyous carnival of arts and culture. And every year, this normally sedate bastion of the Scottish parliament is infested with an influx of 500,000 international visitors, all overflowing onto the cobblestoned streets between the Edinburgh Castle and the Holyrood Palace, as the generous city opens its heart to its guests, all there to celebrate and enjoy… the arts. For my whole life, I’ve wanted to go there and join in.
Now no one who ever knew me for the first 22 years of my life would have ever predicted that I would become an “artist”. No, I was a buttoned-down, repressed suburban boy who was supposed to become my proud parents’ “son, the doctuh”. But somewhere at the end of the Beatles and Dylan-driven 1960s, I decided to take a hard left turn off the respectable, predictable path towards medical school, and impetuously gravitate toward the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll revolution of the me-first, baby boom counter culture. I decided not to go to my graduation from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1969, and instead got into my 1964 Pontiac Tempest and drove up and down America like it was one big map. Somehow I ended up in the Windy City of Chicago, where I learned to be a modern dancer, to think for myself, and to miraculously transform myself into… an artist.
In the almost half century since, I have been an unlikely modern dancer, a renegade white-faced clown, a not greatly-talented actor, an independent theater director, a beleaguered festival producer, a self-taught documentary filmmaker, a prosaic poet, an autobiographical solo performer, a prolific spoken word artist, and a writer… who has followed my own, long and winding road, by discovering and reinventing myself through all these mediums along the way. And whereas I have always respected and admired those artists who have perseveredly committed their careers to a single art – Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham to modern dance, Miles Davis to jazz, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese to film, I have, not to compare myself to these titans, morphed myself from one kind of artist into another, too often abandoning seven year careers, when sticking with them certainly might have proved more rewarding. Each time, I’ve paid the price of starting over from the beginning and thus, I’ve failed to reap the benefits of longevity and commitment, but… that has been my path. I have my regrets, but if I’m being really honest with myself, it’s… who I am. So sometimes I like to think that… my life has been… my art.
But now it’s 1988, and I’ve just landed at the Edinburgh airport. There’s a frenetic buzz all around, as a hubbub of artists and audiences are arriving from everywhere around our beautiful, lonely planet. I’m here with a group called “New Voices from America”, a group of 8 solo artists who have been chosen and assembled by Stefan Tatar, the KPFK radio theater critic, who is also fulfilling a lifelong dream by bringing a group of theater artists to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Stefan saw my one man show, “Down… but Not Out” at Theatre/Theater in Hollywood after its initial run at Scott Kelman’s Wallenboyd Theater on LA’s Skid Row, and I was lucky enough to have him include me in his “New Voices”. I say lucky and I mean it, because it’s perhaps the first time I’m not self-producing. I’m just one of the “new voices”, so I don’t have to deal with plane reservations, housing, theater rental, ticket sales, marketing, or filling the house. Stefan’s supposed to do all that, an overwhelming and expensive task for which I have sincere appreciation and empathy. I will do everything I can to be a good team player, not complain, and to love every second I’m here, amidst the five times a day Scottish rains and the 500,000 visitors.
At the airport, I too, am full of a manic, excited energy that doesn’t seem to be matched by my other “new voices” mates, but I’ve waited my whole life for this. To perform at the Edinburgh Festival. I don’t care that it’s “just” the Edinburgh Fringe; in fact that’s even better. That’s the part that makes you part of the biggest arts festival in the world. Sure, the festival proper has the ballet, the symphony, the opera, maybe a Peter Sellars or Robert Wilson extravaganza, but the rest of us hoi polloi artists will all be scurrying around, turning churches, taverns, and public schools into rag tag theaters, at least those of us who haven’t had the luck or the budget to be booked into the established Traverse Theatre , or The Assembly Rooms, both Fringe factories that turn out 10 shows a day. No, the rest of us have come to build our owns sets, hauling the parts on wheels through international airports. We’ll be out there hustling for audiences every day, handing out fliers with new reviews that come out daily (hopefully good!). We’ll be hustling, hassling, and self-promoting… because we’re all here for the same reason: to share our art with an excited audience, many of whom have come from as far away as we have.
There will be mad Russians actors doing Chekhov in their native tongue, Ray Davies from The Kinks doing his new one-man show, Scandinavian balladeers, Scottish bagpipers, Bjorks before there was a Bjork, and so many comedians competing for the “Best of the Fringe” award, that they will keep us all up ’til 2 in the morning in the countless late night comedy clubs, until we’ll all mirthfully spill out into the cobblestoned streets and into the gregarious Scottish pubs until 4 a.m., after which we’ll all tumble home and fall happily asleep into our beds (occasionally with each other), until we’ll all collectively wake up early the next day to – do it all again.
Still back at the airport…. you know how sometimes your energy is contagious? If you are really down on yourself and depressed, you will no doubt attract and create that kind of energy around you. On the other hand, if you are really manic and excited, really open and enthusiastic, like I am, having just arrived in the hallowed halls of Edinburgh air central, well then… who knows who you might draw to you, or what you might create? And so, on this night, in the Scottish capital’s airport, with all me jet-lagged American mates about me, I attract a wee Scottish leprechaun to me.
His name is Richard Demarco and he’s been a producer-entrepreneur at the Edinburgh Festival and Festival Fringe for decades. He founded the aforementioned Traverse Theatre in 1963, and since moved his name and his wares to his own Richard Demarco Gallery, where he has been presenting visual artists and live contemporary performance for 25 years. Short, wiry, and bald-headed with wild wisps of leprechaun white hair, the man is at the airport with a tiny camera, decades before ubiquitous cell phones were in the hands of every man, woman, and child on the planet, and he’s shooting everything and everyone in sight. Click. Click, click… when suddenly, several of his clicks turn in our direction.
“And who may you be?” the mad leprechaun chirps. He manic energy matches mine, times ten.
Speaking for the group, I say: “We’re ‘New Voices from America’.”
“And what be so new about ye?” Demarco croons in his full-tilt Scottish brogue.
“Well, you’ll have to come see us to find out yourself,” I say, smiling my full cockeyed complement of Cheshire cat teeth.
“Well, when arrrrre ya playin’?”
All eight of us whip out our fliers promoting our own solo shows, as we all simultaneously barrage the wizard with them.
Ahhh, that’s what I like, good ol’ Amerrrr-ican brravado. Let me take you all to your first good meal in Edinbrrruhhhh.”
We all look around at each other, bedazzled.
Again, I speak for the group. “That would be a great pleasure. Thank you for your invitation, kind sir.” The two of us smile enthusiastically at each other. I like this leprechaun, Demarco.
“Well, the night tis not gettin’ any youngerrr, is it? So step rrright this way, me lads and lassies.”
Actually, we are seven lads and just one lassie, Dina, but even though some of our lads and our one lassie are quite kapooped from the flight, we all nod conspiratorially with one another, knowing that luck has met us at the airport, and that we shouldn’t be looking a gift horrrrse in the mouth.
Demarco does as he says. He piles us all into one of his transport vans and we roll into the beautifully-lit City. It’s magical. Stunning. It’s as if Demarco’s been out fishing for a fresh catch at the airport, he’s theatrically lit his whole city for the occasion, and he’s just caught “the big one”.
He takes us directly to a traditional Scottish pub and he seats us all around himself at the head of the table, where he orders fish, potatoes, steak, and an oddly-squeamish, Scottish dish called haggis, savoury pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, spices, and salt, all mixed with sheep stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach, which of course tonight’s haggis is. I try some, more than most of me mates can “stomach”. Ummm… not bad.
Demarco proceeds to hold court. “Aye, I been herrre a long time. I seen a lot of shows. Prrro-duced a lot myself. I surrrre hope you Amerrrr-icans will not disappoint me.
We steal furtive glances at each other. Have we really arrived in Oz? Is the wizard real or is he a phony like Frank Morgan in the MGM musical, manipulating a lot of rigamaroll from behind a flimsy curtain?
“Well, you’ll have to see for yourself, now won’t you, Mr. Demarco? Thank you for this spectacular dinner.”
“My pleasurrrre,” Demarco beams. You’ll have to come over to the galerrrry tomorrrrow.”
We look around at each other. What have we gotten ourselves into?
“Well, we don’t know our schedules yet. We haven’t even checked in at our rooming house yet. I hope you can take us there.” Somehow, by default, I’ve become the speaker for the “new voices”.
“No prrroblem, lads and lassies. Just give me drrriver the addrrrress. See ya tomorrrrow, eh?”
And off the leprechaun goes, clicking a few more shots of us. I’m not sure if he flies, or walks off.
The drrrriver does indeed take us to our sprawling old rooming house where Mr. Tater is still waiting up for us. “Where’ve ya been. I was getting worried.”
We try to let him in on our good fortune, but he’s never heard of the leprechaun, Demarco. He looks harried. We can see that he’s not been out for a haggis dinner tonight, but has quite probably spent another long day in the theater, trying to get it ready for our tech rehearsals “beginning tomorrow at 11, ok?”
We all nod and are distributed to our rooms. Everything is fine, but I’m not ready for bed. My mind and spirit are still buzzing.
“Where’s the center of town, Stefan? I want to take a walk.”
He looks at me incredulously, gives me a key, and says again, “eleven in the morning, ok?”
I like the “ok?” part. He not a real boss; he’s still asking our permission. We’re the artistes, he’s just “the producer”…. footing the bill… out of his own pocket. I hope he doesn’t lose his shirt.
“Ok, see you in the morning. Thanks for everything.”
And off I go into the night… along the cobblestoned streets I have so longed to walk.
After about half an hour of wide-eyed wandering, I end up on the old North Bridge, connecting two hilly knolls of the ancient City. There’s no river below, but I find out the next day that it is the first link built between the Old medieval City and the new one at High Street.
The iconic Edinburgh castle, which in one form or another has sat here on a craggy peak above the City for 1100 years, looms over the bridge like a picture post card. It’s lit up in golden icon light, and I swear I see Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in the mist above (even though “Braveheart” won’t be coming out for another 7 years). Or is it Robert the Bruce himself?
“Aye, Tru-les, it is I. You have come to my City. Look upon it.”
I do. I mean, Robert the Bruce is “tawkin’ to me”, the brash New Yawker with the angry solo show. And as I stand there, not only do I feel goose bumps run up and down my arms and spine, but lo and behold, no….. are those of tears of joy falling slowly down my rubbery face?
Aye, they arrrrre. “When is the last time I rrremember crrryin’, Sir Rrrobert? I think it was when I was a wee laddie, just having finished my favorrrrite childhood book, White Fang, but the ancient Oakland marrriner himselllf, Jack MacLondon.”
“Aye, laddie,” Sir Robert says to me. “There be no crrrrime in yourrrr crrrryin’.”
Aye…. therrre be no crrrime at allll. I’ve waited a lonnnng time for this night. A verrry long time – to join the cast of royal and ragged characters who have stood on this bridge.
I take a deep breath in, and I let the tearrrs fall.
I have never felt so grateful, or… so much in the right place at the right time… as I do now… here… on the North Bridge…. in Edinbrrrruhhhh.
I look up and I whisper to I don’t know exactly who, “Thank you, dear royal Scottish bards and spirits….”
I squint through another tear and I’m sure I see Sir Robert smiling back at me through the castle mist.
(To Be Continued)