About a week into my Edinburgh Festival Fringe experience I lay on my bed marvelling at the depth of my naivety; not only that I thought I could write a show and blithely bring it to the largest arts festival in world, competing with over three thousand other shows for press, reviews and an audience, but that I could try my hand at a new performance genre, alongside those at the top of their game and do it night, after night, after night. In short, it was all a little overwhelming, and the national press attention I had garnered the weekend before heading up north ensured I felt the full force of my hubris as I stood naked on stage that first night.
I did what I always do – my job – and then I hid. It was only the sterling efforts of my publicist that tempted me out from under the duvet each day. I spent my days meditating on how to make the show better and my nights trying my best to implement that. The show grew each night and changed substantially in the first few days to give me more scope to talk to my audience, to connect. I didn’t stand on streets handing out flyers. Ever. And yet each night I had an audience, sometimes very small, often (and wonderfully) very Scottish, and almost without exception they joined me on my journey.
It’s easy to sound pretentious when talking about your work, but this show came from a very pure place, a very honest place, which required me to be both literally and figuratively naked on stage. As I had hoped, the audience’s response to that was kind, respectful, and generous. Sure, I had more than my share of single men of a certain age, and one night I had an all-male audience, but the nature of the show and the material transfigured any discomfort that they might not be my intended audience.
“I wanted nothing other than to be there, practising my art, seeing if this crazy idea I had could work.”
My technician, Sean, was delightful. What could have been awkward was light and easy, and there was no one I would have rather spent 24 hours naked in front of. He laughed at my lack of flyering, the way I walked in each evening and asked, ‘Do I have an audience tonight then?’, and my acceptance of whatever numbers were in. He marvelled that despite the lack of flyering I had bigger audiences than some shows who were out pounding pavements all day, but I put this down to the power of tits and national press. My smallest audience was about five, my biggest around thirty, and I was quite happy with that; I’d long ago waved goodbye to the thousands of pounds I’d had to spend to be there.
I told myself that each night was perfect; whoever was meant to be there would be there. I released anxiety about ticket numbers, critics, Fosters Comedy judges, and just accepted that I had an audience and must give them a show. Around me I saw people fretting about all of the above, but as a newbie I decided to concentrate on my Fringe, and leave others to theirs.
Smaller numbers meant I could talk to everyone in the audience in the sections where we revealed our body issues. Those sections became my favourite parts of the show. Each night I was amazed, amused and touched by what was shared. As the nights went by, the audience began talking to each other, offering compliments, support and love to complete strangers. Despite my natural diffidence, I had to own that I created the atmosphere that allowed that to happen; my nakedness, my warmth and my honesty made the audience feel safe enough to open up to the room. For me, that was the true magic of the show, and I feel a huge sense of accomplishment at creating that.
People kept asking me what I wanted out of the Fringe. I spent a lot of time thinking about it – what did I want? An agent? A tour? An award? But concluded I wanted nothing other than to be there, practising my art, seeing if this crazy idea I had could work. My biggest fear was that the show wasn’t funny, but as I became more comfortable with the material, it became apparent that it was, and the reviews concurred. It took me a while to find the courage to read them and my publicist read them first, but I can’t lie, receiving four stars from Broadway Baby was a boost, as were the glorious quotes we gleaned from the review: ‘funny and genuine’, ‘feel-good comedy at its best’. In fact, all the press I received was respectful, supportive and kind, and there was a generous amount of it.
“Burlesque by its very definition is not high art and it has no place taking itself seriously; its job is to be playful, provocative, amusing and above all expressive … I have nothing against showgirls doing striptease acts … but this is not the sum of burlesque and we should strive to remember that.”
The most surreal moment of my whole Fringe experience is a toss up between standing in the checkout queue at Lidl hoping I had enough money in my purse to pay for my vegetables while talking to a producer at BBC Radio 4 who wanted to interview me for The World Tonight, and sitting stark naked on a bench next to a bronze statue while dodgy-looking blokes papped me with telephoto lenses before diving into their car and speeding off. But the month was full of surreal moments and I learned to take them in my stride with an air of seasoned nonchalance.
Physically, it was exhausting. The energy required to carry an hour-long show alone every night was enormous. And every waking moment was spent thinking about the show, answering emails about the show, or talking to people about the show. Intense doesn’t even begin to cover it. I saw a dozen or so shows over the three weeks; not as many as I had hoped, but lack of funds and energy meant I had to focus on delivering each night, and I almost managed to stop beating myself up about spending so much time in bed.
Part of my motivation for writing The Naked Stand Up was my disillusionment with the burlesque scene; what was once vibrant, provocative and diverse now seemed to have fallen into a homogenous blur of Swarovski crystals, ostrich feathers and ego. But the burlesque I saw in Edinburgh, specifically Tigger! in Dixey and Gypsy Charms’ show The Illicit Thrill, reminded me what I loved about burlesque and I left those shows inspired and excited in a way I had not been for some time. Burlesque by its very definition is not high art and it has no place taking itself seriously; its job is to be playful, provocative, amusing and above all expressive. Meeting Tigger! in the swanky private members’ club Abattoir was a delight; seeing him perform was a revelation. His onstage energy was utterly infectious and it was impossible not to love him. Most importantly, his acts had something to say, and for the first time in a while I saw the world I had fallen in love with and dedicated my artistic endeavour to for the last six years. I have nothing against showgirls doing striptease acts, and elsewhere in Edinburgh this type of show seemed to be doing well enough, but this is not the sum of burlesque and we should strive to remember that.
Being away from home was hard, as was sharing a flat with four people (I’m a shy, introverted hermit by nature), and the depth of my homesickness surprised me. But I met some beautiful people whose love, friendship and support got me through. If I’d known what I was going into, I doubt I would have had the courage the go through with it. And I made a lot of mistakes along the way, learning some hard lessons. If I go back to Edinburgh, I would do many things differently, but I know that I did what I needed to get through the largest project I have ever undertaken as an artist.
As a first-timer at the Fringe, I don’t think I did too badly, and importantly, I did it on my own terms. I left Edinburgh surprised at my resilience, my strength, my independence and the unfailing ability of the universe to support me. I also left with a heart more open than it had been since my father’s death. Through doing the show, I finally felt connected to my fellow man again. And regardless of what happens next, this expensive, exhausting, challenging, nerve-wracking and wonderful three weeks was life-changing.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.