Vanessa Smythe is an actor and a writer from Toronto who is starring in our November production of Domesticated. This past August she toured her solo show In Case We Disappear to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show received 4-star reviews and was named one of the best free shows of the festival. This is her account of her festival experience.
It’s midway through the festival. I’ve performed my show maybe fifteen times, and I won’t have a break for a while. I’m alone, it’s cold, and I’m standing near my venue holding flyers with my face on them. I’m trying to charmingly entice strangers into talking to me, taking a flyer, and coming to see my show, for free. But so far nobody has taken one, except the guy who asked me for directions and then felt obligated when I offered him one. Besides him, nobody has stopped.
I take down my hair and readjust my sweatshirt and scarf, as if this will make the difference. I’m about to call it quits when an older woman in a rain jacket and sandals slows down. I tell her about myself, about the show, about the venue behind me. We were sold out in Toronto, I say. It’s like Flight of the Conchords, but more earnest. She waits. It’s just me and a microphone and I tell stories through poems, acapella melodies, and comedy. It’s a theatrical love letter in case I vanish. I’m hardly breathing as I say this, leaning forward.
She listens politely, and waits until I’m done. Where are you from? she asks. Toronto, Canada, I say. And you’re here on your own? I nod. Oh wow, she says. And, are you okay? I feel myself tighten, and smile.
Last month I took my solo show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It’s the largest arts festival in the world, with over 3,300 shows happening simultaneously. It’s a month-long surge of performing, promoting, seeing shows, meeting people, building connections, trying to get press. Many people go to initiate big tours, with big budgets and large teams. I went on my own, to survive it, and all the while had to remind myself why I was there, that I was getting what I wanted out of it.
In the month I spent there, I performed my show 25 times. Sometimes the venue was completely packed. Other times I had to rally people away from the pub quiz upstairs, coaxing them into the cellar so I could sing to them. Sometimes mid-way through one of my acappella songs I’d hear a cover band upstairs shredding Brown Eyed Girl while drunk people stumbled into each other, shouting along. Other times the audience would be entirely rapt in silence. In those shows, I could have hovered forever.
When somebody asks me about my Edinburgh experience, what it was like or how did it go or what’s the thing I remember best, my mind usually goes to the moments. Not to the shows themselves or the reviews or any accolades, but to the moments where I felt like I was in my own story. The moments that spilled out in between.
Here are a few I remember:
I finished my third show. I was packing up my tiny set from the little wooden stage in the basement of Moriarty’s — this warm, cozy cellar with just one lone spotlight on me and the mic — and a woman came up to talk to me. She was also performing in the festival, and we’d met the day before, waiting in a three-hour-long line to pitch our shows to media. I hadn’t known she was there, and when she tapped me on the shoulder, it was a warm surprise.
Your show, she said, and she put her hand on her chest. It’s just, her voice started to shake but her eyes remained fixed on me. It’s so hard to find… honesty, she said, and it’s— she started to cry. We looked at each other for long, long seconds, as I heard her, kept listening, and we both started to nod. We kept nodding, both of us emotional, eventually laughing at how completely we’d broken.
Other exchanges were more brief, like on a night after performing when a young boy with glasses snuck up to me. I just, you made me miss my sister, he said, before crumbling into my arms. I wanted to soothe him, tell him something great, but he was gone almost immediately, like that.
Another woman came up to me from the audience after my second-to-last show. She’d just moved to Edinburgh to study theatre, and she spoke in tender, incomplete English. I have just gotten here. And I’ve just, decided to become actress. Always I have wished… wanted? To do it. And now, this is why seeing you is very… She smiled and looked down. Very inspire to me.
This woman and I sat together for a long while upstairs in the main bar with some other audience members. At the end of the night we walked home together, and I showed her some of the city, places I thought she might like now that she was living here. Just before saying goodbye, we noticed the moon. It was so full and bright and we decided to squeeze together to take a picture of ourselves with it. It hadn’t captured the way we wanted. Pictures, eh, I said to her. Yes, she said, and then left.
At another show, I had a smaller turnout, and for some reason felt homesick, like nothing ever lasts. I was leaving the venue when a young couple invited me to sit with them. They were both engineers, and both very polite. They wanted to know what it was like to be an actor and tour a show. I didn’t know how to answer so I said, It can be pretty rock ’n roll sometimes, you know? but I don’t think they knew how to take that. Then I asked them how long they’d been in love. They looked at each other for a very long time.
Another time I was flyering before my show in Grassmarket, a nice square with shops, restaurants, people busking, jugglers on unicycles, and almost always an Australian man with whips and torches. Nearby was someone else standing with flyers, limp in his hands, for a comedy show playing in the same venue as me. He looked sad, his glasses foggy from the rain. When I got closer I saw his T-shirt. Written across it were the words DON’T HAVE HOPE.
Usually two people flyering have instant camaraderie, but when I approached him and did a goofy little dance to make him laugh he just stood there, nervously shaking his body back and forth, like all of him was trying to say no, no, no.
Nice shirt, I told him.
Thanks, he said.
You make it, or did you buy it?
Everybody asks me that.
Oh. So you—
Made it, yeah.
Oh okay, cool. It just looks like the kind of thing that, I don’t know, a funky shop would sell for like 14 pounds.
Yeah. I don’t know.
We talked a bit more, agreed that maybe nobody would come to either of our shows that night, and then broke apart to keep flyering.
A few nights later, he came to my show. He didn’t laugh much at the jokes, and he left as soon as it was over. But when I looked in the tip bucket at the end of the show, along with the bills and loose change I saw a bunched-up white T-shirt with black writing on it. With it was a note: Get the 14 pounds to me whenever.
There were other things, other nice surprises. Like when I’d sat down feeling dejected in the middle of the day, and a boy on a bench told me about his mom who made jam. Or the time after my Saturday night show, when the audience and I went dancing until daybreak. There was the time I did a guest spot at a comedy show and felt the audience go quiet, leaning in to listen. And on my second-last day at the festival, when the owner of a used bookstore told me how he was cloaked in all his books, how we become cloaked in the things we do. Like me and my show, he said. And all the moments when I wandered beneath the bridges or looked at the old buildings, touching them with my hands for clues. To include them all would take much more time and many pages. And to include them hastily feels disingenuous, cheap.
I remember the very last day. The festival was over and most people had gone home. The city returned to its quieter, less populated state. My boyfriend, who had flown in the week before, came with me to climb Arthur’s Seat. It’s this huge dormant volcano that overlooks the whole of Edinburgh. It’s on every traveller’s to-do list, a staple of the city. I’d been meaning to climb it since I first arrived. Crowds of people climb it every day; I’d watched their tiny bodies from the kitchen window in my flat.
But here we were on the evening before flying home. Barely anyone else was there. Just us and our backpacks.
When we got to the top, we stood on the tallest peak we could see. The city looked so beautiful, even beneath an overcast sky. We crouched down in a little enclave and ate cold grocery-store Indian food that we had carried up in our backpacks. It was windy and my hair kept blowing into my mouth. We filmed a shaky forty-second video so we could remember the moment. When I try to watch it now the sound is almost entirely obscured by wind.
Just as we were getting ready to climb down, the sun sunk from below the cloud cover. It shone late-evening light onto everything we could see. All of us, the grass, the rocks, roofs of houses, cemeteries— everything suddenly turned gold.
We tried to photograph the colours, the air, the rarity of the moment. But like anything truly beautiful, it was impossible to capture.
This natural, shattering beauty struck me so immediately, so completely, that I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect farewell. I felt unspeakably reached. It was time to go home. And not that it necessarily mattered, but I knew that I’d gotten what I came for.