Food

 

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Deep-fried Haggis at the American-themed restaurant The Filling Station, right there on the Royal Mile

In Edinburgh, food is always an adventure. The food is good. Sometimes great. Yes, haggis does appear, one way or another, on nearly every menu we’ve encountered (haggis tacos, anyone?), with the one exception of the excellent vegetarian restaurant David Bann (a nice surprise for our team vegetarian Robin). The biggest surprise about Edinburgh is how into ‘themes’ they are. Even the haggis I finally tried (above, not bad at all, actually) was served at The Filling Station, a restaurant designed to look like an American cafe, complete with displays of pop artifacts and pictures from the U.S., and Elvis playing on the soundtrack. And the haggis came with a decidedly American presentation.

But food and ‘themes,’ as a popular pairing, have been popping up since out arrival. For example: the popular downtown restaurant Frankenstein’s.

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At Frankesntein’s, the floor show takes place up in the air over the patrons’ heads.

Just down from the Royal Mile, and around the corner from Edinburgh Castle, Frankenstein’s is designed to look like the interior of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle and laboratory. There are posters from the movies on all the wall, a very goth kitschy feel, and pretty good, cleverly titled entrees. I had a frankfurter, of course. The place hosts Rocky Horror screenings every week. But the big attraction, in addition to the rather elaborate drinks (watch out for the Bloody Mary Shelley) is what happens every hour, when the lights are dimmed, dramatic music begins, lightning flashes, and spotlights illuminate the monster being brought to life, then lowered down over the heads of the patrons. Finally, the monster sits up, and looks around, then lies back down and rises again into the rafters.

In this case, the theme of the place is the major draw. But sometimes, the theme of a particular restaurant comes as a bit of a surprise. That’s the case with a place down from the Surgeons Hall (our performance venue) called Hispaniola. We thought it would be a Spanish restaurant. 

It’s not. It’s technically Italian. 

And once you get into the heart of the place, you discover it’s also a pirate-themed restaurant.

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Pirate skeletons in cages dangle from the rafters of Hispaniola, where the food is delicious and the atmosphere is a bit surprising.

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To anyone who’s read ‘Treasure Island,’ you know that the Hispaniola was the name of the ship eventually taken over by Long John Silver. After passing through an entry way that looks like a quaint Italian deli, you go up some steps . . . and into a room filled with pirate flags, skeletons in cages, pirate mannequins sitting next you at some of the tables, even buried treasure under a glass floor. The food, by the way, was delicious.

There are others we’ve heard of, including a Prohibition-era spot called Panda & Sons, rumored to serve huge martinis, Chicago-style. But, of course, the primary ‘theme’ in Edinburgh is the good old Scottish pub. We’ve sampled a number of those, including one called ‘The Last Drop,’ named after the gallows that once stood in Grassmarket square, and The Banshee’s Labyrinth, an underground maze of a pub advertised as ‘The Most Haunted Pub in Edinburgh.’ 

At the hotel where we spent our first week, the breakfasts were spectacular, with plenty of sausage, eggs, mushrooms (a breakfast spake here), and oatmeal and fruit (a good thing for Robin). 

Mainly, whether it’s picking up an egg and watercress sandwich at a shop on the corner, or grabbing some fish & chips at a tiny stand on the Mile, the main theme of the food we’ve had so far is . . . tasty. With one more week left to explore the restaurants of this amazing, creative, fun-seeking town, it’s going to be hard to choose what to eat, and what other surprising themes we are brave enough to experience. 

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Not a great photo, but this statue of The Creature hovers near the lavatory of Frankenstein’s. Note Grace the Amazing sheep peeking over his shoulder (and me, just behind, holding the sheep).

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Flyering

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ALLO IN ACTION: Charming strangers and handing out flyers by the hundreds at the Edinburgh Fringe

“Flyering” is not really a word—but that doesn’t matter here at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 
Without “flyering,” most shows here would’t have much of an audience, in the early days before reviews and word-of-mouth drive people to specific shows.

On Team Wretch, Allo is our Master Flyerer.

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IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TECHNIQUE: “This sheep has traveled 5,000 miles to hand you this flyer.”

Every morning, he hits the Royal Mile with a backpack full of postcard-sized flyers, and through sheer charm, with and a sense of improvisational fearlessness, gets those flyers into hundreds of hands.

Sometimes, he uses our resident mascot sheep puppet Amazing Grace (discussed in a previous post), getting the attention of passersby in unpredictable ways.

 

“Hello! I have a serious question for you. [Beat] Have you ever taken a flyer from a sheep?”

Often, he’ll take that following moment to describe the show.

He’s so good at this, and so charming and amiable with the people he encounters, some of them have actually said, “You’re not in the show? Well, we don’t want to see it if you’re not in it.”

Still, people do come, sometimes saying, “Allo sent me!”

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AMAZING GRACE THE SHEEP: handing out flyers on the Royal Mile

And sometime soon someone will probably say . . .

“Hi! I’m here because I took a flyer from a sheep.”

 

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Amazing Grace

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Robin, on the streets of Edinburgh, posters under one arm, a cup of coffee in hand, and Amazing Grace the Sheep puppet showing us what real joy looks like.

We have named our sheepish mascot Grace—and she really is amazing. When we are on the streets handing out flyers, people who speed up to pass us by suddenly slow down when they see Grace. There’s just something about a puppet that brings out people’s receptive nature. 

Allo, also, has figured out a lot of ways to play with the crowd using Grace. 

There are a number of bagpipers who stand and play near where a lot of the flying takes place, along the Royal Mile. And of course, they tend to play Amazing Grace a lot. But we have yet to experience the gorgeous symmetry of having a piper play amazing Grace while amazing Grace (the sheep) plays with the crowd. 

There’s still plenty of time for that, I suppose.

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Allo, fixing a cup of coffee before heading out to “the mile” for a morning of flyering on the streets.

 

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Saying Goodbye to Sheri

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SHERI LEE MILLER: On the Royal Mile, with coffee, looking especially sassy.

As of this morning, when we watched Sheri Lee Miller climb into a cab and head off to the Edinburgh airport and her flight home to California, Team Wretch is now down to four. As the director of ‘Wretch Like Me,’ the plan was always to have Sheri here for just the first week, to get the show up and running and help get our publicity and media connections established. 

It was a good thing she was here, because from the beginning, we’ve needed her director’s eye. There were technical issues. The stage turned out to be not as high as we’d expected, and Sheri needed to re-think and re-block portions of the show. She’s also guided several other elements of the whole being-in-Edinburgh thing, including taking a strong position on how we should best use the outdoor stage spots the Fringe delegates to some companies, intended as a place to promote your shows to passersby on the Royal Mile. 

So, in short, along with directing the show over the last several months and everything she’s done to encourage me and support the road to Edinburgh, Sheri has been absolutely invaluable. 

And now she’s on her way home.

And Team Wretch has just under two more weeks in Edinburgh. 

And another show in less than three hours. 

We will miss Sheri.

And we thank her for all she’s done for ‘Wretch Like Me.’

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Other People’s Shows at the Edinburgh Fringe

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Performing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe presents many challenges, including—and this is an important one—finding the time to see other people’s shows. So far, we’ve managed to get to four shows in between putting on ‘Wretch,’ handing out flyers for ‘Wretch,’ posting and tweeting about ‘Wretch,’ hanging up posters for ‘Wretch,’ attending workshops on how to better promote ‘Wretch,’ and on occasion, actually eating a meal together. (Future posts will include a blog on the colorful eating establishments here in Edinburgh, including a place called ‘Frankenstein’s,’ which is pretty much what it sounds like).

‘The Complete History of Comedy (abridged),’ by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (one of the primary writers and producers of which is my friend Reed Martin), is getting its European debut here at the festival, after having its virgin run back home in Northern California. This November, the show will appear in Mill Valley at the Marin Theatre Company. Playing in the large theater at Pleasance Courtyard, the show is what it purports to be: a “history” of comedy, from the first caveman joke to a puppet-powered send-up of modern political humor. Presented as a theatrical summary of the long-lost, twelve-chapter book The Art of Comedy (the other half of the The Art of War, this ancient companion piece is, sadly, missing its all-important thirteenth chapter), the show skips through an homage to the old chicken-crossing-the-road joke, the mechanics of slapstick, a few shout-outs to the funniest people of all time (and the least funny; sorry, Adam Sandler), a bit on the history of clowns (including, of course, scary clowns), and a very funny ukulele-backed song in which co-writer Austin Tichenor named-drops nearly a hundred of the most significant comics, comedians, and comedy groups of all time. Then there’s some stuff about the mythic clown Rambozo (part Emmet Kelly and part Sylvester Stallone), who just might hold the secret to the missing thirteenth chapter of The Art of Comedy. Cleverly written, often incredibly funny, and even just a tad moving (how’s they do that?), The Complete History of comedy (abridged)’ runs the gamut from tasty to tasteless, but actually has something to say beneath all the pie-throwing and fart jokes.

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Shit-faced Shakespeare, playing at the concurrently running Underbelly sub-festival, features a troupe of classically trained actors performing ‘Two Gentleman of Verona,’ with the added element of one cast member appearing on stage totally hammered. Wondering whether or not the “randomly selected” member of the troupe was actually smashed or just faking it is part of the audience experience with this Ren-Faire-like stunt-performance, and the charm of the performers is pretty hard to escape. The high concept idea is played for humor, emphasizing the silly side of inebriation over the darker possibilities, and in the end, alls well that ends without anyone needing to use the on-stage barf-bucket.

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Heavy consumption of alcohol seems to be a key part of the Edinburgh Fringe, especially at the late-night shows, and though the on-stage boozing may be a bit exaggerated and under control, there’s no way to control how much drinking has been going on amongst the theater goers here. (NOTE: suddenly, Team Wretch is very happy to performing at 11:40 in the a.m., long before most attendees have hit the pub). 

Which brings us to Jesus and the Devil.

As an improvisational show, ‘Come Heckle Christ’ is a bold, inventive, funny, and fairly gutsy idea: comic Josh Ladgrove, who does look a lot like Jesus, banters with the audience while perched on the cross. On the night I saw the show, “Jesus” was in a whimsical, philosophical mood, answering a question about the dinosaurs by saying he’d eaten them all, one by one, going on to answer a question about whether he supports Israel or Palestine with the one word reply ‘Peace.” What might have developed into a truly fascinating, even enlightening bit of untraditional comedy-theater was marred, unfortunately, by a boozing foursome of bullies (recognizing they were actually pretty guys), who essentially took over the show, shouting mostly idiotic questions (“Can I put beer on your beard and then suck it out again?”), rarely allowing Josh-as-Jesus to actually answer someone else’s question. Josh did an admirable job of trying to keep things in check, but a show like this, dependent on so much audience participation, rises and falls on the quality of the people watching at any moment, and the night I saw it, the bullies won. I’d love to see this show again, to get a chance at seeing what this truly creative, spontaneous, insightful and brave comedy show is capable of being under the right circumstances.

 

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Similarly hampered by inebriated audience members (who seemed think snickering and talking loudly to each other is appropriate during a theater piece), ‘Rebranding Beelzebub’ still ends up winning, turing out to be a wicked pleasure from beginning to end. Another late-night show, this one by storyteller-writer Time Ralphs, it takes place in a perfectly suited (if somewhat noisy) environment: an underground tomb-like room at Banshee’s Labyrinth (“Edinburgh’s most haunted pub,” says the sign upstairs). The show, performed by Ralphs with remarkable charm and a strong undercurrent of smart, sinister glee, is simple: a series of stories about the Devil, wrapped up in a larger story that includes Ralphs’ deal-with-the-Devil path to end up at the Edinburgh Fringe. This is a no-frills storytelling show, its power rising solely on the beautiful language and sly, sometimes breathtaking humor of its writer performer. From an ancient tale of a mother who sells her soul to make her fiddler son successful, to Moth-like tale about disposing of a defrosted mummy, to a delightfully chilling final piece about a man pitted against the Devil in an epic game of Scrabble, these tales are clever, unpredictable, and crammed from end to end with the sheer, irresistible pleasure of language beautifully crafted, all in the service of stories that—whether the Devil wins out in the end or not—are miraculously well told.
 
The fun of Edinburgh, of course, is getting to perform alongside such an array of theatrical entertainments, and so far, ‘Wretch Like Me’ has appeared to be in pretty good company. I shall report on other shows we see as we see them.

 
 
 
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Poster Power

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At the Fringe, where tens of thousands of theatergoers wander the streets looking for shows to see, choosing from amongst thousands of plays, musicals, come die shows, concerts and weird ‘Fringe’ things that defy description (one “show” is called simply ‘Come Heckle Christ,” while another promises to be about ‘Sex With Animals,’ or at least . . . well endowed people DRESSED like animals), the first most important element of getting an audience is making sure people see your poster. We pre-ordered 250 posters and 5000 small flyers, which we picked up yesterday at The Surgeon’s Hall, the venue we’ll officially open in on Friday. 

It’s one of sever operated by TheSpace here in Edinburgh. So technically, our venue is TheSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall. Or to be simple and quick about it, Venue 53. There are HUNDREDS of venues.

To start things off, Sheri and Robin and I spent 90 minutes hauling the heavy boxes advertising material up and down windy steep stairways, delivering the required three-posters-apiece to as many other TheSpace venues as we could get to. Each TheSpace venue agrees to put up posters for the other shows in their “circuit,” so we did that, after which we were pretty much exhausted . . . and just beginning to glimpse the tip of the super-competitive iceberg that is The Fringe. 

After lunch, having at last welcomed the fifth member of Team Wretch (Allo, who flew in from Boston), we hung our first poster in a restaurant near the hotel. This required first finding a store that sold tape. We’d forgotten the tape.

Then we headed down to The Royal Mile, where we witnessed a man in a straight-jacket entertaining crowds at one end of the mile, and a fellow playing awesome flamenco music on a battered guitar at the other end. In between, manic teams of actors and crew were working the street like poster-pinning locusts, taping posters to anything that looked vertical. The proper etiquette is to refrain from placing posters on any public structure, but the fringe has set up a great many huge red metal columns, and folks are permitted to put posters there. 

Space on the column being limited, what people do is . . . they ignore etiquette, putting up many posters on the same columns, dominating the space, until someone else comes along and pastes up their poster right on top of the previous one. I watched someone cover up a ‘Wretch’ poster less than thirty seconds after I put it up. Of course, I had just had to cover up someone else’s poster, though being a nice guy, I chose to cover a show that already had six or seven posters up on the same column.

The most aggressive team on the mile, oddly enough, was a band of young people promoting a “family Friendly” version of ‘Avenue Q,’ working the streets, flyers in hand, with their puppets prominently displayed. While the puppets distracted people, the AQ team plastered their posters over everything, dominating the columns with their intense take-no-prisoners enthusiasm. 

I know myself the volatile power of puppetry. With a puppet on your hand, you cease being yourself, you become another person, and that person might turn out to be an asshole. You never know. It’s a dangerous thing, and must be properly watched less it devolve into a dehumanizing drug-like subhuman mania.

Which pretty much sums up posturing in Edinburgh.

Today, more of the same. 

Only now, we have tape.

And plenty of it.

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Arrival

Well.

Robin did appear, having lost her cell phone, but with plans to buy a new one in London, before catching a connecting flight to Edinburgh.

She bought it, actually, in San Francisco.

Which was good, because the time between landing in London (a VERY long overnight flight) and the departure of the plane to Edinburgh was so short . . . we almost missed it.

Anyway, she made it. We all departed on time, landed on time, and are now . . . I barely believe it is true . . . in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Tomorrow . .. many tasks to accomplish, connections to make (we finally meet up with Allo!), things to pick up, and much work to do.

For now, it is time to sleep . . .

By the way, did anyone know there is a CASTLE in this town?

Of course you did. So did I, because my Great Grandmother wa born in the dungeon of that castle many, many years ago. It’s true. But that’s a story for another time.

Till then, I shall get some rest.

Because, you know . . . enough of this sitting around on plains, and busses and taxis. Tomorrow, it’s time for Team Wretch to get to work!!

 

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