Sunday, 1 August 2010
Dreamers hit the Edinburgh trail
A small, dark-haired woman is staggering across departures at New York’s JFK airport, weighed down by a couple of suitcases and a backpack. She has travelled 2,500 miles, but has an ocean to cross before she can even begin to contemplate her new life of stardom. To help her on her way, she has stowed 1,000 needles among her luggage.
Meet Olivia Rhee, the still not-very-famous “singing acupuncturist” en route to the Edinburgh fringe. Brimful of hope, this morning when she sets foot on British soil for the first time, Rhee will join thousands of others whose greatest desire is to find stardom over the weeks ahead.
It is easy to be cynical about the Fringe, all those slick comedy promoters and TV executives who fill up the city; the student luvvies so roaringly drunk for the first time in the their lives. But among the 21,000 performers who arrive, there are hundreds of dreamers who woke up one morning, and took the miraculous decision to abandon their job, or sell their house, or leave their partner – or any combination of the above – to prepare for their shot at fame in Edinburgh.
Rhee, 42, is one of that fearless breed. “I am so much closer to my dream now I am a performer,” she says cheerily, ahead of her second long-haul flight. “Every step further along makes me a little bit happier. Just having the opportunity makes me smile. I am on my way.”
In any other August, she would be working acupuncture clinic, founded in 1975 by Hak, her father, when he moved his family from Seoul, South Korea to Las Vegas. But while Rhee studied hard to become a qualified doctor of oriental medicine, her career has never quite been enough to douse that needling desire to enjoy the limelight.
Her Edinburgh debut is a mixture of stories and poetry, song and dance, but for all that, Adventures of a Singing Acupuncturist, ironically enough, might see a little pointless. Nothing of the sort, retorts Rhee, who has been rehearsing in New York for a week.
“I know four guitar chords, I can play the congas,” she says. “And I do have feet. I can’t really call myself a dancer, but I do a kind of freestyle. People look at me and point. There is a unique quality to it.”
If Rhee has all the optimism of the Fringe virgin, Lynn Ruth Miller, 78, is a grizzled veteran by comparison.
Professor Miller - in an earlier life she held the chair of humanities at the University of Toledo – had never performed on stage until her Edinburgh debut five years ago. This year, she flies in from San Francisco with a portfolio of shows and turns, including her unique rendition of that Sex Pistols classic, Anarchy in the UK, which ends with her throwing brassieres into the audience. Sid Vicious would have approved.
But the performance to capture Edinburgh’s heart is Ageing is Amazing, her one-woman burlesque that celebrates the sagging glories of senior citizenship. Conforming in almost every degree to Sam Goldwyn’s dictum: “Start with an earthquake, and build up to a climax”: it opens to the tune of the Strip Polka as Miller slowly undresses.
“If my mother knew I would be stepping out with tassels on my nipples, she would be spinning in her grave,” chuckles Miller, who has worked her way through two husbands (“both my own”). What on earth makes her stand up in a room full of strangers and disrobe? She has no hesitation. This is all about love.
“I go to Edinburgh, I make people laugh, and they stand and cheer,” says Miller. “It is as good as any orgasm. This is approval and love beyond anything I have ever had. In San Francisco I am an old lady; in Edinburgh I am something.”
Peter Buckley Hill promotes the Free Fringe - a roster of over 300 shows with no admission charges – and sees more hopeful and hopeless acts than most. Very few of the dreamers will fulfil their expectations, he warns.
“The fringe is entirely fuelled, and financed, by performers backing their dreams – the wastage rate is high. People do succeed, but only by working hard at what they do all the year round. It takes a lot of effort to make your performance sound effortless.
“The overwhelming majority go away disappointed. Either they don't know how small the fringe audiences are, or they believe against all logic that the world will beat a path to their door. If you're a leaf, even quite a good leaf, you go to the forest if you want to hide, not if you want to stand out.”
After years of effort, some, a tiny handful, come into this year’s festival with a sliver of a chance, that finally the breakthrough will come, the reward for so impetuously leaving a former life behind.
Kate Smurthwaite, 34, was head of strategy for a hedge fund, who gave up finance six years ago to become a full-time stand up. Jools Constant, watched his marriage collapse and threw away a successful building business, employing 12 people, as he set about turning himself into comedy performer and writer.
“It has given me a new life. For the first time I feel ‘this is where I should be,” says Constant, 42, who lives in a single room, somewhere in central London. “I made a clear-headed decision to lead a life where I expressed myself, and which was rewarding. I found it among people that I like and respect.”
Smurthwaite, like Constant, she has acquired a healthy audience on the London stand-up scene. She has no regrets about swapping the dreary world of finance for the adrenaline rush of performance.
“I went back to my old job for a while – just three months,” she recalls. “After a couple of day, I was thinking, ‘This is just so not me’. I’d found stand-up, and was so thrilled and happy to be doing it. It’s strange to look back and think, ‘Why did I put up with a job I hated so much for so long?’ You’re young I suppose, and you have to be earning money. Instead of doing something that actually inspires you.”
Others are less sanguine. Like Rhee, Danny Hurst, from London, has turned his own life into art, and brings a comedy drama, I Was a Teenage Rentboy to the Fringe. It really is based on his own life story, the grubby assignations and the street-walking that funded him through college.
“It’s more cheerful than an average episode of EastEnders,” he says diffidently. “I’m not looking for stardom – all I want to do is make a living as a performer.”
And that is true of all these magical self-made artists. Each one craves wider recognition of the strange new talent they’ve discovered in themselves. Miller has set her sights on appearing on a big comedy club bill. Smurthwaite and Constant would love television to come calling.
And Rhee? In her mind’s eye, she is already hosting a TV chat show, the kind of thing that gets syndicated around the world. Like Ellen Degeneres?
“Yeah, I’d see it as a bit like Ellen. With good guests to talk to and some nice songs.” And acupuncture? “O yeah. And acupuncture.” It’s the stuff of dreams.
Comrades, this is from beyond the pay wall. It ran in the national edition of The Times, last Friday. Lynn Ruth, if you're reading this - that's about half a million readers.