Edinburgh Festival Fringe special: with Gareth Armstrong and HighTide’s Steven Atkinson

Gareth Armstrong

Gareth Armstrong

Rounding off our Edinburgh Festival Fringe special, our third and final post features writer, director, actor and Edinburgh regular Gareth Armstrong, whose newly published book So You Want To Do A Solo Show? is an essential resource for both aspiring and seasoned solo performers, especially those wanting to make it big on the Fringe. Also offering his behind-the-scenes insight is HighTide Artistic Director Steven Atkinson, whose latest production is Dusk Rings A Bell by Stephen Belber (published by NHB), opening this week at Assembly George Square.

Gareth Armstrong: There’ll be a ghost coming with me to this year’s Fringe.

A dozen years ago I was performing my one-man show Shylock at the Assembly Rooms. This year I’ll be watching my play Shylock at the Assembly Rooms, and I’m not sure which will be the more nerve-wracking experience. In between I’ve taken the play around the world several times, seen it performed in half-a-dozen languages and directed it in America. But seeing it back where the journey began will have me on the edge of my seat. That ghost will be up there on stage reminding me of one of the most rewarding months of my professional life.

The show had opened at Salisbury Playhouse where Guy Masterson saw it and added me to the bulging portfolio of plays he was taking to the festival. We played in the late-lamented Wildman Room – alarmingly intimate, unbearably hot and with an electric atmosphere of expectation. We pulled it off, Guy covered his costs, and I spent the next ten years making, for an actor, a reasonable living from that show.

So You Want To Do A Solo Show? jacket

So You Want To Do A Solo Show? by Gareth Armstrong (£10.99)

But the Fringe is a fickle mistress.  A one-man show that takes a revisionist look at a major Shakespeare character and plunders the original text for all the juiciest bits was, I thought, after my first attempt, a winning formula. After Shakespeare’s infamous Jew the magisterial Prospero seemed within my range and, two years after Shylock, working with a talented writer friend, we created a piece based on the man who many think inspired Shakespeare’s magus, Dr John Dee. Among many other things Dee was an astrologer and chose auspicious dates for momentous events. The omens were good. Ignoring Max Bialystock’s advice I used my own money to finance the project (Dr Prospero) and with high production values and high expectations we assaulted Edinburgh again. I lost £15,000.

It was no consolation to me that Dr Dee ended up broke too. He did at least hold the faith to the end of his long life. I am not made of such stern stuff and abandoned the capricious Fringe for a decade. And when I came back to it I was wearing a different and less conspicuous hat. As a director, with no financial stake, and without the burden of performing every day I could actually enjoy the festival for the first time. Once up and running the shows looked after themselves and even found some glory.

This year I’m a milliner’s dream because I will be wearing three hats. As well as being the playwright of Shylock, now performed with wonderful synchronicity and also with enormous verve by my original producer Guy Masterson, I have a production of The Rape of Lucrece playing at The Zoo space. Gerard Logan is proving once again that revisiting Shakespeare in an original way can still work. He is, as far as I know, the first actor to tackle this epic poem in a one-man performance and he proves that even in a text as obviously aimed at the reader as Lucrece, Shakespeare’s sense of theatre, his thrilling characters and his sublime language cry out for dramatisation.

My third hat makes its debut at this year’s Fringe. I’m promoting a book I have written called So You Want To Do A Solo Show? and as the title says it all, I am hoping it will speak for itself.

Dusk Rings a Bell production shot

Paul Blair and Katherine Kingsley in rehearsal for Dusk Rings a Bell

Steven Atkinson: Unlike other festivals and theatres, the Edinburgh Fringe can boast the most diverse of all audiences. It’s a premier platform to premiere a new play, thanks to the intense focus that the industry, press and audiences afford it. There’s the chance of winning a Fringe First or a Herald Angel or any of the number of awards that helps ensure the play lives on in the consciousness. There’s also the impact on audiences, and many a professional artist has been introduced to a writer at the Fringe whom they then go on to work with professionally. I saw Stephen Belber’s Tape several years ago, and comparable to Mamet, Stephen’s dialogue is unforgettable because it’s his own original voice. Dusk Rings A Bell is playing in a sizable three-hundred-seat venue at Assembly, so the show will be enjoyed by a large audience. But I hope it also inspires others to stage it and explore Stephen’s back catalogue, so that we see Belber rivals popping up on Fringes and campus scenes and, hopefully, future Edinburgh Festivals.

Gareth Armstrong has directed two solo shows for this year’s Festival Fringe, including a production of his own play Shylock (4–29 August, 3.45pm) at Assembly Hall, and The Rape of Lucrece (5–29 August, 5.15pm) at Zoo SouthsideHis new book, So You Want To Do A Solo Show? is available now. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed). Copies will also be on-sale at the Fringe alongside his two productions through the venues’ box office. 

Dusk Rings a Bell  jacket

Dusk Rings a Bell by Stephen Belber (£9.99)

NHB proudly publish the playscript alongside HighTide’s production of A Dusk Rings a Bell – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

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