A Fringe to Forget

I really look forward to the day when I will come here to write about something good that has happened to me, I do. That day hasn’t yet arrived, though, so please bear with my hopelessness for the time being.

I love the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s the reason why I moved to Edinburgh in first place, and it’s an event that has left me with many fond memories before. I was hoping this year’s Fringe would bring me some joy amidst the stress and pain resulting from the latest visa rejection. I was so proud of what we achieved with La Niña Barro so far – I remember sitting on a beach in Spain with my new friend Josep (Ale’s boyfriend) and telling him that for the first time I felt confident about a show. (Please note: if you have worked with me before, this is no assessment of the quality of your work, but of mine). I felt it was good enough to be seen by the “important people” and I was unashamed of sending out invitations to top journalists and industry representatives, as well as submitting the show for awards. I thought this was a real chance of getting enough attention to help me either get a job after the Fringe or more solid recommendations to try the Exceptional Talent visa again.

Now, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe can be a very expensive business. Great part of the cost will come from hiring a venue, and this was money that we didn’t have, so I was happy to go with the Free Festival as I had done a couple of times in the past. There are a few types of “freefringefestival” out there, but I chose Laughing Horse as I had previously worked with them and I liked the experience I’d had. This means we’d be performing in the basement of a pub, slightly off the main Fringe area, with limited tech resources, and we would not be able to charge for tickets, only taking donations at the end of the piece. This also meant we did not have to pay through our noses for a venue and got to meet cool people who share our ideas on what the “Fringe at its purest” is like. That decided, I sent in my application, was offered a venue and then it occurred to me I should ask if there were any restrictions regarding nudity in the piece. This was back in February, when the show was still being devised. The first answer I got from the Free Festival was that they didn’t know, but would ask the venue. Shortly, I received another reply saying that nudity would be unlikely to be allowed. I then discussed this with the performers and we started thinking of alternatives. However, as our creative process progressed, it became very clear that we needed the nudity to make our ideas work. It was not gratuitous and it was not sexual, just organic nudity. When I eventually arrived in Spain, Eli took me to see Paco, a local costume designer, so we could explain the situation to him and see if he had any suggestions. Paco then designed a see-through bodysuit for Eli with a gusset to cover up the “most distracting” parts. Paco did a great job in terms of the general look of the outfit and its flexibility, but as we rehearsed with it, it simply did not work with our aesthetics for a number of reasons:

1) The character was made of clay. The clay was supposed to be gradually washed off her skin until she became “human” and was finally put in a dress, which could be read in a variety of ways. This effect did not work because the clay would not wash properly of the fabric of the bodysuit, and because it killed the contrast of the moment when she finally gets dressed – if she wasn’t naked to begin with, it looked kinda silly;

2) On a visual note, it didn’t look as good under the lights, and the quality of both performers’ movements was affected;

3) It felt like self-censorship. General audience members would probably not care much, but I could tell that reviewers and awards judges would see it as a lack of courage of going all the way.

We went commando for the preview in Alicante. Everything went well, and apart from Eli’s dad and husband, no one felt uncomfortable or offended by the nudity, including the two small children in the audience and their parents.

Photo by Sandra Navarro

Photo by Sandra Navarro

All that considered, I thought it would be worth to have a chat directly with our venue upon arriving in Edinburgh, and that’s what I did. I went in on the day I arrived and spoke to a duty manager, explaining the situation and asking if, seeing as the show would be performed downstairs, behind a closed door, we could put up warning signs on posters and on the door and therefore forego the bodysuit. This DM said he would have to double check with his boss, but he didn’t see a problem with it. Excellent.

I went in the next day to check some tech stuff, and I spoke to another DM about our circumstances. This second person repeated what the first one had said.

Eli and Alex arrived and we went in the day before we opened to do a full run. That’s when the third DM walked through the space while we were rehearsing, saw the nudity and called me outside, in complete shock. I found it rather curious that this one was a girl, whereas the other two were guys. She told me that this wasn’t acceptable, I explained the whole situation to her from the start, and then she relented a little and said she’d have to run it past her top boss. I agreed and waited. Until ten minutes before we opened the first performance the day after, no one had got back to me.

That’s when one of the pub staff came running downstairs to tell me he was just off the phone with his boss and he’d said we absolutely could not have nudity on stage – and this was the first time someone mentioned licensing to me. I pointed out that we were about to open and the performer was ready to go, and we wouldn’t have time to clean her up, dress her, and muddy her up again. He agreed for us to perform like that on that day, but insisted that we have the suit from the second day onwards.

I e-mailed the director of the Free Festival explaining what had happened and asking about the possibility of seeking an alternative venue. This email had no reply.

With a sunken heart, we went on the next day with the bodysuit, but I felt the need to apologise to the audience before the show and explain that the outfit was not an artistic decision, but something imposed by the venue. On day 3, this was picked up by a journalist.

What ensued after the article was published was a week-long licensing-off between me, the venue managers and the Free Festival. I have to say I was really disappointed with the way the Free Festival handled this, completely turning against us. Their website states that “Free to us is not only a price point, it also means creative freedom for performers” and goes on about how supportive a community they are. I found this true in the previous years that I’d worked with them, but I had never encountered a problem that needed support before. So, I sought support elsewhere and found it on fellow theatremakers, other critics and Equity, who assured me we were not doing anything illegal, as the licensing the venue and the Free Festival claimed we were breaching simply did not apply. They were under the impression the venue needed an Adult Entertainment Licence for this, which was not the case, as the content we were offering was not of a sexual nature (i.e. lap dancing, strip-teasing, etc).

My first chat with the pub landlord had been quite decent and polite, but this quickly escalated to an aggressive exchange of emails, in which he refused to come and watch the show but sent me a still image from a CCTV camera downstairs showing one of our rehearsals and saying that a naked woman with her legs spread apart was definitely sexual content in his opinion. I sent him this review and asked if that sounded sexual, titillating or arousing to him (words used in the Licensing Acts being thrown about), and that seemed to be the last straw. As the pub owner, he stated that it was still his ultimate right to refuse our access to his premises, so we had a choice: either to continue performing there with the bodysuit, or find somewhere else to go. At this stage, I reckoned it would be more detrimental to us to change venues, so we decided to yield and stick with it.

There are a number of things that worried me about this whole stooshie, going beyond the administrative. Further discussions could be had about what is regarded as sexual – is a nude woman automatically seen as a sexual object? Did it cause so much offence because Eli is a big girl? Was I treated with disrespect by the top lads because I am a (foreign) woman? (I didn’t want to play the I iz Latin card here, but I was told “you don’t know how things work in this country” – even though I’ve been working in this country for 8 years). However, it was evident that we needed to drop it if we wanted the show to go on.

Unfortunately, we only managed to do another two shows after that and had to suspend and subsequently cancel the rest of the run, as one of the performers’ dad’s illness got worse until he sadly passed away in Spain.

So yes… this wasn’t the Fringe we all had envisioned and hoped for. Fair enough, illness and death are two of the very few things no one has control over or take the blame for. But the one week we did perform was unnecessarily stressful and exhausting. It wasn’t all lost, though. We did have a couple of good reviews (in addition to the previous one, these can be read here and here), and excellent audience feedback.

The show is now touring Spain, around the region of Valencia. It has been performed as part of a small festival of experimental music and performance, and back in Las Cigarreras, where it started. We have gigs booked for January and February too, and are still trying to bring it back to the UK.



A Spanish Preview and a Nervous Flight

We reached the end of our rehearsal period and scheduled a preview of La Niña Barro for family and friends at Las Cigarreras, to run the show in front of an audience before taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe. After much negotiation with the venue and a tad stressful tech run, I’m happy to inform it went rather well. It also went very fast. I think we were all inevitably anxious about test-driving this piece we’d been working on for months, working through broken limbs, family illness and immigration problems, and all that bottled up energy suddenly came out on stage and the girls rushed a bit. It still went well.

The day after our preview, I was even more of a nervous wreck. I would be flying to Edinburgh that afternoon, a few days before Eli and Alex. I also spent an extra £90 on my flight to go directly from Alicante, avoiding a London stop. You see, all the horror stories I’ve heard happened at London airports, so I avoid them if I can. In my experience, Edinburgh immigration officers are much more polite and understanding (i.e. they will treat you as a human being). Besides, if I have any problems in Edinburgh, I know all it takes is one phone call to have half the city at the airport to help me (I’m not being smug, I just honestly know A LOT of people).

Despite taking measures to curb my anxiety, I can’t help feeling massively nervous every time I fly to a different country now, and I think this feeling will linger for a long time. But flying to Scotland, back to Edinburgh, is so meaningful to me that it provokes butterflies akin to those you are meant to get at the most special moments in your life: your 15th birthday party (if you’re a Latin American girl – if you’re not, wikipedia explains what this means), getting your exam results, your graduation, your wedding, that sort of thing. So I am in this state of mind when Carlos and Eli drive me to the airport in Alicante, on a very warm Sunday afternoon.

I’ve done the online check-in but need to take my suitcase to the counter. Before they can check in my luggage, however, I need to go to Jet2’s sales counter so they can start verifying my authenticity before I even leave the Schengen zone. The attendant asks to see my reservation and my passport and then, flicking through the pages, asks me: “just to confirm – you don’t have a visa for the UK?”. I say I don’t, but that I’m coming as a tourist, so I don’t require one. He looks me sideways, types stuff into his computer, looks at my passport again, asks me how long I’m going to the UK for. I reply that I will be there for 2 months and offer to show him my return ticket from Madrid to Porto Alegre, explaining that I just haven’t booked my return from Edinburgh to Madrid yet because I’m waiting to hear back from a couple of events I might be attending. He finally agrees to stamp my boarding pass and let me finalise my check-in. Eli just shakes her head in awe that I have to go through this.

I say goodbye to Eli, go through security and finally board the plane, but the pressure on my chest only gets worse. The plane lands and there I am, completed landing card, passport and my folder with a stack of paper to prove that I have no intention of illegally settling in Scotland. The queue wasn’t too bad, I got to the counter much more quickly than the last time – maybe because this time I arrived a few days before all the festival malarkey kicked off. Now, I wasn’t sure whether my passport would make the alarm bells sounds or not this time. My old passport expired at the start of the year, so this was a new one. I’d been refused a visa on my old passport, but I didn’t get to apply for the actual visa on this one, having only been refused the Arts Council endorsement. Turns out the refusal is actually attached to your name, not to your passport. The lady who served me at the immigration desk looked at her screen for a few moments while flicking through the pages and then smiled and asked if this was my first time in Edinburgh. I said no and proceeded to telling her my potted life story and visa saga, showing documents as they were mentioned, including the letter from the Fringe office confirming I was bringing a show this year. This allowed me to ask for an Entertainer Visitor visa, which differs from a Tourist visa only in the sense that I was allowed to take payment for the performances we did at the Fringe. She took all the paperwork from me and went into the back room, asking me to wait. She came back in less than 10 minutes and stamped my passport, explaining that I was allowed to stay for up to six months. She then asked me if I would be looking for a job during my time in Edinburgh and I said I intended to, but did not have ay interviews lined up yet. She stressed that it would be fine for me to go to interviews, but I was not allowed to take up employment on this visa, I would then need to change to a Tier 2 or Tier 5. I reassured her that I was well aware of that and had no intention of working illegally. She gave me my stamped passport back and wished me luck with a smile.

NB: Preview and pre-flight nerves aside, this was a fast and pleasant experience, if compared to last year’s visit, or to this story of a Malaysian photographer who was in a very similar situation but wasn’t so lucky – arriving in London two days before I arrived in Edinburgh this year