The call to come to the Edinburgh Festival eight years ago couldn’t have come at a better time. I was in the middle of a tumultuous summer working as an unpaid breakfast radio researcher, supplementing my income working as a 7 foot inflatable cup mascot for Quiznos Subs in Dublin city centre. I got attacked by Spanish exchange students during the day, who thought I was a huge bouncy castle. For this I was paid 10 euros an hour.
My best friend had written a sell out play at university and wanted to take it to the Edinburgh Festival. Unfortunately, one of his lead actors had decided to divert his plans to backpacking around Chile instead, was I available? The morning of the call was timed well. The day before, in a giveaway for Die Hard the movie, I had edited a clip wrongly and half a million Irish citizens had spat their cornflakes out on hearing “yippee kayay mother fuckers” at 7am on a Tuesday morning on the radio. Ironically, the guest that morning was the Irish film censor who couldn’t stop laughing for two minutes of dead air. I didn’t want to act, but this represented a perfect escape route from penury.
I learnt my lines in two days. Thirty pages of dialogue were inhaled sitting under a tree in my garden, using the cover and repeat method that had brought me mediocre academic rewards throughout school. I flew to Edinburgh blind about what lay in store, I had acted at school and university, simply as a method of meeting girls, with little intention of pursuing it any further.
I arrived into our central Edinburgh flat that we would share with a parent theatre company, there were roughly 12 of us squeezed into two bedrooms. Two piss stained and sagging mattresses were invitingly laid on the ground. This would be our master bedroom for the next two weeks. The kitchen was filled with cheap wine bottles, heavily annotated scrawled scripts and takeaway curry cartons. Cut glass English accents abounded. I had arrived in a world that was alien to me, Withnail and I without Uncle Monty.
The first task of the Edinburgh Festival is to publicise your play. The play may have sold out every night at university in Dublin, but this means absolutely nothing in a place where the choice and competition is fierce for the average punter. Royal Avenue in Edinburgh was besieged every morning with young highly earnest amateur dramatic societies from every university in Britain, urging you to come to their production of Sweeney Todd. There were Thai Contortionists and French mime shows, all desperate to sell tickets. We had to hit the streets immediately. Three pasty Irishmen fighting against a sea of charisma.
Our play was about propaganda writers in the second world war and the levels they went to help the war effort. We spent days walking the cobbled streets handing out flyers and trying to persuade people to come. I later learnt that the average attendance at a fringe show is three people, due to the range of choice. Arthur Miller himself would have been up against it to sell his work in this environment.
After some hasty rehearsals conducted largely in a nearby pub, we arrived for curtain’s up at the Edinburgh College of Art. I always got very nervous before acting, but needn’t have, as there were five people in the crowd, two of them being Irish relatives of mine in Scotland. We carried on valiantly, getting an overly generous round of applause at the end of the performance. We would need to get the newspapers interested, as once you had a positive review, the people would spill in.
I took it upon myself to make this happen, ringing up every newspaper contact I had to get the journalists in. Eventually five performances deep, the national newspaper, The Scotsman obliged. I wish he hadn’t. I have memorised his review for posterity. “Jonathan Drennan, fits neither his suit, nor his accent in this play.” My dreams of treading the boards professionally had ended before they had properly begun.
Putting on a play in Edinburgh takes great financial sacrifice, leaving many of the people acting in the plays stony broke. I found myself in this position, the last of the my pitiful income from my Mr Cup job in Dublin draining rapidly. I subsisted on a pauper’s diet of bacon sandwiches and strong tea from an unfriendly man called Uncle T across the road who ran a greasy spoon. Salad was out of the question when I asked for it.
Acting in the same play, in the same suit and trying to put on the same English accent became exhausting. The lack of variety in my diet was also playing havoc on my mind. I found myself lying on the sagging mattress unable or unwilling to do anymore performances for ambivalent American tourists who stared at us blankly.
In two short weeks, my time in Edinburgh was over. I said goodbye to acting forever. My two friends I acted with continued their dream. One going on to become a successful theatre actor in Ireland, the other a successful television actor on HBO who has his own online fansite. My friend who wrote it was invited onto the Royal Court Theatre’s writing scheme. Every year thousands descend on Edinburgh’s cobbled streets trying to make a name, few succeed, but in putting on a production, they have gained friends for life and memories to sustain them, not bad compensation when you think about it.