Extreme measures: acts that have gone to crazy lengths for their art
Claire Sawers girds her loins and speaks to Festival acts whose research has stretched above and beyond
They say great art often comes from great pain. The pain may vary: a sliced-off ear, a broken heart, living in squalor, 24 hours without a reliable Wi-fi connection, but the basic notion is the same. Sometimes, the artist must suffer before they hit the jackpot and come up with that groundbreaking work of genius.
This year’s Edinburgh Festival contains no shortage of die-hard masochists. For example, illusionist and mind reader Colin Cloud will give himself a lethal injection onstage every night during his Fringe show, Exposé. Cloud will then be led by an audience member, telepathically, to the lifesaving antidote. ‘If I don’t take an antidote, I’ll be in real trouble,’ explains Cloud, who can’t name his exact poison yet for legal reasons. ‘I’ll have seizures and vital organs will be damaged: needless to say, don’t try this at home.’
Cloud studied forensics before switching to magic, and blames Sherlock Holmes for his morbid fascination with murder, suicide and faked deaths. ‘When planning a show, I look for an emotional hook. The ultimate seemed to be putting my life on the line.’ Inspired by escape artist Harry Houdini and comedy hoaxer Andy Kaufman, Cloud is working daily with a personal trainer to improve his metabolism and will need medical checks, plus the go-ahead from his insurers, before the show can go on.
Investigating a more serious side to lethal injections, English playwright Stephanie Ridings visited Huntsville in Texas, home to America’s busiest execution chamber. Intrigued by British women who fall in love with death-row inmates, she travelled with a filmmaker to the prison. ‘I’d done mostly online research in the past, but this subject seemed far more complicated. For some prisoners, having a pen pal is a lifeline and the only glimmer of hope they have.’
Ridings interviewed a retired prison guard who’d assisted in 85 executions. ‘Many suffer from PTSD after working in Huntsville. Just being in close proximity to the death house, I can understand why.’ She wasn’t allowed in the execution chamber, but joined protestors and family outside when a prisoner was killed. ‘Hearing his teenage daughter wail, “my dad is gone!” will sit with me forever.’
Ridings has combined footage from that trip with fiction to create a solo show, The Road to Huntsville. ‘I always enjoy doing research,’ says Ridings. ‘Although “enjoy” is not the right word for my trip to Huntsville. It was the first time I’d really gone into a world for my writing; though, in this case, a very messed-up one.’
Ridings isn’t alone in her desire to go deep with the research. Nick Cassenbaum visited every public Jewish steam bath in London to collect true stories for Bubble Schmeisis. Comedian Yianni Agisilaou geeked up by learning every Simpsons quote for Yianni: The Simpsons Taught Me Everything I Know. Rob Newman volunteered for a brain-imaging experiment and had a functional MRI scan before writing The Brain Show. Samantha Pressdee posed nude and tried yoni healing to cure her sex addiction for Sextremist. And, choreographer Rhiannon Faith underwent cognitive behavioural therapy before creating Scary Shit.
Children’s author MG Leonard, appearing at the Book Festival with novel Beetle Boy, began researching simply to find something new to write about. ‘I’ve always been terrified of insects and slightly ashamed of it,’ she says. ‘I was pregnant with my first child and wanted to conquer my fear so I wouldn’t pass it on. I ended up falling down this rabbit hole into a wonderland: invertebrate-land.’
Her research took her behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum, onto eBay to collect antique scarab jewellery and into Pembrokeshire’s insect-restaurant, Grub Kitchen, to eat crickets. ‘I’m now absolutely obsessed, not to mention proud. A lot of fear is ignorance. Insects are often villains in fiction but I now realise they can actually be the good guys.’
America-based, South Korea-born author Helie Lee’s extreme research involved disguising herself as a man. The urge came after she’d gone to help relatives get out of North Korea. ‘I was standing at the border of China, staring into North Korea. I saw my family, starved and terrified; there were soldiers with rifles, monitoring their every move. I was terrified for them, but all they could talk about was why I wasn’t married. My emaciated North Korean relatives felt sorry for me. I had a serious problem with that.’ So, Lee spent six months dressed as a man for Macho Like Me. ‘I worked out hard at the gym until I could bench-press 90 pounds. I stopped routines such as shaving, waxing, tweezing, and I researched “guy moves”: how they walk, stand, smile.’
Hanging out in stereotypically male-dominated spaces like basketball games, sports bars and the Playboy Mansion, Lee was surprised to discover the biggest giveaway of her biological gender. ‘My emotions. They showed on my face, my body, how I spoke. But quickly, I learned to rein it in if I wanted to be accepted as one of the guys.’
She maintains that the most ‘extreme’ thing she did during the experiment was to stop talking so much. ‘Talking is how I make friends, solve problems, create, love. For men, the ability to control their feelings at first seemed powerful to me, but after spending time with them, I witnessed the toll and price men pay for this ability to shove down their feelings and just shake hands and move on.’
Colin Cloud: Exposé, Underbelly, Bristo Square, 6–28 Aug (not 15), 9pm, £10--£12 (£9--£11). Previews 3–5 Aug, £7
The Road to Huntsville, Summerhall, 7–28 Aug (not 15, 22), 8.45pm, £10 (£8). Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £8 (£6)
MG Leonard, Charlotte Square Gardens, 20 Aug, 5pm, £7 (£5)
Macho Like Me, Gilded Balloon, Bristo Square, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 12.30pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10). Previews 3–5 Aug, £5
For details of all other shows, go to list.co.uk/festival