(Live on the stage of Theater 3 at Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh, image by Chris Scott.)
Let me tell you about Suicide Wednesday. As prepared as I was going to Edinburgh Fringe, I did not know about Suicide Wednesday, and it’s important to share what I learned.
Imagine you’ve spent the past two years getting your show ready for the biggest arts festival in the world, a three-and-a-half week run alongside some of the best stage performers on the planet, roughly 4000 shows every day, all competing for attention. You come to a place like this to prove yourself.
And by that first Monday, you have. Yeah, preview audiences were slow. Of course they were, nobody in Edinburgh knows who you are. But by Monday, you’ve got this beast of a festival figured out: a raucous, nearly sold-out crowd and multiple industry people in the seats. At the end of the show, one of those people isn’t just tweeting about you, he’s emailing you about a UK tour. Let’s set a meeting he says, and you email him back immediately.
This wasn’t so hard. Some people just have it and you’re one of the lucky ones. Although it gets in your head a little. A lot. By Monday evening you’re an ADD tornado of whirling joy and ego, burning enough energy to light this town for the run of the festival. But it feels good. This is fun.
You have trouble sleeping Monday night – hard to come down from that – and when you wake up Tuesday, you’re starting to feel what they call Fringe Flu. No time to stay in bed though, you need to get out into the streets and flyer for your now-successful show. So get some LEMSIP, that’ll will help with the cold, and check your email to see what industry guy has to say.
Nothing. No email yet from industry guy. Shake it off, grab your flyers, head out.
But it’s hard pitching your show to people on the street today. All that energy you had yesterday? What goes up must come down, and you realize you’re feeling the onset of depression like an addict coming off a serious bender and looking for his next score, which also describes how people are seeing you right now. You’re not selling them anything in this state, except maybe your need for rehab.
That’s okay. One day of not flyering won’t hurt. At least that’s what you think until you walk out on stage and there are five people in the audience.
So far, today is less good than yesterday. But it feels more than less good. Your emotional swing has it feeling catastrophic. Doesn’t matter, you don’t want another empty house tomorrow, so you take your sickness and depression and flyers back onto the street after your show. But now something different is happening. Everyone you approach is saying the same thing.
“I’m catching the bus home today.”
Fringe’s first audience exodus has begun, and the new people haven’t arrived yet. You check your sales for tomorrow before you go to bed. Two tickets. Note to self: don’t check sales before bed again. You check your email. Still no word from industry guy. Note to self: don’t check email before bed again.
You lie awake and stew in self loathing over Monday’s hubris and today’s inability to recapture yesterday’s brilliance.
You wake up Wednesday quite possibly the most exhausted you’ve ever felt, and you use the term “wake up” loosely since you haven’t slept. Seriously, you can barely lift your legs, this isn’t normal.
But it is. The adrenaline that’s been carrying you since opening six days ago has just run out. What did you expect? You don’t have an infinite supply of the stuff. And to top it off, you make the mistake of checking your sales and your email again, neither of which have changed since last night.
You’ve been ghosted. Twice. By the Fringe audience and by your industry guy. Why did they even show up on Monday? You hate them. Unless they turn up again, of course, in which case, they are totally awesome.
You down more LEMSIP, put on your winter layers and rain jacket – Edinburgh in August – and drag your sick, depressed, exhausted ass out into the drizzle to see if you can find anyone to hear your story today. And the few people on the streets still say the same thing.
“I’m catching the bus home today.”
Before you walk out on stage to perform, you dose on throat spray and hope you can hit the high note in the second song. You walk out, the lights come up. Five people in the seats.
Afterwards you foolishly ask the box office about tomorrow’s sales. Zero, they answer. Zero advance tickets. And you have three more weeks of this.
Suicide. Fucking. Wednesday.
The full weight of Fringe has hit you. Right in your cocky mouth.
Full disclosure, this didn’t happen to you. It happened to me, and the crazy thing is, this is the reason I went to Edinburgh. Sort of. I went to prove myself, to find out if I can hold my own on a stage at a festival with some of the best performers on the planet. To learn if I have it in me to go out there every day and find the audience to fill those seats. To somehow connect myself to 5000 years of theater history and generations of traveling performers who’ve gone somewhere and put on a show.
Proving yourself comes with trials. That’s kind of the point. And while a lot of us ask the question, “Do I have the energy to persevere,” we don’t all get the opportunity to ask it about something we really want. Edinburgh was that opportunity for me.
But when you hit dark moments like Suicide Wednesday, what you want can become clouded. You’re suffering, you’re not having fun, you’re not making money, now you get to find out if this is something you really do want.
Performing at Edinburgh is something every young performer should experience. If you can make it through this moment and still want this, it’s what you should be doing. And if you realize it’s not what you want, there’s no shame in walking away. You’ve discovered something valuable.
The shame is if you walk away because you’re afraid of doing the work. As someone who spent years (okay decades) not doing what he wanted because he was afraid to find out whether he could, this was the moment I finally got to discover the answer.
Do I belong here? Do I have it in me?
And on that Wednesday, sick, exhausted, dejected, by myself in a city I don’t know, I had to decide if I had three more weeks of this. in me This is not a moment that is exclusive to theater. It’s the dark night of the soul. The oldest stories we have talk about this moment in our lives.
I want to tell you that I dug deep, grabbed my flyers, put a smile on my face and went back out into the street. But that didn’t happen for another 20 minutes.
And let me add this: just because you throw a tantrum, email your publicist telling her you’re done, you’re not flyering another day, you’ll still perform but from now on you’re on a theater-going holiday, it doesn’t mean you won’t feel differently when you’ve calmed down. In 20 minutes.
Then you’ll remember the question your mentor asked you: “Aren’t you willing to suffer for something you want?”
Then you’ll make another batch of LEMSIP, fill your thermos, wrap a scarf around your neck, grab a stack of flyers, and discover a deeper source of energy than you knew you had. You’ll go back out into the streets and make a couple dozen people laugh hard enough that they might buy tickets to your show.
There have been other moments like this in my life, where I had to take stock of myself and ask if I had it in me to do the work even when it looked like there was no hope of success. And there are times that I didn’t have it in me. I walked away because it was clear this wasn’t something I wanted.
I feel zero shame about those moments, and those were some of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. But I’ll never be as proud of them as I was of the moment I picked my depressed, sick ass off the floor of my Edinburgh apartment and walked back out into the street with those flyers.
And two days later, my Friday house was nearly full. I have never appreciated a group of people so much in my life, never been so humbled to share my story, and so determined to keep going.
By the time my last week rolled around, just five shows left, I had …