Mental Health, Self Care and the Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe can be a tough old slog for everyone in Edinburgh. Emma O'Brien speaks to comedian Juliette Burton and has a brainwave which might save the day

Article by Emma O'Brien | 22 Jul 2019
  • Juliette Burton

Anyone who’s ever attended a Fringe (even for just a couple of days) would likely acknowledge that while it’s an experience like nothing else on Earth, it’s also one that takes its toll, both physical and emotional, on everyone from the punters to the left luggage staff at Waverley.

Having gone undercover as a flyerer in 2017, on annual leave from my day job as a mental health worker, I was especially struck by the relentless pressure on performers and began to worry this couldn’t be doing them much good. Comedians in particular seem to bear the brunt of this, as many of them are solo artists as opposed to theatre companies, and many have invested huge time and money in often gut-wrenchingly personal shows, flyering hostile audiences in torrential rain, and running the risk of playing to empty rooms. I’ve even heard the chilling tale of one reviewer who was the sole audience for an hour of improv-based mime which the performer gamely went ahead with – surely not the only time it’s happened.

Juliette Burton, veteran of the last six Fringes, notes that there’s a double bind for both established and new performers in that “the issues that make the Free Fringe stressful are removed if you’re in the Big Four (venues), but in those there’s a lot more pressure.” Not that the Free Fringe route is without its stressors – she describes the benefits of supportive venue staff and a network of other sympathetic performers that come with a paid venue. Fringe Central and Equity have also taken a real interest in artists’ wellbeing, but what’s critical here is making sure those who need a service know it’s there – I discovered quite by accident last year that the University GP practice can offer care to Fringe visitors; several performers I encountered afterwards didn’t know this either.

None of this is to say that the experience for fledgling comedians is neither valuable nor enjoyable. Merely it’s that the mental wellbeing of ourselves and anyone we see, review or take a flyer from during the month should be a constant consideration and all potential sources of support clearly signposted where those in need are likely to find them. 

During my flyering run, I often pondered hiring a rickshaw to pedal about dispensing tea, hugs, advice not to promote on the Royal Mile and reinforcement that simply bringing a show up at all is an awesome achievement. Burton agrees, and then surprises me with the delightful thought that during some of her most difficult times of recent years, while developing her shows, she’s been buffered and consoled by “knowing that at the end of it there’s going to be an audience there, and we’re all going to laugh about it, and they will all have felt as lost and lonely at some point, because that’s where the best comedy comes from.” Wise words.

In conclusion: it’s a wonderful, boisterous carnival out there. Look after yourself, be kind to flyerers, don’t put buttons in buckets and laugh a lot, always.

Juliette Burton: DefinedGilded Balloon Teviot (Sportsmans), until 25 Aug (not 12), 5.30pm, £9-£11