Friday, 29 June 2018

Death of Dramaturgy: Robert Peacock @ Edfringe 2018

Death comes to the Fringe

Death on the Fringe, the charity-run initiative to get the world’s largest arts festival talking about the one thing that faces us all, returns to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for its fifth year.





The mini-festival draws together shows and lectures within the Fringe that deal with the big issues of death, dying and bereavement. It is curated by Good Life Good Death Good Grief, an alliance of organisations and individuals working to make Scotland more open and supportive around death.

Death on the Fringe takes place across Edinburgh from 1 – 26 August 2018. 



    The purpose of your programme is to present a series of works across media which connect through the theme of death and bereavement. How does this fit within the organisations usual work?

    Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief exists to create more openness and support around death, dying and bereavement in Scotland. A lot of problems arise because people are unprepared for the inevitable and don’t necessarily discuss the big issues. 

    Would you want your life prolonging even if there was little chance of recovery? Have you told your friends and family what your final wishes would be? How do you support someone who has been bereaved? Not knowing the answers to these questions can cause extra heartache and anguish at an already incredibly difficult time.

    A lot of our work is therefore about making
    sure people have access to information, so they’re better informed about these issues. Our website is full of resources and links – how to make a will, or where to seek support after a bereavement, for instance. 

    But beyond that, we’re looking for creative ways to get people to engage with the topic. The arts in general, and theatre in particular, has that power to challenge and provoke and ask questions of people. A good drama showing the impact of a death or a terminal illness diagnosis can reach people in a way an information leaflet can’t. We want to signpost people to shows that have that impact, and then “if you’ve been affected by these issues…”, we are the people who can tell you more.

    What guided your selections of shows? What process led to them being included?

    We take no particular stance on any aspect of the subject matter. Our purpose is just to get people thinking. With that in mind, any show that covers either death, dying or bereavement is eligible for inclusion, whether serious, surreal, comic or otherwise. We exclude shows where it seems to be a subsidiary theme. There’s always war plays at
    the Fringe, for instance. That’s its own major topic and an individual’s own death is usually just one part of a wider point discussion about inhumanity or injustice. 

    By the same token, we leave out shows that are about famous deaths, where the death is just an aspect of a biographical piece. More or less anything else we’re open to. We’ve even included farces before now. It might not be the most circumspect way of discussing death, but if you see a farce about disposing of a dead body, it might make you consider carefully what happens to your remains.

    I approach the theatre company or performer, explain what we do, and ask if they’d like to be included. Normally their motivation for doing the piece in the first place accords with our mission, so they’re very happy to be part of it. 

    We’ve been helped this year by David Graham, who is running the Sit-Up Awards, a new scheme to support theatre that has a social impact. He had a ready-made list of shows that were about death and had spotted a few that we had missed. Fringe blurbs can often be misleadingly vague!

    What kind of extra events have you developed and how do they encourage the themes and connection between the works?

    Alongside the shows, we programme our own public lecture series in conjunction with Just Festival at St John’s Church on Princes Street. These feature academics and practitioners introducing their own area of expertise. This year we have a funeral director, an academic telling the history of the Scottish funeral and a death doula (someone who acts as a practical and emotional companion at the end of life). They’re each Thursday of the Fringe at 6pm. 

    We also have a space at the Book Festival from 10am – 3pm on 16 August where we’re hosting an exhibition we put together with photographer Colin Gray looking at the different aspects of caring at the end of life. There’ll also be a mobile library of death-related poetry assembled by the Scottish Poetry Library, resources and information, and a chance to discuss the topic over a “Death Lunch”.


    How will this programme be more effective than leaflets or youtube videos?

    The rawness of being able to see good drama close-up at the Fringe. That setting, sharing the emotional tension in a room with performers and audience members, heightens the experience. 

    It engages the mind and senses much more actively than passively browsing a leaflet or youtube video could ever do. We hope that impact will help generate conversation after the event, and ideally spill over into conversation at people’s workplaces or around the dinner table the next day.   

    And why is the Fringe a good place for this rather than a dedicated festival at some point at the rest of the year?

    We do also have our own dedicated festival, To Absent Friends, a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance which takes place across Scotland from 1 – 7 November each year. The focus of that festival is to create space for people to remember, share stories and celebrate those who we have loved who have died, again as a way to shift our cultural attitude towards death and dying. 

    The remembrance focus is narrower than what we do with Death on the Fringe, but our main reason for doing something during the Fringe as well is because it is such a great platform for ideas and to engage large numbers of people with the subject matter. And of course, it’s tremendous fun, even when you’re dealing with such challenging topics.


    Death on the Fringe presents audiences with different ways to engage with the topic and aims to break down the fear and discomfort people have when confronted with it. It’s naturally a difficult and unpleasant subject to think about, but sharing experiences, feelings and ideas through performance is one way to make space for contemplation and to create a more supportive and understanding environment for dealing with death.

    “There’s no shortage of issues being talked about at the Fringe,” says Robert Peacock, Director of Death on the Fringe. “But death is one we can all relate to.”

    “The arts have never shied away from confronting the big themes; in fact, some might suggest all art is a response to mortality in some way. So, in these times when modern life and modern medicine has distanced us from traditional wisdom and community support around death, we think the arts is one way to reconnect us and help us understand what it means to be mortal.”

    The Death on the Fringe programme offers a range of perspectives on the subject – some heartbreaking, some comical, some profound, some perverse. This year’s shows include Fringe legend Pip Utton’s latest solo piece, And Before I Forget I Love You, I Love You, about the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s (Pleasance Courtyard, 1-26 August, 2pm) and Dante or Die’s site-specific piece about the online legacies we leave, User Not Found (Traverse @ Jeelie Piece Café, 3-26 August, 8pm).

    There’s dark comedy in Paige Jennifer Barr’s show Death, Dating and I Do, (theSpace on the Mile, 14-18 August, 11.15am) the tale of finding love again after the death of her husband, and even audience participation cookery in Making Room’s The Midnight Soup (Summerhall, 14-26 August, 7pm).

    Vicar of Dibley writer Paul Mayhew-Archer talks about his experience with Parkinson’s in Incurable Optimist (Underbelly Bristo Square, 1-26 August, 5.15pm), while a funeral home sales agent has to face up to her own death in Gillian Skye’s Come Die With Us (Sweet Grassmarket, 2-26 August, 3.55pm). Other shows look at organ donation (From One Heart To Another, SpaceTriplex, 6-7 August, 1.05pm) and the loss of a child (Canoe, theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall, 3-25 Aug, 9.05pm)

    The programme also includes three public lectures run in partnership with Just Festival at St. John’s Church on Princes St. Dundee University’s Eddie Small tells the Surprising History of the Scottish Funeral on 9 August at 6pm. Audiences can also hear about A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director with Awdri Doyle on 16 August, and what it’s like to be a Death Doula, giving practical, emotional and spiritual support at the end of life, with trained Doula, Hilary Peppiette on 23 August, also at 6pm.

    Death on the Fringe is also collaborating with Edinburgh International Book Festival, who are hosting It Takes A Village, a powerful portrait exhibition by Colin Gray and the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care that shows that support at the end of life comes in many guises (The Bookshop on George Street, 16 August, 10am – 3pm).

    In total, the programme features over 20 shows, with more being added. The full programme can be found on the website.

    • Death on the Fringe was first held in 2014, and has featured performers in the past including Dr Phil Hammond, Lynn Ruth Miller, and Scottish Comedian of the Year, Rosco McClelland. This year will be its fifth year.

    • Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief is a collective of individuals and organisations working to make Scotland a place where there is more openness about death, dying and bereavement. It was established in 2011 by the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care. 

    • The Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care (SPPC) brings together health and social care professionals from hospitals, social care services, primary care, hospices and other charities, to find ways of improving people’s experiences of declining health, death, dying and bereavement. 

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