PERFORMANCE artist and academic Brian Lobel is having a strange Fringe. When I meet him in the Summerhall courtyard he has already seen 50 shows and his head is spinning from the multitude of ways and means Fringe performers find to talk about their bodies and their minds.
Lobel is working with the Wellcome Trust on a charitably funded project called The Sick of The Fringe, which is designed to connect performers whose work is to do with bodies, illness, disability, mental health. biology and genetics. (Which, by my reckoning, is pretty much everyone).
Lobel, who is a Wellcome Engagement Fellow, has found himself outside his comfort zone. “I come from the world of live art and solo performance. I’ve never been to a stand-up show in my life and I had never seen a magician before this August.
“We all live in our own bubble. I have a particular genre that I know really well but I have been surprised by how much other forms of performance have got a connection with health, sickness, mental health and disability.”
Lobel is writing a daily blog about the shows he sees and looks utterly dazed. It’s a state of mind I know well from covering Fringe shows as a reviewer.
“Welcome to my world,” I tell him.
However Lobel has not been been writing reviews, but creating “diagnoses” – of the shows he sees, from a list of performers who asked to take part in The Sick of The Fringe.
Comedian and activist Liz Carr has been a huge supporter of the project, as has actor Simon McBurney and live artist Bryony Kimmings, whose show this year is about dealing with her partner Tim Grayburn’s mental illness.
Scientists, including leading neurologist Professor Colin Blakemore, will also be taking part in events designed to bring together voices from the arts and from science.
Lobel’s own interest in challenging and questioning the way we talk about illness and health began with his own cancer diagnosis – which led him to create the performance piece Ball. Ball was an “anti-inspirational” cancer story, which rewrote the tale of his testicular cancer as a hula hooping competition, in which he was competing with eight-year-old girls.
Partly informed by the Lance Armstrong story, it questioned the notion that having cancer is a “fight” or a “battle” or something you have to “survive.”
“I don’t use the word ‘survivor’ and I don’t use battle metaphors for illness. These horrible unnecessary war metaphors just make everything hyperbolic.”
He commends Olivia Hirst for coining the phrase “cancer avoider” in Goodstock, her play at the Pleasance, an account of being diagnosed with the BRCA1 gene and opting for an elective mastectomy.
Lobel writes in his “diagnosis”: “While so, so, so much energy is foisted upon those who survive, and so, so, so many memorials are laid out for those who die due to the disease, there is little space in current cancer discourse for those who don’t fit neatly into these two categories. As Hirst so rightly points out, after her mastectomy she will have the battle scars from cancer, but no battle.”
Lobel’s diagnoses of Fringe shows focus on the way a performer deals with their subject, then suggest links to other people covering similar ground in different ways. He also tries to find research and news items which link with the health or sickness issues covered in the show.
Lobel is not supposed to be picking favourites but one of his stand-out shows has been My Beautiful Black Dog – a rock show about depression performed at the Underbelly by Brigitte Aphrodite. In his diagnosis he describes it as “loud,” “messy” and “an incredibly meaningful meditation on mental health”.
The show, he says, reminds the audience “that mental illness is not discreet, or neat, or over even when one thinks its over. It’s a process, and can be a very long and arduous one.”
He’s been inspired and surprised by some of the performers who have asked him to diagnose their work. This is the first time Wellcome has sponsored The Sick of The Fringe and Lobel and his team are trying to get around everyone who has asked them to diagnose their shows.
Although Lobel’s diagnoses are intended to be “no-star constructive responses” he did come across one show which forced him to disagree with the performers’ approach.
“I had a problem with a show that had a representation of disability that I found problematic. I had to write something about it – and the performers got in touch. We ended up sitting down and having a two-hour discussion about it.”
Sometimes the link to illness and health can be oblique. In Garden at the Pleasance Courtyard, Lucy Grace talks about the unnatural life of the city and office dweller – and about reclaiming the inner wildness of the spirit by cultivating plants.
He also enjoyed comic Mathilda Gregory’s How to Be Fat at Zoo Southside. “She was really interesting, really sharp.” One of his favourite discoveries has been Magiko – performed by Siegfried Tieber and Dog House Theatricals at Spotlites.
In his diagnosis of the show Lobel writes: “These tricks of perception are increasingly relevant to science, and scientific research work on phantom limbs, synaesthesia, neurological disorders.
“While many successful magicians use illusions to wow their audiences, Tieber uses the set-up to the illusion, as well as the denouement, to make us reconsider why we want to know how it works.”
Lobel pairs his description of Magiko with news reports on phantom limbs and a treatise by world famous magicians Penn and Teller on neurological science and illusion. He is thinking of pairing some kind of magic act with Professor Blakemore, the eminent neurologist, and philosopher of medicine, who will be taking part in The Sick of The Fringe keynote event at Symposium Hall on 27 August.
Co-director Tracy Gentles – who has worked with Lobel on Performing Medicine, and Clod Ensemble, who take artistic projects to medical schools – has also been inspired by some of the work she’s seen.
She particularly loved 81-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller’s disarmingly simple storytelling and cabaret show about anxiety, Get a Grip, at C Nova, which is a joyful guide to overcoming your fears in life.
She hopes The Sick of The Fringe is an idea that will take hold. “We put the programme together so quickly this year so we are just testing it out and seeing if there is a desire for it to work.
“I’m surprised at how much interest we have had in it so far.” As well as holding events which match up scientists, activists and performers, The Sick of The Fringe is also offering one-to-one workshops to help artists find out about the funding that is available for projects which deal with health.
Lobel’s idea is to create a community within a community which can bring together scientists, artists, activists and charity organisations in a constructive way.
There are no limits, as Lobel says: “The problem with The Sick of The Fringe is that when you start thinking about it you realise everything is connnected.”
• The Sick of the Fringe is hosting an open meeting at the Forest Fringe today at 10:30am; Wellcome Trust surgeries at Summerhall, tomorrow and Wednesday at 9am, and main events at theSpace @ Symposium Hall at 10.30am onThursday (with Sir Colin Blakemore) and Friday (with Liz Carr).