Andrew Eaton-Lewis: ‘Turns out I’m less aware of my white male bubble than I thought I was’

This week is around the point in August when I would ordinarily have disappeared entirely into an Edinburgh festival bubble, burned out by working seven days a week, sleeping four hours a night, and answering any question with ‘which venue is it at?’ even if the question is ‘would you like a cup of tea?’

Jess Brough.
Jess Brough.

Different people have their own forms of festival bubble. Perhaps you are so focused on the success or failure of your life-affirming solo cabaret show that you have forgotten to eat or wash.

Perhaps you have stopped reading any news story that doesn’t have the word Fringe in it and are therefore oblivious to the earthquake/war/political scandal that is common knowledge everywhere outside of the basement/sterile hotel conference room/shipping container you are spending most of the month in.

Or perhaps you have just become so disorientated by the 24-hour spectacle of crowds and shows and alcohol and food that you no longer have any idea what time or day it is, and are only confident of what year it is because it’s written on the cover of all the festival programmes.

It’s been a bit different this year, obviously. Last week I spent almost two days away from my laptop searching for a missing sheepdog, which distracts your attention from star ratings somewhat. It was tempting, as I checked my work messages while stamping around a windy moor blowing a whistle and shouting, to congratulate myself on experiencing the festival this year without living in a bubble.

Working from a rural home would surely mean not falling for the magical illusion that being physically in the midst of the world’s biggest arts festival means you’re experiencing the whole world in one city. But then I remembered that a problem with bubbles is that they’re invisible.

From my Hebridean vantage point I had failed to spot, for example, that the Edinburgh International Festival’s online programme is almost 90% white, with almost twice as many male artists as female ones, until a ‘be more representative’ petition pointed it out. And this was at a point when I was already subscribing to the excellent Fringe of Colour programme, set up in response to the invisibility of artists of colour at the Edinburgh festival. Turns out I’m less aware of my white male bubble than I thought I was.

Other bubbles I live in include being middle aged, middle class, heterosexual, and a parent. All inevitably shape my view of the Edinburgh festival, in ways I sometimes fail to notice.

There has been much discussion in lockdown about whose voices and perspectives are represented in mainstream culture, where power lies, whose stories are told.

These conversations are especially important at a crisis point for the performing arts when stark choices may have to be made about what it is most important to save, protect and nurture, because not everything can survive and if we’re honest some bubbles need to burst.

Early in the festival I read Jess Brough’s introduction to Fringe of Colour and it stuck with me. The programme’s aim, Brough pointed out, was not to ‘diversify’ the Fringe but simply to create a safe space for artists of colour to share and discuss work - a festival ‘by us, for us’ as the website puts it.

I’m not sure Brough would thank me for the metaphor, but one way of describing this distinction is protecting your own bubble vs trying to burst other people’s. Some bubbles, unfortunately, are almost impossible to burst because the people inside them can’t or won’t acknowledge that they even exist.

For what it’s worth, I’m trying to get better at acknowledging mine.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I found the sheepdog.

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