Camille O’Sullivan is frequently hailed as the “Queen of the Fringe”, a crown she wears lightly and at a jaunty angle, being as down-to-earth offstage as she is immersed and possessed onstage. This Irish chanteuse – singer just doesn’t quite cut it – earned her regal soubriquet for her ecstatically received performances at the Edinburgh Fringe, first as a member of La Clique’s motley crew of circus, cabaret and comic performers, then as a solo purveyor of dark, dramatic themed musical extravaganzas, but she is also a veteran of the Dublin, Adelaide and Brighton fringes.
“You can have a gin and tonic and enjoy yourself in those other festivals,” she says. “You might need to see a therapist for the full month of October after Edinburgh! It’s like a pregnancy, you forget how tough it was.”
But if there’s no pain, then there’s no gain. O’Sullivan always pushes herself to debut new shows at the Fringe, using it as a testing ground for her femme fatale renditions of songs by mostly male titans of their trade, from the Berlin cabaret tradition of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler to modern fabulists such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
“A fringe festival is where you get to prove yourself again for the next year,” she says. “I always tell people if they want to become a singer ‘go to the mothership’. You go there to be brave and fearless with it, and sometimes you’re going to get knocked down, but the Fringe is a wonderful place to educate yourself as a singer.”
While O’Sullivan enjoys her most intense relationship with the Edinburgh Fringe, she has never forgotten her first Fringe fling in her native Dublin. She was still an architecture student in the city when the Dublin Fringe launched in 1995. Unlike Edinburgh’s open access sprawl, Dublin is a curated festival looking to give Irish companies a showcase alongside international groups.
“Dublin is the more laidback sister of the Edinburgh Fringe,” says O’Sullivan. “It definitely is a smaller thing but it really has grown. There’s some amazing Irish companies and performers who have come through the Fringe like The Corn Exchange and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre and I wonder how well their careers would have gone if they hadn’t had that.”
O’Sullivan has been involved with the Dublin Fringe from its earliest days and has now performed there about a dozen times. “I remember the first year when we did Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel,” she says. “What I didn’t know was that was the beginning of a career, that was the shop window, and then I remember trying to get a gig outside it and being told ‘You’re singing these songs? You’ll not get a gig if you sing this dark stuff’. [Spiegeltent impresario] David Bates was the one who said ‘that’s what you should be singing, just go and do what’s in your record collection’.”
O’Sullivan still follows her gut and her record collection in creating new work. This year she brings Where Are We Now? to the Edinburgh Fringe, looking for succour and wisdom in the works of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen among others. “I keep on thinking it will be a hymnal show because where we’re at I need some kind of respite and music is a good thing to give people a bit of joy.”
The Queen of the Fringe has some sage stately advice for aspiring Fringe performers. “Don’t worry about the money or the accolades, because it’s really about if you want to be an artist in this mad business. The Fringe is where you’re allowed to be bonkers or do something different – some of the best shows I ever saw were at the Edinburgh and Dublin Fringes.
“I can tour non-stop, but the kicks up the bottom are doing the fringe festivals. I actually don’t think I’d be performing now if I hadn’t gone to Edinburgh and Dublin.”
*Camille O’Sullivan: Where Are We Now?, Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows, 4-26 August, www.edfringe.com
*The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the world’s first Fringe back in 1947. Seventy years later, there are now more than 200 Fringes worldwide. World Fringe Day, on 11 July, marks 70 years since the birth of the Fringe concept, www.worldfringeday.com