Then the Fringe began and all my plans fell apart. So here is a totally sober email interview about death, dying, living and The Smiths.
So, Rob, let’s celebrate our sobriety and talk about death, specifically, Death on the Fringe. What is it and why did you get involved?
Death on the Fringe is a series of shows taking place in August that look at death and dying from different perspectives – some serious, some comical – but all designed to make you think, hopefully not in a morbid way, about the inevitable. It’s part of the Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief initiative, run by the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, which aims to get people in Scotland to be more open about death so that they are better able to plan and to support those going through the bereavement process.
I got involved because I know the folks at the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, and they know I like organising and promoting events! Plus, I have a side to me that feels at home with the darker side of life, as anyone who’s seen my music collection can testify, so I was keen to be involved. Together we came up with the idea of Death on the Fringe. We ran the first one last year, and are planning this one to be bigger and better.
What’s happening at the launch tonight?At the launch, guests get to seewee samples of some of the shows – we have the musicians of Fiesta de losMuertos, comedy storyteller Jack Rooke, actors from the show Holly & Ivy and much more besides.We’re very grateful that Professor Scott Murray, Chair of Primary Palliative Care at the University, has agreed to host the event in the historic anatomy lecture theatre at the Med Quad. He, in fact, is one of our performers! He is part of a lecture series we’re organising at St John’s Church on Princes Street, where he’ll be comparing Africa and Scotland and asking which is a better place to die.
One of the reasons that I wanted to find out more about Death on the Fringe is because death is such a bloody good subject, loads of Fringe shows mention it, but no one seems to want to talk about death itself. Why do you think it’s still a subject that we (people in the UK) just don’t want to dwell on?
You’re right. I think it is a very British, or maybe an Anglo-Saxon, thing. If you look at other cultures, there’s much more outward display of grief, and discussion and memorialisation of the dead – things like Mexican Day of the Dead, on which the Fiesta de los Muertos show is based, and traditional Irish wakes. There’s a whole social history dissertation working out why that might be, but we all know that the stereotype of the British stiff upper lip is at least partly grounded in reality. Someone dies and “I’m sorry to hear that” and an embarrassed expression is often all that’s expected and offered. To me, the more it’s talked about and discussed, the better prepared people can be. Bereavement can be very isolating, and reluctance to talk does not necessary help. It’s also important to talk to friends and family about what they want to happen. End-of-life care, funerals, legacies – the time to talk and plan is now, not in the traumatic situation of a sudden death or after a terminal illness diagnosis.
Death can be a morbid subject matter, but what’s really refreshing about this festival within a festival is that there’s a really eclectic mix of shows and performances on the programme, what can people expect from the shows this year?
A bit of everything! If you want the nitty-gritty – tales from the frontline, as it were – our lectures are being done by prominent thinkers, academics and practitioners who’ve got some very interesting thoughts on the subject. If you want something reflective, we’re doing two free evenings at Sweet venues featuring poets, storytellers and musicians which I’m really looking forward to. There’s moving drama, like Broken Biscuits, based on a soldier’s death in Afghanistan, and also straight out silly stuff, like The Ascension of Mrs Leech, an old lady who meets her Maker and decides to show him a thing or two!
What kind of reactions have you had when pitching the festival? Were people on the whole, quite accepting, or did you find that some people were a little uncomfortable with the ‘Let’s talk openly about dying’ message?
Performers have, to a man and woman, been very keen to be on board. They’re all very supportive of the idea. In fact, the reason a lot of them are doing shows are the same reasons we do the Good Life Good Death Good Grief campaign. A few shows we approached turned us down, but that was more to do with existing marketing arrangements than anything to do with the subject matter.
Amongst my friends, I think there’s a sense of “what’s all this death stuff he’s always going on about?” but some of them are coming along to the launch tonight, so we’ll see what they think after that!
Unsurprisingly, for a festival concerned with death and dying, there seems to be a lot about the bit before; life itself. Would you say that this festival could be classed as uplifting, thought-provoking, or maybe even, life affirming?
Definitely. It’s why the initiative this forms part of is called Good Life Good Death Good Grief. There’s three things there, and we don’t want people dwelling on the last two at the expense of the first one. Hopefully, preparedness and acceptance of death can help people value and cherish life. We hope the shows in the festival reflect this.
For example, one of our returning performers is Lynn Ruth Miller, an 81-year-old comedian from America, whose shows reflect upon a lifetime of experience. Last year her show was called “Not Dead Yet” which gives you an idea of where she’s coming from. She didn’t start stand-up until she was in her 70s, sold up and moved to the UK aged 80, and this year was nominated for Old Comedian of the Year. If that doesn’t show people life is for living, I don’t know what will.
As well as life, the other emotion that comes out of this festival is love. Not a fear of death, or uncertainty about the unknown, but complete love for carers, family members, that sort of thing. Does that make sense?
Yes, without wanting to sound cheesy, it’s what life’s about really isn’t it – love for your fellow-man or woman. We’re all on this lump of rock for three score years and ten (or hopefully a little more) and it’s not always fun, it’s not always pretty, sometimes it’s downright scary. But whatever your background and belief, you can afford to show a little love for others, especially when they’re at the crossroads of life and death, or going through that with someone else.
This is a festival within a festival that runs for the whole of the Fringe, is there anything similar taking place at different times of the year if someone is looking for support or advice?
There certainly is. We’re here year round. Death is for life, not just for August. Anyone interested in finding out more ought to take a look at the Good Life Good Death Good Grief website – http://www.goodlifedeathgrief.org.uk/
Also, keep an eye out in November, when we’re organising a Scotland-wide festival called To Absent Friends. It’s a chance for everyone to remember the loved ones they’ve lost. There’ll be events around the country, and we’ll be offering ideas and opportunities for people to remember loved ones in their own personal way.