Getting away, taking the plunge

So imagine me, the day when I had that tiny, important epiphany, walking down Kentish Town Road with the sun beaming down on my bare shoulders, feeling happy and like I should be kinder to myself. Imagine my thoughts drifting to the impending Edinburgh Festival Fringe for which, comedy aficionado I am, I’d witnessed so much preparation. And imagine me suddenly not feeling worried about the fact that I hadn’t started planning a trip there, probably wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay, didn’t really have the money to do any of this anyway. It was important to me, I realised, and so I had to try to make it work.

Within a few days I’d booked my round trip on the bus. Nine hours there, nine hours back. I’d reserved the last bed in a hostel in Haymarket, wherever that was. I’d spent £90 on tickets, and had muddled my brain trying to figure out how to see as many of the things I wanted to as I possibly could. I’d told my boss at one job that I’d need a weekend off, had convinced a coworker at the other job to take one of my shifts. My always-amazing mother had sent me money to help with my adventure. And I was excited. Sure I was only going away for four days, but I was going to Edinburgh. I’d been there once before, with Nidal and Jen in October 2011, and we’d only gone overnight and we’d all worn the wrong shoes to walk around much in and we spent a good deal of our time in the Costa in Princes Mall feeling ridiculously overtired, but we’d loved it all the same because that’s how good a city it is.

And this was different than a casual visit, anyway. EdFringe has been a big deal in my brain for years. Never more, of course, than the past year and a half, associating with the people I do, but years ago there was a moment in a party in my brother and sister-in-law’s old Ottawa apartment; my friend Mason had mentioned that he’d been to the Fringe once, and I sat there mouth agape as he told me about the varying sizes of venue, about the sheer amount of shows, about the amazing atmosphere of the festival. I wanted to go there.

It was probably the promise of getting away, too, that made me feel like I needed change so badly my bones were aching (although this could’ve also been attributed to working full-time hours between two jobs, and obsessing over being healthy to the extent that I was, more often than not, walking an hour-plus to and from these workplaces). Being on a bus overnight, perpetually shifting to try to find a slightly less painful way for my knees to be bent the wrong direction, trying to get an okay amount of sleep even though I know I’m fairly unable to sleep well in vehicles… well, maybe that wasn’t the way to stop the aches and pains, but the relief of being away from any sort of responsibility for a few days was immense. I realised at some point in that nearly-sleepless night the significance of what I was doing: this was my first solo getaway in the entire time I’ve lived on this side of the Atlantic. I have travelled some since I’ve been living in London: apart from two trips back home, I’ve also gone to Spain (with my parents), Brighton (with my friend Liv; with my uncle Nils; & with my dear, dear Nidal, David & Erin), Windsor (with my family); & Cardiff (with Mom & Chris). All of these listed trips, however, have been more because I’ve had visitors than because I myself have wanted to explore. The fact of it is that London brings me such tremendous joy more often than not that I don’t feel that same need for escape that I used to back in Ottawa, even just for 24 hours at a time to see a gig and remember that there was more to my world.

And, really, although I am social, I am by nature a solitary individual, only really determined to spend time with those whose company I prefer to my own, so while nearly everyone I spoke to leading up to this trip questioned my decision to travel all that distance on my own, it seemed perfectly natural to me. And, hey, being honest, to claim this as a real solo mission would be disingenuous. I was going to see a number of people I know. Above all else, for someone like me, this was a bit of a pilgrimage.

It was absolutely goddamn glorious.


The shows I saw, clockwise from top left:

    • Andrew O’Neill – Mindspiders (5:15 p.m. Saturday)
    • Dan Clark – Me, My Selfie, & I (8 p.m. Saturday)
    • Stuart Black – The Crossroads (10 p.m. Saturday)
    • Marc Burrows – Ten Best Songs Of All Time (11:30 p.m. Saturday)
    • Bec Hill – Bec Hill in… Ellipsis (5:30 p.m. Sunday)
    • Abigoliah Schamaun – It’s Pronounced Abigoliah Schamaun (6:45 p.m. Sunday)
    • Tiff Stevenson – Optimist (9:15 p.m. Sunday)
    • Andrew O’Neill – Andrew O’Neill’s History of Heavy Metal (10:45 p.m. Sunday)
    • Lady Carol – Lost & Found (5:20 p.m. Monday)
    • Nish Kumar – Ruminations on the Nature of Subjectivity (7:15 p.m. Monday)
    • Paul Ricketts – Paul Ricketts’ West End Story* (9 p.m. Monday)
    • Joey Page – This Is Not A Circus (10:45 p.m. Monday)
    • Tony Law – Enter the Tonezone (12:10 p.m. Tuesday)
    • Andrew O’Neill – Mindspiders** (5:15 p.m. Tuesday)
    • James Acaster – Recognise (8 p.m. Tuesday)

* In spite of the enormous stack of flyers I collected during my time in Edinburgh, this was the only show for which flyering drew me in. The trouble was that a lot of the shows that sounded intriguing interfered with things I was already seeing, but this came along at the perfect time, and was very good besides.

** Yes, I went to see this a second time. It was free, it’s an absolutely excellent show, and he’s one of the best people I know…!

So… yeah. Kept myself busy enough, I guess!

It’s a lovely fact of life that, although time seems more often than not to be advancing at exactly the wrong pace, every now and then when you want four days to feel like an eternity, it does. This was the case with Edinburgh. Even now, a week after getting home, my mind boggles to think of how that massive adventure was compressed into such a short time. Maybe it was the long days, maybe it was the number of familiar and wonderful faces I saw, and maybe it was the sense of freedom. Maybe it was all three, and the fact that I managed to amaze myself. What? Yes, I did!

Because, you see, on my first night in Edinburgh I found myself with a couple of hours to kill between shows, and I shifted the schedule I’d made slightly. Instead of going to see Stuart Black on the Tuesday night, as I’d originally intended, I decided to go see him right then, at 10 p.m. on Saturday. His show is terrific (I’m not even going to try and delve into reviewing anyone’s show; I loved everything I saw because I went to see the people I like, and there are only so many positive adjectives out there), and speaking to him afterwards he asked what I was doing the next afternoon at 2:30. I said I didn’t know yet and he, knowing very well how badly I’d been wanting to try comedy, told me he was co-running a lineup show in the afternoons, and that I should come and do five minutes. And maybe it was because I was deliriously tired, and maybe it was because I was far away from home, but I said I would. In the hours that followed I thought about it a lot, and felt excited and terrified and wondered if I could still cancel. I had been handed an opportunity, though, and I knew I’d be a complete idiot to pass it up.

On that Sunday morning I woke up early, having had an outfit planned even before I realised that I was going to make a small roomful of people look at me. I spent time getting ready, then ran to Starbucks with less than an hour to go and my notebook full of silly comedy ideas I’d been assembling for… oh, about a year? I made a setlist, with no idea of whether or not it’d actually be the required five minutes, and then I rushed to The Counting House, through the always-crowded staircases to this little black-painted room a couple of storeys up called The Lounge, and I showed up a few minutes late (oops) and I snuck into the room and waved hello to Stuart. He whispered to the host Imaan and then gave me thumbs up, and Imaan told me when I’d be on, and my stomach felt like it was upside down but I nodded yes, clung tightly onto my hastily-scribbled notes. And then Imaan brought me on (he’d asked me my last name but “Ewing-Burgesse” seemed too much to explain in a whisper while an act was on, so I told him just to say “Leslie”; I’ll figure the rest of it out later), told the audience it was my first gig and they applauded tremendously and magnificently, and I was onstage in front of what was a small room, definitely, but it was still a room full of mostly people I’d never seen before in my life, and I was saying things out loud that I’d written and worried about. And they laughed. A lot.

In the end I probably did closer to seven or eight minutes, having looked at the time on my phone when I started and then promptly forgotten to check ever again. The ending of my set sort of fizzled out, mainly because I didn’t write one and I just nervously stated “that’s all I’ve got, thank you,” but then I was met with that same overwhelming wave of applause and I felt so relieved and so overwhelmed. I was the last act of the show, and as the audience members filed out a number of them said encouraging things to me (one even said I was a “natural”), and it was really, really amazing.

And it was a Free Fringe show, which meant there was a bucket for donations, and Stuart and Imaan generously split the donations between all of us, and that’s how I ended up getting paid £8 for my first gig. When I later told some of the comedians about this, they said it was all downhill from there. One comedian friend told me I should’ve kept the money, which was a nice idea, but… y’know. Money. I did have the foresight to take a photo of it!

I mean, not a particularly nice photo, but all the same! And I’ll have you know I saved that very same Scottish £5 note for a couple of days so that I could spend it while in glorious company to buy myself a beer.

So there I was, after that show (and a drink afterward), so out of my mind on giddiness that I missed the show I had meant to go to next because I couldn’t concentrate well enough to find the venue. Writing on Facebook about what’d just happened, receiving the most baffling amount of likes anything I’ve posted ever has. Texting my best friend, phoning my parents and rambling to my Dad about it. I couldn’t believe it. So of course I got showy over the next couple of days, and told absolutely every person I knew about what I’d done. It amazed me to see the utter joy in the faces of the comedians I so admired when I told them I’d finally gotten up and attempted the very thing that they did nearly every night of their lives. And Stuart had told me I should come back and do another five minutes on Tuesday, so I told people I was going to do that, which meant the stakes were higher this second time around. A couple of comedian friends I admire an absurd amount offered to come to my second show, and I gave them the details and hoped they’d come and hoped they wouldn’t, and when neither of the two who’d adamantly asked for the details ended up making it to the show I felt absolutely fine about it, because I didn’t feel ready yet for too many people to see what I was doing. It was all about becoming comfortable onstage.

My faces at the first show, and the second one.

So then it was early Tuesday afternoon, and I’d seen so many amazing shows and spent time with so many people whose company I prefer to my own, and I’d started to feel oddly as if I sort of knew how to get around Edinburgh, and I’d had a couple more late nights and had figured out how to walk from the Royal Mile or the Pleasance Dome or wherever back to Haymarket which wasn’t so bad really, just half an hour walk (and I’d been regularly walking an hour-plus to and from my jobs back in London!), and everything was essentially wonderful, and it was time to go back to that little black room and do another fiveish minutes. And I was a bit more prepared this time, had been overly excited and spent a bit of the previous day sat in Caffe Nero figuring out what I wanted to say next. Because, honestly, it’s best to do the same stuff over and over and over again, but doing something a bit different just felt right.

And there I was on that little stage, and it was obvious that the crowd was a bit more quiet than my first crowd had been, but I got up there, and I did my silly material, and it wasn’t the same giddying high as the first gig but, by all accounts, a second gig never is, and it was pretty good! The way Stuart introduced me as I was going on was lovely and generous, and the audience was fairly receptive although not that vocal, and I felt pretty comfortable onstage, really. And I’ve done two gigs now, imagine that…! (I can’t really imagine it, and I was there.)

It’s just a matter now of not letting myself feel like that was something I could do on vacation but can’t in real life. I’ve started contacting places here in London about doing open mics, and I’ll do as many as I can. The comedians have told me that it probably takes a couple hundred gigs for a person to really figure out what they’re doing, and so I’ll persist on and try really hard not to let the part of my brain win that likes to tell me how terrible everything I do is. At this point what matters is feeling comfortable onstage, and I’ve gotten past the remarkably huge, debilitating fear of getting up there at all, so it’ll all be glorious now.

I’ve been back in London for a week, and I’ve been missing Edinburgh a lot but I’m thrilled for the time I had there. I will, regardless of whatever else happens, make a point to escape up there for at least a few days every August. And, again regardless of whatever else happens, I’m proud of myself for getting up onstage not once but twice, and grateful to Stuart for pushing me in that direction, and to everyone else for being so absurdly encouraging. I forget sometimes that the things that I do that matter to me therefore matter to the people who care about me, but I’ll try to remember.

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