Monday, August 25, 2008

Wrapping it up

It rained in Edinburgh. A lot. In fact, this was the rainiest year in over 100 years. And since Scotland is renowned for its normally soggy climate, you can imagine just how wet it was. It rained on the castle, it rained on the cobblestone streets and it rained on the umbrellas of folk waiting in line to buy tickets for my show Whiskey Bars.

But the record rainfall didn’t stop another record being set – and that's on the number of tickets sold on the opening weekend of this gargantuan Edinburgh theatre festival. Over 2000 different theatre shows were performing in town, 19 000 (that's right - nineteen thousand!) performers were wandering the streets trying to get audiences to come to their shows, and over the course of the three week festival around 1.7 million tickets were sold.

And now I'm watching the rain fall on the afternoon after the last night of a glorious run over here. On the last week we sold-out several nights – and since the average size for an audience in Edinburgh is 8 people, a full house was a dream come true.

We arrived here on August 1st as an unknown Canadian one-man show. When we walked into our tiny venue we didn't expect much – it's seedy, to put it mildly. I was performing at the end of a dank alleyway across from a gloomy ancient cemetery; the theatre space is tucked into the 500-year-old vaulted church basement. The address is 11 Merchant Street; number 9 is one of Edinburgh's least glamorous massage parlours, and number 10 is where the armoured cars bring in criminals for their day in court. Reviewers have said complimentary things like "the seedy, dank atmosphere of the Vault creeps into every sinew of this performance".

I can't argue...but the locale was perfect for a one-man exploration of the music of Kurt Weill--composer of Mack the Knife. Weill basically invented a whole new style of music theatre in the 1920's, working with Bertold Brecht. I've been obsessed with Weill's music for years - I first heard his songs in a cabaret in East Berlin in the 1980's while I was living in a squat in West Berlin. We squeaked through Checkpoint Charlie and sat in a dank bar watching a cabaret show and drinking harsh Eastern Bloc vodka. Maybe I had heard his music before, but this was the first time I said to myself that this was music that I wanted to sing.

Fifty years after his death, Weill's music is constantly performed. Shortly after he died Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin set "Mack the Knife" as a jazz standard; The Doors, Judy Collins, Lou Reed, John Zorn, Dagmar Krause, PJ Harvey, Teresa Stratas, Ute Lemper, Anne Sofie von Otter, the Dresden Dolls, The Young Gods and Marianne Faithfull have all recorded his music.

We had already toured the show across Canada and the US, from Hamilton to Vancouver to Florida at different Fringes. We spent months on the road, reworking the show between festivals--tweaking the script, changing the songs, playing with lights and staging. It paid off: we sold out houses in Winnipeg and other festivals in Canada. But in Edinburgh - no one cared! For the first week we played to audiences of three and four enthusiastic friends. We begged the folk who work in the theatres to come and check out the show, hoping to start some buzz. And amazingly, it worked. Britain's prestigious theatre mag, The Stage, dropped by & gave us a double thumbs-up: "Like Hedwig with far better melodies" they said. And, luckily we also fell in with a great scottish theatre tech who ran our show flawlessly and maintained our sense of humour when the audiences were sparse at the beginning of the run.

And in that first week, we got Five Stars from The Edinburgh Fringe Review, and Five Stars from Edinburgh's Broadway Baby Review, and then later had great write ups in the Scotsman, Three Weeks Magazine, MTM – the music theatre organization, and a great nod from a writer from the Sunday Times. The reviews are a real help to lure audience – it's tough trying to get the word out about a one-man show when we're competing for publicity with gangs of cheerful samurai, tap-dancing girls in top hats, sexy stilt walkers in low cut corsets and the whole cast of a broadway musical dressed entirely in tight bright green jump suits and platform heels.

And, we avoided the terrible fallout from the biggest scandal of the festival season. The whole Fringe ticketing system collapsed the week before the festival started. A badly planned IT contract was awarded late, creating web chaos at the central office, and meaning that those 1.7 million tickets were being processed by hand. There is a lot of name calling going on in the Edinburgh Fringe community right now! But if anything it helped our show, since the frustration of trying to get into some of the more well-publicized events has led some ticket buyers to search for smaller shows.

And we hung in for the whole run. Many shows drop in for a week or two, but staying for that extra week meant that for the last week almost every night we had a different producer or promoter come by who’d heard about the show. We had interest from theatres across Britain, questions about translating the show into German and Portuguese, and one booker, who runs a show slew of shows at this festival, hang around after to tell me show she wanted to book the show into an international tour.

So, amazingly, for a little show that wandered into town on a wing and a prayer, our whole gamble has paid off... Now of course, our only question has to be – can we handle any more British weather?

and for the's what they said...

"This really is Fringe theatre at its very best. Duthie’s classical training and background as a many-year veteran in musicals and jazz bands is evident from the outset. By the time we arrived at the chillingly Speak Low - calm on the surface, yet bubbling with undercurrents of febrile yearning - we were left with no doubt whatsoever that we were in the presence of a true master of his craft.
This show is, like the best of Weill's own works for the stage, a seamless blend of gripping entertainment and genuinely moving art."
The Edinburgh Fringe Review

"This one-man show was dark, glitzy, dingy and sparkled with the life of a performer down on his luck. Written and performed by Bremner Duthie, it betrays the author's passion for Kurt Weill, whose music inspired the piece and permeates the show's central character. Innocent and at the same time far too world-weary, Bremner's voice was strong and beautiful. Darlings, life is a cabaret."
Three Weeks Magazine

"brave and inventive...a compelling and boldly-delivered one man show full of energy and impassioned acting."
Music Theatre Matters

"Kurt Weill grew up," states actor Bremner Duthie's character impassionedly near the end of this show, "between a synagogue and a music hall theatre." Thus, Duthie asserts, the composer's life and music reached a perfect balance between the sacred and the profane early on, and there's a real sense of both in his show. The music is sung with all the passion the character brings to bear when introducing it. Duthie's voice and performance give songs like I'm a Stranger Here Myself the perfect level of sexuality and tenderness, while his version of Je ne t'aime pas demonstrates what he means when he says "Weill can break your heart in any language"."
-The Scotsman

"Bremner Duthie, brings his one man “Kabarett” to Edinburgh, featuring the music of Kurt Weill - and it wonderfully showcases his multitude of talents as a writer and performer.
The character pays homage to the life of Kurt Weill, punctuating the interview with captivating performances of his songs. These are beautifully delivered with power and emotion, set to a hauntingly sparse piano accompaniment."
Edinburgh Broadway Baby Review

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Good Time of Year

Its our anniversary today, and we celebrated with a long walk up Arthur's Seat to the Sheep's Head pub - the oldest pub in Scotland...where we ate a great dinner of Haggis and Turnips and locally brewed beer... A gorgeous day - for Scotland that is... intermittent rain, clouds and sun. On the way home we discussed what time of year we would guess it to be if plopped down here unaware of the season - Lisa settled for early May, I settled for early October. Neither of us would have guessed August! Still, its pretty spectacular, even in the drizzle - we walked back past a 14th century Kirk and then down into Edinburgh past Holyrood Park (the royal park of Mary Queen of Scots)

Since this is my evening off we went to see a show and picked Camille at the Queen's Hall. She's an Irish Cabaret singer and the show was fascinating - I'm looking for a new direction for these songs that isn't so structured around the theatrical devices of Whiskey Bars, and it gave me a lot to think about...

1st Edinburgh Fringe Week in the bag

and so we're dark on monday - and the first week at the Ed Fringe is over and it was indeed a tumultuous thrill fest rollercoaster adventure ride .... two five star reviews, a recommendation in Britain's 'The Stage', great and enthusiastic houses, a lovely and amazing place to stay in the historic West End of the city (right beside the New Town - New, that is, since it was built in 1760 after the 'Old Town'......) And now its a day off - a day to get away completely from this madness and see a bit of the city...and a day (if the insane rains hold off) to tromp up Arthur's Seat (the little mountain that overshadows Hollyrood Palace) and down to have dinner at the Sheep's Head inn - a little pub dating from 1500 that apparently serves a mean Haggis and Neaps....

and here's what they said...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Kurt Weill and Whiskey Bars on the Fringe, Edinburgh pitches in..

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony by Kurt Weill is opening the Edinburgh Festival and I’m thrilled and daunted to be doing a Cabaret of Weill’s material at the same time (literally the same time, so sadly I can’t even go to the show) Our resources are vastly different – they have the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and are in the Festival Hall, and I’m by myself down at the end of Merchant St, (just across the road from the ‘No 9.- Massage, Sauna and Escort Agency’). But I like to think that maybe I’m a little closer to the spirit of Kurt Weill and his music.

Kurt Weill was born in Dessau, Germany in 1900, the son of a synagogue cantor. and studied composition with Humperdink and Busoni, and by 22, the Berlin Philharmonic had premiered two of his compositions. He came of age at the end of World War I, in a Europe spiritually exhausted, ghastly, frightening, desperate -- and remarkably creative. Weill's musical legacy is enormous, and all of it broke new musical and theatrical ground. His most famous and enduring works were his Berlin cabaret and theater collaborations with the poet Bertolt Brecht, "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny."

I first heard Weill’s music in a cabaret in East Berlin in the early 80’s when I was living in a squat in West Berlin. We squeaked through Checkpoint Charlie and sat in a dank bar watching a cabaret show and drinking harsh Eastern Bloc vodka from bottles that arrived at the table with tinfoil peel-back bottle tops (once open it was assumed you wouldn’t be resealing them…). I’m sure I had heard his music before, but this was the first time I said to myself that this was music that I wanted to sing.

Perhaps if I’d known what kind of footprints I’d be walking in I would have been too daunted to begin – since fifty years after his death, Weill's music is constantly performed in pop and classical worlds. Shortly after he died Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin set "Mack the Knife" as a jazz standard, and since then performers as diverse as The Doors, Judy Collins, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, John Zorn, Dagmar Krause, PJ Harvey, Teresa Stratas, Ute Lemper, Anne Sofie von Otter, the Dresden Dolls, The Young Gods and Marianne Faithfull have recorded entire albums of his music.

Weill helped create a new kind of musical theatre in the bleak and gritty settings of his first music theatre works. London in Three Penny Opera is populated with Robber Kings and brutal women, and the imaginary American frontier city of Mahagony symbolized the ultimate city of Capitalism; Weill and Brecht decided that gangsters, gold-diggers, hurricanes, the FBI and lumberjacks might all meet up the fleshpots of this mythical Western city. And when Weill fled the Nazi’s in the 30’s he sought projects with serious political and human themes and linked up with the brightest and most politically engaged of Broadway’s lyricists – Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, Elmer Rice as well as Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein. Weill also adapted "Lost in the Stars" from the tragic novel of South African racial oppression, "Cry, the Beloved Country" by Alan Patton. Though Weill was in the avant-garde of 20th-century European composition, none of his music is detached, technical and cold; all of it is infused with constant, tumultuous, immediate passion. Every note of Weill's music expresses love and hope as much as it expresses rage and despair.

So even if I don’t have the resources of the Festival Hall behind me, I think Edinburgh is providing me with some even better assistance. Since, every night, just before my show, I leave the cheerful crowds in the Grassmarket, trot down a gloomy cobblestone dead end and walk under a dank and odorous tunnel below George IV Bridge, where I wait on the curbstone of the No. 9 Sauna at the end of Merchant St. And I stay there contemplating the walls around me while the show before mine finishes performing in the converted cellar that is the Vault venue. And though once they finish I only have 15 minutes to get ready to do the show, by that time I’ve had the best psychological preparation that you could want for singing Kurt Weill’s music and talking about his life. I can’t think of a corner of Edinburgh that could better serve as a set for his works. Perhaps next time the Festival does a Weill show they should look around their own atmosphere filled city and take advantage of the history and and resources. I know that I’m delighted to be getting that chance.