Edinburgh Festival: Not like it was in my day: There's always a first time, and you never forget it. Al Senter persuades some of the seasoned performers on the Edinburgh scene to reminisce about their humble debuts

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The Independent on Sunday DEBORAH WARNER

Kick made its Edinburgh debut in 1981 with Woyzeck at the Methodist Epworth Hall where we slept 10 to a room and got burgled. We lived on Spud-U-Like and luxuriated in the Nicholson Street Public Baths. Audiences were very grim - we felt very lucky to play to 10-20. But it was only one of the 10 productions of Woyzeck which appear annually on the Fringe. At 22, I found it a tremendously exciting, headily competitive time. Sellotape donated hundreds of rolls of brown tape, giving an eye-catching frame to our posters. Kick was my life and I was sure that one day I'd get funding. Then the British Council came to the production and rather than promising money merely observed that I would make a very good director - on the radio]

Deborah Warner is preparing to direct her stage production of 'Hedda Gabler' for television.

ALEC McCOWEN

It was 1955, Tyrone Guthrie's production of The Matchmaker at the Lyceum. He was a wonderful non-conformist and I remember him coming round the dressing-rooms with a bottle of scotch and offering each of us a thimbleful. On our opening night we had to remain on stage for the press call but all the Edinburgh notables in their evening dress came round and spilled on to the stage. It was complete chaos until Guthrie's voice rang out from the auditorium: 'Will anybody not involved in the production please piss off]'

Alec McCowen is appearing in 'Someone Who'll Watch over Me' at Hampstead Theatre.

SAM WALTERS

I first went in 1960 with the Oxford Theatre Group playing a shy little barber in a Belgian play called Vasco. One of the leads had a breakdown and Jeremy Paul, the writer, had to take over. John Wells was the star of the revue and Esther Rantzen was in the company. Hovering around the edges was Alan Bennett, full of anxiety about the show he was doing with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. It was Beyond the Fringe.

Sam Walters's production of 'His Majesty' is at the St Bride's Centre.

NEIL INNES

I first went in 1974 to perform at the George Square Theatre with GRIMMS, ie The Scaffold - Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and me. It was a loose evening - a mixture of music, poetry, humour and beer. I remember meeting the folk-singer Hamish Imlach in the Traverse Bar and learning a new word, 'drouthy', which means the thirst you experience as your glass is filled. There were also games of Shitty - a game Graham Chapman taught us, which involved placing three 10p pieces between your buttocks and trying to waddle at speed down the Royal Mile without dropping them.

Neil Innes is appearing at the Assembly Rooms.

JENNY ECLAIR

It was 1983 and I was playing in Buster Browns with a punk poetess who had been arrested for saying 'fuck' in the street. I'd wear a black cocktail dress to do my poetry and pissed businessmen would stagger off the train and think I was a waitress and shout 'Hey, girlie, get me a gin and tonic]' The next year I involved myself with Women At Work, who were terribly feminist and sacked my sound girl for wearing make-up and, in a spirit of equal opportunity, hired a girl who was stone deaf. I was performing in a church with her crouching in the pulpit and I'd have to prod her with a broom before I went on to get my sound cues.

Jenny Eclair is in 'Mummy's Little Girl' at the Wildman Room in the Assembly Rooms.

MARK LITTLE

I arrived at the Assembly Rooms in 1990, expecting to play to three people, but the response went beyond my wildest dreams. It struck me that the 'Sold out' next to my name on the box-office blackboard might be a comment on my career. I was worried that I wouldn't be understood but Australian culture - at least the soap- opera variety - was everywhere. I would go to the supermarket and I could never decide whether I was being paranoid or people really were staring at me. But they were very friendly - I never had to buy any drinks. We were mostly very happy although we did have to have some Vegemite flown in, we were missing it so much. My biggest thrill was to say 'g'day' to Spike Milligan, my all-time hero.

Mark Little (Joe Mangel in 'Neighbours') has a comedy show at the Assembly Rooms.

TOM ROBINSON

In 1982 I took over a slot at the Assembly Rooms at two weeks' notice. I arrived with Tom Robinson's Midnight Cabaret only to discover that I was scheduled for 4pm. I had to haul a grand piano up and down the stairs before and after every performance and since we weren't in the Fringe programme, we had to do a lot of busking to promote the show. I even persuaded Andrew Newton to hypnotise me and so I sat in the Assembly Rooms foyer, utterly spellbound, with a notice around my neck saying 'Come and see Tom Robinson and Andrew Newton'. The things we do for art. Then I was pulled in to do a benefit for Edinburgh's unemployed and so I went, full of grand visions of huge crowds. When I reached Castle Terrace, there was no stage, no lights, no PA and no audience.

Tom Robinson appears in 'Living in a Boom Time' at Pleasance One.

MIKE McSHANE

I went up two years ago to the Assembly Rooms. It was a long time since I'd had a live audience. Edinburgh was beautiful with a kind of grey calm. I wanted to explore underground beneath the castle but it wasn't possible. A small part of me would have liked to be in a house share; I've done lots of festivals in the States with all the actors crammed together. Either you blow up or you come to form a kind of brotherhood of the proscenium. One of the pleasures I discovered was doing a walking tour of the Royal Mile with Arthur Smith, swigging from a bottle of great scotch and improvising on the points of historical interest we passed. Then you jump in a cab in the early hours and track down a late-night bakery. You scoff a couple of sausage rolls and call it a very good day.

Mike McShane appears at the Assembly Rooms

DILLIE KEANE

A rock version of Dr Faustus had suffered a collective nervous breakdown and gone home, leaving a 12.40am slot free in one of the tents in the Hole in the Ground, so Fascinating Aida took it on. Our first audience consisted of the six chaps with whom we were appearing in a revue round the corner but one night we spied a curly-haired stranger and a few days later a Scotsman review appeared. Houses improved and we went home with pounds 49 profit - we were never to make such money again. We lodged with Mrs Macbeth in Danube Street - an area which had a reputation as a hotbed of vice, but she kept a deeply respectable establishment. We'd totter down to breakfast whey-faced before setting out for another day of eager leafleting. That year, 1983, marked the moment when we decided to take Fascinating Aida wholly professionally. I ran into Nica Burns, whom I'd known in rep, in one of the tents and persuaded her to become our director. She licked us into shape and next year we were just pipped for the Perrier Award. It's different these days. It's gone corporate - not a festival any longer, more a trade fair, dominated by the big producers.

Dillie Keane is appearing in 'Dancing at Lughnasa' at Bristol Old Vic, and thereafter on a national tour.

KIT HESKETH-HARVEY

It was 1980 and we were up from Cambridge to present The Rise and Fall of the City of Orange, in a bus garage, directed by Nicholas Hytner, no less. I was in charge of the catering with a budget of 30p per person per day, so haggis and peas was permanently on the menu. We were put up at the Seamen's Mission in pre-gentrified Leith and we must have looked rather incongruous in our Brideshead flannels swanning into what turned out to be a knocking-shop. During the night, once the fleet had docked, we were invaded by horny matelots who broke into the girls' dorm under the impression that they were part of the establishment. So we all had to leave at four in the morning and I eventually found a resting-place on a cupboard shelf of the silver pantry of an ancient rat-infested New Town mansion. I would see 15 shows a day and write my impressions of them in a diary by the light of a guttering candle.

Kit and the Widow are appearing in 'Mount Arthur's Seat' in the Assembly Rooms.

DIANA QUICK

It was 1965, and I was the girl in the Oxford Revue with Michael Palin, Nigel Rees and Michael Sadler, who has just adapted A Year in Provence for the BBC. I can't remember any of the sketches but my Dietrich impersonation always went down well for the song 'We're Gonna Miss You on the Rhine' - British troop withdrawals being in the headlines at the time. The boutique had just arrived and so I asked places like Biba which were newly opened, if they would furnish me with frocks for the show. I was totally humiliated when one woman complained that I was a size 14 - a few sizes bigger than I'd first said. Edinburgh was austerely beautiful and I'd wallow for hours on the green slopes of Arthur's Seat. I remember most clearly listening to the Amadeus String Quartet playing Schubert at the Leith Town Hall. At night we'd carouse in the Traverse Bar and there'd be animated discussions with all the Oxford alumni who'd just launched themselves on their media careers.

Diana Quick stars in 'The Woman Destroyed' at the Assembly Rooms' Music Hall.

IAN McDIARMID

It was my first professional job after I'd left drama school in 1969. I'd written to Fulton Mackay who was directing a Festival production of The Wild Duck for the Scottish Actors' Company. I think that it was my dishonest claim that I was interested in directing which prompted him to hire me as acting assistant stage manager at pounds 17.50 (or rather 10 shillings) a week. My responsibilities included one line in Act One ('Excuse Me. Petersen, there's a gentleman here who wants to . . .'), assisting in the complex change-over to Act Two which we'd reduced to a minute and a half by the end of the run, and most importantly, making tea for Brian Cox - always tea, never coffee. I understudied but never went on.

Ian McDiarmid is joint artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, London.

(Photograph omitted)

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