Critic in the spotlight

All Edinburgh's a stage, and everyone's a player - even the reviewer Sarah Jones, who answered the call to star in a hit Fringe show
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The Independent Culture

Edinburgh in August must be a nightmare for theatre-haters. With thousands of actors wandering the streets of Scotland's fair capital, just stepping outside your house is like taking part in a Fringe show. But spare a thought for those brave souls looking out from the other side of the proscenium arch, every day facing an audience of baying punters, critics (like me) with sharpened pencils and louche talent-scouts. What is August like for them? Time to find out.

Chatting to Wendy at the physical theatre and dance venue Aurora Nova, in the heart of the New Town, I find myself being propositioned. "You don't want to be in a show, do you?" she says. Bingo. "We really need a woman for a show on Monday." It'll be fine, she says. All I have to do is follow instructions - how hard can it be?

Doublethink, the worryingly named production in which I have just agreed to take part, is by the experimental British theatre company Rotozaza. Two unrehearsed actors, different every night, follow loudspeaker instructions for 80 minutes. The enthusiastic director, Ant Hampton, seems alarmingly pleased that I'm on board. I start to worry about taking part in a show whose director doesn't seem to care if I can act.

But then I realise I'm simply following in the great tradition of Fringe gatecrashing. This is, after all, the festival that started in 1947 when a bunch of thesps turned up uninvited to the International Festival's party. A punter would have to be very unlucky indeed to alight on my one-night-only performance.

A swift cross-check of my CV with those of the talented Aurora Nova performers suggests I possess none of the required skills. The popular perception may be that theatre critics are all failed actors/directors/ writers, but I can honestly say that I really do not have a secret past. In fact, as a teenager I went to a girls' school where I always got the man's part in the school play. Do you know what that does to a girl's confidence?

But Ant says it's OK. And if everybody assumes you're an actor, maybe you are an actor. There are thousands of waiters in Hollywood whose lives are built on this ethos.

Feeling in need of a leg-up, I take the opportunity, while interviewing the legendary German director Peter Stein, to grill him on technique. He tells me that on stage, even something simple like turning round has to be done with thought and attention. He demonstrates. It's very effective, but he's a professional.

Ant phones. I ask about nudity. Don't worry, he says; it'll just be simple instructions, like "turn around". "Wow!" I say. "You know, I just met Peter Stein, and he was showing me different ways to turn around."

"Does that mean I'm the new Peter Stein, then?" says Ant, ironically. I'll let you know, I think.

I arrive an hour before the show, as instructed. So far, then, a 100 per cent success rate. I push through a nondescript door in a space normally reserved for Scout meetings and enter theatreland, out of bounds to mortals and theatre critics. Squishy sofas, half hidden in the darkness, offer a tempting alterative to 80 minutes on stage. In a corner, real actors make themselves up. I head towards the light. The audience will be very close. I am an impostor.

Ant runs me through my safety instructions, which I immediately forget, and points out my territory, marked out by a large white screen, on the other side of which is the male "contestant". I wonder if he's feeling nervous, but he's an actor, and he's probably got a plan. When we meet later, he tells me his plan was to be himself, which, on stage, was probably within his comfort zone.

I spy a microphone in the corner. I'd been hoping, somewhat foolishly, that I wouldn't have to talk. Everyone has been telling me I'm very brave, and I suddenly feel catatonically petrified and stupid.

But it's time. The instructions boom out from a loudspeaker, Big Brother nanny-state style, as the audience filters in. "EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT IF YOU FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS," it says. Let's hope so. "DESCRIBE YOURSELF, USING THE TERMS 'SMALL', 'MEDIUM' OR 'LARGE'."

"Medium," I say, sensing a trap. I am immediately thrown a boiler suit. The man on the other side of the screen said "small", and the audience are in hysterics.

I am asked to read out some information when a red light-bulb comes on. After a few minutes, it turns out that I'm looking at the wrong bulb. Acting is tougher than you think, even with instructions.

Following instructions is not something that comes naturally to humans, despite millennia of trying. You only have to look at the spare screws left over after assembling a piece of flat-pack furniture.

The hardest thing is trying to block out the audience, particularly when I am instructed to "LOOK AT THE AUDIENCE AS IF THEY ARE A MIRROR". I resolve to look through them. At one point, I'm concentrating so hard on looking through them that I become aware that I'm actually staring very hard at one man in particular, dead into his eyes. I shift my focus to somewhere in the region of his neighbour's feet.

Soon after, there is a "power cut". Darkness is a relief. Sylvia, one of the two rehearsed actors, takes control. She is brilliant. "You've done really well," she says encouragingly, whispering red herrings before turning me round to face Jorge, the unrehearsed male, whose boiler suit is painfully tight. We both manage not to laugh.

Wearing a boiler suit is better than having to do the whole thing in the buff, of course, although Jorge, from the very naked Shi-Zen, 7 Bowls upstairs, might not agree. The psychological nakedness is worse. It's rather like someone finding out you are a comedian and saying: "Go on, say something funny."

Toward the end, I copy Sylvia in a dance routine. It is full of ridiculously fast movements. Apparently it was fascinating stuff, although rather, I imagine, like watching a minor car-crash on repeat playback.

After an increasingly vodka-soaked finale, it's all over very suddenly. The audience, thankfully, applaud. I feel elated and shocked simultaneously. Jorge smiles wryly. "It was beautiful!" Ant says.

The audience want to buy us drinks! Something about this show seems to have broken down the barriers between Us and Them. "How did you get through that?" they all want to know. Someone asks me what show I'm in normally. Lisi and Jesse, from the American High School Theatre Group, tell me it was like watching complete theatre meltdown. They loved it.

A few days later a review comes out, which I scan with a certain sense of excitement. Apparently, I was in what might turn out to be the cult hit of the Fringe. Well, of course I was, dahling, I scoff at no one in particular. A critic wouldn't cross the line for anything less.

'Doublethink', Aurora Nova (0131-558 3853), to 29 August

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