This year, as part of its coverage of the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Playbill invited two artists performing their shows at the Fringe to write down their reflections. These artists first perform their works in New York City, and then again abroad—and Playbill is asking for a behind-the-scenes look before and after their Edinburgh run. This entry is from Kayla Boye, whose show Call Me Elizabeth, where she plays Elizabeth Taylor, ran in Edinburgh August 22–26. Read Boye's previous entry about how she created her show here. Below, Boye reflects on what she learned from her first (and likely not last) Edinburgh Fringe.
Our taxi driver sped toward the airport, minding the winding cobblestone streets of Old Town Edinburgh with experienced ease. I peered through the dim dawning light, my eyes still heavy with sleep. A gentle morning breeze blew a few crumpled handbills haphazardly across the deserted Grassmarket. The Royal Mile, which was bursting yesterday with throngs of jostling tourists and artists, now sat quiet and empty. The city exhaled: the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe had come to a close.
When I breathlessly arrived at our fifth-floor Airbnb walk-up apartment seven days ago, I could have never anticipated the events that were to unfold at my first Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Call Me Elizabeth, my one-woman show about the early life of Elizabeth Taylor, had premiered during the pandemic through the 2021 virtual Fringe. It had toured the United States through successful engagements in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. But playing the Fringe is a whole other matter; for a self-producing solo artist, it represents the most rigorous test of endurance, adaptability, and efficiency. If all goes well, it can be one of the most exhilarating, rewarding experiences of your career.
As soon as I decided to scale this summit last August, I began researching various Fringe venue availabilities and capabilities, ultimately securing the Haldane Theatre (managed by theSpace at Surgeons’ Hall). The intimate theatre met all of my requirements for the needs of the show. The only hitch: A five-minute load-in.
To combat my anxiety surrounding this concentrated changeover, I prepared myself as much as I could in advance by working with director Michael Weber to fine-tune my performance. With each production leading up to the Fringe, we experimented with different audience capacities, scenic configurations, and script durations, reducing properties to a minimum and using a stop watch to measure our timing. And then, the moment finally arrived.
On the morning of my first performance, fighting jet lag with a strong cup of coffee, I gingerly descended our five-flight spiral staircase and carefully made my way across the crowded street to the venue. I climbed another flight of stairs to reach the backstage area of the Haldane Theatre, my legs shaking (Was it the caffeine? Nerves? The previous day’s ambitious climb to Arthur’s Seat?). I waited in the outside hallway, listening for sounds of applause to indicate the conclusion of the preceding performance. The audience drifted out on schedule (thank goodness). Then, the clock started.
I raced to the back of the house to deliver my programmed laptop to our designated technical operator. Michael expertly unpacked the contents of the show and set the stage in record time. Then, the house manager appeared, an excited smile spreading across her face. “You’re sold out! You’ve sold out…your entire run!”
I disappeared gratefully behind the curtain, giving way to the audience members eagerly queued outside. Lights up.
Sixty minutes later, as the spotlight faded (on time!), I exited the stage and retreated to the hallway. A warm presence was there waiting for me: Guy Masterson, Olivier Award-winning director of The Shark Is Broken (currently playing on Broadway after premiering at the Fringe and transferring to the West End). Guy also happens to be nephew to Richard Burton, who was twice wed to Elizabeth Taylor. With his firsthand connection to the subject matter, he had made time in his packed schedule to attend my opening performance. I was floored.
This kind of spontaneous connection is what the Fringe is all about, but I couldn’t fully believe it was happening to me in that fleeting moment. We learned that Guy was presenting four solo shows at this year’s Fringe, and we were able to catch two of them following our matinees (The Devil’s Passion, starring Justin Butcher, and Picasso: Les Monstre Sacré, starring Peter Tate). I was fortunate to see several other performances which I had been following for some time, including Mike Birbiglia’s The Old Man & The Pool, Dorothy Lyman’s Violet & Me, Lisa Pezik’s Too Big for Her Britches, and the new musical Hello Kitty Must Die, which features a book by fellow Chicago artists Gail Rastorfer and Kurt Johns. The range of work on display was incredibly stimulating and inspiring; I now understand why so many visit the Fringe year after year.
In addition to filling our schedule with theatregoing, we packed our afternoons with visits to the sights of Edinburgh—including Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, Arthur’s Seat, the Royal Mile, Grassmarket, Princes Street Gardens, Scott Monument, Carlton Hill, St. James Quarter, Greyfriars Kirk, the Meadows, the Leith Walk, the Royal Yacht Britannia, and Dean Village. The beauty of Scotland, and the kindness of its people, will stay with me forever.
Reflecting on the technical success of my Fringe experience, I can say with relief that it exceeded my personal expectations. Due to the subject matter of the play and strong advance word of mouth, our Fringe run sold out and received a warm critical reception. Should I return for a future production, I would consider doing a multi-week run earlier in the Fringe calendar to maximize critical exposure and public visibility, as opposed to a single-week run at the end of the Fringe. I would also independently hire a dedicated technical operator for the duration of my run. While a provided technician was a selling point of our venue, theSpace assigned a different technician to each performance, making sound cues too inconsistent for my personal preference and preventing my relaxing into a performance rhythm.
I am deeply grateful for the gracious and engaged audience members who took the time to attend Call Me Elizabeth. It was wonderful to have Chicago friends present, as well as individuals such as photographer Stanley Reilly, whose record of 1960s British culture included images of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. My favorite audience feedback was whenever someone stated that the performance sparked a desire to learn more about Elizabeth’s life. To me, that meant a job well done.
With each staging of Call Me Elizabeth, I discover more surprises within my performance and more ways to reveal the facets of Elizabeth’s complex character. I am so glad that I was able to finally share this piece with Edinburgh audiences, and I look forward to what the future holds. My next scheduled booking of Call Me Elizabeth will be a solo festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in March 2024. For now, I will take a moment to catch my breath and reflect with heartfelt gratitude on the amazing experience of my first Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
To keep up with future stagings of Call Me Elizabeth, visit www.callmeelizabeth.com. Follow Kayla on Instagram: @kaylaboye. To read more of Playbill's on-the-ground coverage of the Fringe, click here.