The arts world can sometimes seem geared entirely to the pursuit of the new and undiscovered. All those “Best Newcomer” awards and “Up And Coming” lists have people hot-footing it towards the buzz performer, the fresh face. Meanwhile, an older generation of performers quietly goes about its business, slickly and professionally keeping audiences entertained with a craft they have honed over decades. They might not make all those clickbait lists of “not to be missed” performers, but one of the joys of the Fringe is seeing the old hands who have seen it, done it, and keep doing it for the love of the game. Wouldn’t it be interesting to pick their brains about performing, the state of the Fringe and whether age ain’t nuthin’ but a number? Well, we did…
We haven’t checked all 3,314 shows, but we reckon that Lynn Ruth Miller has an outstanding claim to be the oldest performer at this year’s Fringe. A couple of months ago, she was beaten to the inaugural Old Comedian of the Year award at the Leicester Square Theatre by a mere thirty-something. Thirty-something? Forget that. Forget even Barry Cryer, celebrating his 80th birthday at the Fringe. Lynn Ruth is 81 and the American is in no mood for mincing her words, especially when we get to the question we’re dying to ask…
How patronising does she find being referred to as a “veteran”?
‘Very. If one more person asks “how does it feel to be performing at your age?” I will scream. My performance has nothing to do with my age and yet everything to do with it. I am being the me I am at that moment up there on stage.’
But surely age gives her a USP? It seems that’s a double-edged sword.
‘I get a lot of people who want to see if an 81 year old (or whatever) can manage a decent show.’ [We can confirm she can. She’s a great storyteller.]
‘But I also think I get higher praise for doing less because of my age.’ [OK, then, she’s a great storyteller, but she could do better.]
‘I also get people who totally ignore me, especially in the comedians’ world because they simply do not believe anyone my age can measure up.’ [I’m sorry, Lynn who?]
This is her 25th year attending the Fringe, her 10th as a performer (a late bloomer, she only took up stand-up in her 70s) and she’s one of those for whom it’s now a compulsion. ‘I cannot imagine an August anywhere else,’ she says. ‘I always love it. It gets richer every year.’ But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still want to shake it up a little. In particular, she takes aim at ‘seasoned performers charging huge ticket prices and taking the limelight away from the people the Fringe should serve: middle of the road performers who want to become more polished and more adept at their art.’
And there’s a word of warning for people of my ilk too. ‘I object to critics who are so cruel to people who have invested their hearts and souls in their productions. I find cruel, unkind reviews a reflection on the reviewer not the production.’ We’ll do our best to be kind, Lynn.
By contrast, Dean Friedman is a mere slip of a lad at just 60, but he started out in that golden-era of singer-songwriters in the 70s, so he’s more than earned his stripes. He’s back for his 11th Fringe, having first performed at the Assembly Rooms in 2003.
Does he feel that his age and experience affects the attention he receives?
‘Having received an initial flurry of media attention in the late 70s, I still enjoy a certain amount of name recognition, which can be helpful. But as a result of that brief early exposure, many folks, especially in the media, suffer under a misconception, imagining that I only ever wrote one song in my entire life. It’s only when folks finally show up at a gig and hear a body of work that represents more than four decades of writing, recording and performing, that they realise there’s a helluva lot more to what I do.’
That body of work includes the early hits like Lydia and Lucky Stars to which he refers, but also his more recent fan-financed albums and, rather amusingly, an amiable musical spat with Half Man Half Biscuit‘s Nigel Blackwell. In 2009, he responded to the latter’s song, Bastard Son of Dean Friedman, with a musical dig at Blackwell’s parentage, A Baker’s Son. There’s also his yearly Fringe trips, which have included kids’ shows besides his regular stuff. Clearly he can’t get enough of it.
Friedman compares living the 9-5 “straight” world to being a fish out of water.
‘Being at the Fringe is like swimming around in a giant, outdoor, aquarium surrounded my tens of thousands of exotic, multicolored tropical fish. It’s fun, it’s awesome and it’s inspiring for any artist of any ilk.’
And does the focus on the “next big thing” irk him any?
‘I’m always delighted to see newcomers granted access to the media; at the same time, as long as I’m making a creative contribution, I like being included in the conversation.’
One thing Friedman confesses is that experience has been no defence against the sometimes painful economic realities of the Fringe.
‘It took me almost three years to get a handle on it, and figure out how not to lose money. Even for someone that benefits from an existing fanbase, it requires patience and a hard look at expenses and revenues. You establish relationships with venue managers who do right by their artists. That’s why this is my fourth year at Sweet Grassmarket. They know what they’re doing and happen to be real decent folks on top of that.’
Actor Rodney Bewes is still treading the boards at 78, having first performed his one-man show in 1997. Does this make him the “Father of the Fringe”? I point out that young Barry Cryer may beat him to that title for this year, but Bewes is such an amiable character, with a love for his audience, you’d hope he’d be here for years to come.
He nearly didn’t make the trip this year, though. Sadly, in May, his wife died, and he seriously considered cancelling, before realising it may in fact be something of a tonic. ‘It’s just what I need. It’s brilliant timing. I thought, “Don’t mope, don’t go down that avenue.” So, I’m looking forward to it. But I’m scared of what I’m doing.’
Scared? A man of his experience? The issue seems to be that normally, he’s in character, while this year, he’s himself, answering the question, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lad? with what he calls “anecdotes of a wonderful life.” For the self-effacing Bewes, who seems to have been persuaded into it by The Stand supremo-turned-MP Tommy Sheppard, this doesn’t sit easy.
‘I’ve always been asked to do it, and I’ve always fought against it, because it seems like ego. That’s why my show is billed as “An audience with Rodney Bewes… who?” because it takes the ego off it. Actors aren’t important. I call myself a “turn”.’
The “turn” and I now turn to matters at hand – age and experience. Does he begrudge the focus on youngsters and the “next big thing”?
‘No, not at all. It’s survival of the fittest. Good luck to them. But it’s so different from when I was starting out. Acts have changed. Stand-up has become more confident. In my day, it was more hit-and-miss. But they become a success on television, then they get a shock when they come to the theatre.’
What about the baggage and audience expectations that come with a lifetime of performance? Does he find it a hindrance?
‘I don’t think it’s a hindrance at all. People say I’m a “national treasure” which I take with a big pinch of salt. When somebody says I’m a household name, it makes me sound like Daz or Persil. You mustn’t take yourself too seriously. I’m not that important.’
Experience also means he’s not averse to trying a few cheeky marketing stunts, regardless of protocol.
‘One year, I had stickers made for the posters. I hate the idea of the star system. It’s a bit wrong, sometimes a very junior journalist [does he mean me?] could cover a show because the main critic is too busy, and gives it 2 stars. So, I had a sticker across the poster saying “no stars, no reviews”. It worked, but the press office were livid, and tore them off. It’s all part of the game!’ A game that Bewes still seems very happy to play.
Grouping this trio together as “veterans” does them a disservice. They’re different people in different genres from different backgrounds and generations. But they each prove that beyond the awards and competitions and 5am drinking marathons, the Fringe still thrives, and whether it’s Miller’s plea to critics to be more considerate, Friedman’s desire to be part of the creative conversation, or Bewes’ humility, it’s a more generous, giving Fringe than the “me-me-me” whirlpool of ego that sometimes swirls around some of the bigger venues. To ignore them is a loss.