15 September 2013
The Underbelly Fringe Ghost of 2003
“This venue feels really creepy” My daughter Ashley said to me when we stumbled over the wet cobble stones up to the main door of the Underbelly venue in Edinburgh. It was the fringe 2003 and the Underbelly was a giant four or five storey building (depending how you viewed this ancient monument) that stretched from Victoria street down to the Cowgate in the old bit of town. Rumours that it housed the dead during a plague didn’t do it any favours, but a venue is a venue when it comes to the Edinburgh Fringe, so there we went, up the cobbles with boxes of props and a heart filled with hope and excitement.
The ancient walls had red rusty liquid running down its internal bricks, like it was bleeding slowly from the inside and that week at a photo shoot a huge boulder unhinged itself and almost killed Charlie Wood, the posh English custodian of the venue – the building didn’t like being disturbed.
The techies had explained how the day before they had wired the performance spaces and gaffer taped them down, yet the next day after the place lying empty overnight, all the tape had been violently ripped up. Nobody could explain this. We all carried on and giggled about the ‘apparent haunting’, it gave the venue some character.
All year the place had lain empty and was now full of fairy lights, wannabe actors and lighting rigs. The brick monument looked like an old whore being dressed up for a bad wedding and it wasn’t ready to give in easily.
Ashley and I walked through the myriad of rusted damp smelling archways and found our room, posters of comedians, actors and shows festooned the walls, but always somehow they slowly peeled off, as if the walls were shrugging off this forced shroud of happiness and hated the thought of having it’s crusty veneer touched.
Nothing felt right. The atmosphere in every room prickled the hairs on the back of your arms and no matter how many times you walked into a space, the soil (yes some rooms had a soil floor) beneath your feet somehow always shifted.
Stages sat a slight tilt, despite repeated repairs and chairs always creaked and moaned as you walked through our performance room. It was an ancient building, what can you say?
It had about eight or nine venue spaces, I had one long room for my play ‘The Point of Yes’ which was about heroin addiction.
There was no backstage area, just a big thick black damp curtain (everything was permanently damp) which ran in front of a sticky back wall that managed to leak the red sticky rusty stuff, which incidentally I never found the origin of.
I had to stand behind that curtain every day in the windowless, airless room in the pitch black and wait on my entrance music in the dark.
It made me feel unsettled.
I hated those 3 minutes standing with my face near a wall that was hundreds of years old, which managed to constantly weep and wait for the stage lights to go up. My play was pretty harrowing and ‘deeply moving’ according to critics, based on a true story about the murder of my mum and the many deaths by drugs in the East End of Glasgow in the 80s.
So I had a lot to concentrate on as I stood there holding my breath.
The play went great, despite the weeping walls, the constant doors falling off frames in the room, the floor making a noise that nobody could trace and the chairs creaking through the quiet parts of the show. Until one sunny hot day.
Edinburgh during the fringe is a stunning exciting place, you can’t deny the beauty of the town and the buzz created during the festival. Millions of tourists pour in from around the world and get to enjoy the plethora of arts on display. 2003 was a sticky hot fringe, or maybe it was just that day…I can’t recall…it always felt hot and sticky in the Underbelly and as I was doing a play and a comedy show….I don’t think I left the place much.
That hot damp afternoon will stay with me forever. My tech Gary gave me the thumbs up and I took my place behind the curtain, I faced the wall, smelled the damp sour stuff and closed my eyes. The stage went dark and the soft house lights went up. I could hear the audience come in. The chairs creaked, the room moaned and I concentrated on my first lines, I had a whole hour of words to get through. This was a one woman play, I played the two characters in the piece and I had a lot of harrowing, difficult dialogue to get through.
Am not a trained actor, I wrote this and I was determined to do this good.
We were getting near lights up and the room plunged into a thick hard darkness when I felt this strange tickling prickling feeling on my bare arms. I brushed them down as I stood behind the curtain as I was worried an insect had landed on me, Oh yes…did I mention the wee flying things that occupied the place? No? They were wee tiny lightweight flies…and always annoyed me.
So I waited and rubbed my arms. Where was the stage light? Why were the house lights down? What was happening? We didn’t have a system where I could be told if there was any delay. I assumed it was just front of house letting late comers in.
Then in the pitch darkness behind the curtain right beside me, I heard a voice whisper “hey…..Janey” and I thought the staff were trying to get my attention, so I turned my head towards it and there in the velvety darkness was a pale face near mine. I gulped and stared.
My heart was pounding with pre show nerves and adrenalin pumping through my veins. Was this the Dutch girl who was front of house? I couldn’t tell.
I leaned towards it and said “what is it?”
Nothing happened. The face stayed there, it smiled. My pupils adjusted, shrank and focussed. The stillness and time seem suspended. It was an older face I had never seen before. What was happening?
Had I missed the cue lights? Where was the music? The face got close enough for me to feel an icy breath tinged with a low stench of decay. The hairs on my arms sprang up and I caught my breath, my legs felt like lead and all the blood in my body rushed to my heart. The face quivered and then somehow floated against the wall, all the while maintaining eye contact with me.
What was happening? How can so many people be fifteen feet away from me and not know what was happening back here in the dark.
The face smiled and stared at me, I shivered again and almost cried out for help.
It was level with me and the hoarse voice whispered right at me….”Janey” it said again. I literally froze on the spot, my body shook and I felt sick. It was a constantly shifting shape. I knew this wasn’t human, it wasn’t anything my brain could make sense of.
As my brain quickly tried to figure out what was happening, the face immediately disappeared and the stage lights came up, the music started and it was time for me to get onstage.
I walked right through the space where that face had been and went on to shakily deliver my opening line. My mouth was dry, like I had swallowed a cup of sand, my brain was all over the place, how was I going to get through this whole hour?
I don’t think I have ever performed that play with such a high level of adrenalin, my heart was pounding and I was totally aware of every single skin cell on my body surface. I managed the play fine, the words all came out and back then in the play I used to go backstage to change character and come out with each scene change.
Every time I had to change character, I walked back behind the curtain for a few seconds, I kept my head down and closed my eyes for fear that face would reappear. It didn’t….or at least I don’t know if it did, my eyes were shut tight and I couldn’t hear anything.
When the last line was delivered and I walked behind the curtain at the end of the show, I heard the audience leave the room. I looked around behind the curtain, I searched the sticky wall with my eyes agape. I heard the staff shout “show down, well done guys”.
The place fell silent and I walked out onto the stage and shouted to my techie “Gary, I heard a weird whisper before we opened, did the staff come behind the curtain? What happened to the music and the lights at the top of the show”
“Sorry, Janey, but just before we opened I couldn’t get the lights or music to work and there was a slight delay, that’s why we started a few minutes late, sorry…., I will check the desk just now and figure out what went wrong” he shouted from the back of the room.
I started to pack up the props as the next show started to come in.
We never found out what happened, and neither the face nor the whisper made a stage appearance again during that whole run.
That was until that last night of the fringe. The shows were all done, the building was being slowly being stripped of posters and lighting rigs, the performers were all gathering their props and getting ready to party their last night away. I suppose I kind of forgot about the face behind the curtain.
I went in to my empty performance space, I looked around full of emotion, glad I had done my first play and headed in to clear out my props in the room next door to the stage area. It’s always quite poignant leaving the place after such intensity of performing every day for a month.
The walls still leaked….the room still felt damp and the soil feeling still shifted beneath my shoes….and as I stood there alone packing up my stuff I heard a whispering noise behind me. I scanned the small room, there was nothing there, just the jumbled boxes of props, old army uniforms, chairs, a big paper mache owl and strewn clothes beneath a clothes rack. My nerves started to kick in again, I could feel my mouth go dry.
I tentatively stood up and walked towards the theatre space and creaked open the stage door, it was pitch dark in there with only the light from the props room throwing a shaft onto the floor.
“Is anyone in here?” I shouted into the darkness. I could hear the pounding music from the bar downstairs. Nothing, there was no reply, just dense darkness.
As I moved to close the door and walk back into the light of the props room, I heard a faint whisper, I couldn’t make out what it was. Fear gripped me, my insides ran completely cold, my legs felt watery and I could hear my heart banging like a jack hammer in my ears. I went against all my instincts, threw out a shaky hand and pushed the theatre door wide open and let the dim light flood the room.
There was nothing there but faint dust motes dancing through the thick air, then something grabbed me from behind, a cold hand yanked me backwards. I think the utter shock made my heart stop, I felt faint and screamed as loud as I have ever done in my entire life.
“Calm down mum, it’s me, why are you screaming like that? Move it, this place scares me without you screaming like a banshee, get the props, dad is waiting downstairs” Ashley stood there staring at me in shock.
As I let the stage door bang shut, somewhere from inside the room I heard faint laughter fade away and blast of fetid air smacked me in the face.
I never looked back, we both headed down the back stairs, skittered over the damp cobbles and headed home.
It was the fringe of 2003, the year I will never forget my back stage pal at the Underbelly venue.
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