Jem Rolls has done more Fringes than probably anyone else in the world…

Here is his response to his amazing journey!

I’ve done 116 Fringe Festivals in 14 cities in Scotland and Canada has only Alex Dallas done more Fringes? probably

but it’s hard to tell,

when she can’t count to a 100

I first did the Edinburgh Fringe back in1996 with John Anstiss and Mc Jabber it was a colossal leap in the dark

I was running a weekly poetry cabaret in London

[every Thursday for 5 years] and it was my show, Big Word I did the vast majority of the work

the flyering, the blagging, the unfiascoing

and we got massively better every day and ran round like crazy doing every show we possibly could

and we did not fail or give up or lose money

and I discovered I’d missed my vocation as a second-hand car-dealer or life-insurance salesman for if you can sell a poetry show

in August on the Royal Mile you can sell anything


and our accommodation officer was

living in a shrubbery

so Edinburgh, August, took over my life

though we weren’t a real success at first though we did make money

while everyone else we met was losing money

but we weren’t a real success

and a truly beautiful show

till ’99

and along the way I accidentally kinda

co-founded the Edinburgh Free Fringe kinda

Peter Buckley Hill was doing it for ideological reasons with visionary intent I was doing it to not fail because I could

because “all the other shows are cowards they get the money off you first they think you’re not going to like them

we think you’re gonna like us Pay As You Like At The End”


because that was such a great blag line to the hordes of possible punters

though I forget the first year,

’99 for definite

though i did it, kind of, in each of the preceding three years but I was definitely first to ever get press for it from the Edinburgh Evening News in 99?

while there were no Performance Poetry shows on the Edinburgh Fringe back then

JohnnyGodClarke and Hegley and Atilla were up there but no unkowns

and everyone [Fringe Office, punters, etc] they all knew we were something new while no-one in London had the guts or nouse

and it was certainly a case of “fortune favours the brave” for we all got massively better as acts and had all the fun and freedoms of those who show up to the giant party

as I shed a whole bunch of skins

and began to escape the vitriolic shit-pile that was London performance poetry

the veritable threshing machine of Metropolitan backstabbery and all the associated arse-holes and found a way forward

a way to thrive which did not involve establishments and their sycophants and minions all those who cleave to the estab

or the lame-assed go-nowhere-slowly proper poetry world

or the unelectric stand there and do nothing

performance poets

all those performers who were smug who thought they were good enough were worth £150 a show, minimum when no-one was good enough plainly

and only massive learning and evolution and growth in every direction the success born of joy and the joy born of success could ever get you somewhere, anywhere, worth being

and you could only get this from taking part from entering the giant art zone the world of Fringe for no-one else

establishments, cliques, bookinesses was ever going to ever

offer me anything

when, in Edinburgh in 1997,

I set a quite possibly still-standing record

of the most spots on stage in one day


I did it to get press it worked and I now wonder who, if anyone, has broken this record and where?

it was fourteen cups of coffee on the way up fourteen pints of beer on the way down

and fourteen gigs along the way

while the years I did it with Francesca Beard and MC Jabber

and Francesca Beard and Rob Gee a three-hander MCed by me

stand out in my mind as FANTASTIC SHOWS

while there were excellent shows and times

with Lucy English, Mark Gwynne Jones, Paul Lyalls, Shirley Redd, Jasper Bark

and more

all the while finding inspiration acquiring techniques watching for the original

the electric the undone

the doesn’t-fit

though the raging success and flourishing and nourishing of August got us no work back in London no gigs no respect

no nothing for it was best to ignore us

[though every poetry attempt at Edinburgh was failure until 2002 and Ross Sutherland]

then in 2000-1 because of the Fringe I moved to Scotland

to be with a Scottish Jewish Russian diamond heiress novelist mother as you do

and I shed a whole bunch of skins and cut all ties to those nasty London bastards and started running poetry cabarets and slams

and was described by the Scotsman as “The Godfather of Scottish Performance Poetry”

all because the Fringe brought me north

and out of London the best move I ever made

while, after 3 or so years Scotland on Sunday the main Scottish Sunday called me the biggest thing to happen in Scottish Poetry since the 50s

for, as the biggest Scottish poetry publisher

my friend Gavin MacDougall told me he never saw a rise in sales like the first years after my arrival so me, who had no intention of selling a book ever

sold a lot of poetry books

so i was putting food in the mouths of those self-loving

stationary poetry book people who were, by their very drabness were taking food out of mine

all because the Fringe brought me north

and out of London best move I ever made

when, at the start of that project

in 2001

after a chance encounter with a Welsh Comedian in Camden Passage I tried Toronto Fringe as a two-hander with Mc Jabber who never showed up

so I had 36 hours to reinvent myself as a solo show

and it was a TOTAL REVELATION I’d never properly done an hour show and this was electrifying and I shed a whole bunch of skins

my first show was going great but I was already thinking




tomorrow it went great

but I was already thinking




and every day I threw another poem out of the show but it never got shorter as i juggled all the differents and, as a performer, I got progressively more

gleefully full-on and demented

while, in theatre terms

because i knew so little about capital T Theatre

I had no idea what was original what was risky what was unseen


… till

at the end of Toronto

I realised there was a big party brewing in the West in the Prairies

but that I was heading in the wrong direction


so in 2002 I did Montreal and Ottawa Fringes which were great but in 2003 I won the CAFF Touring Lottery and nothing was ever the same again ever

and I did get to go West

by coach from Toronto

into the vastness of the Prairies

and freedom

where my first Winnipeg experience blew my head off the Festival was plain gorgeous

and I got a five star review every day for four days quickly sold out and never looked back with shows selling out in 5 minutes flat

and Winnipeg, late July

has almost always been my best two weeks of the year ever since

while once again, on the Tour there had never really been a performance poet and I rampaged flyering like no-one ever

Saskatoon Fringe

Edmonton Fringe Vancouver Fringe

till I arrived and survived

for the first out of 13 times, so far


onto the beaches of the far coast

I’d count the thousands of dollars into wads

throw them over my shoulder

and count them again

all the while finding inspiration technique

watching for the original

the electric the undone the doesn’t-quite-fit

for the Canadian Fringe is the best way of performing I have ever heard of so doable so fabulously doable

while its the only proper money I’ve ever made from concrete atoll to concrete atoll across the sea of green

and so I shed a whole bunch of skins and began to free myself from all the tiresome cavilling done-with-that this-is-so-much-better

Caledonian grief

because this


was the most fun I ever had in my life

though tough

and an emotional rollercoaster for its way way up and its way way down

it will reduce you to emotional jelly if you let it it will shake you apart if you let it and it did

while, to push the point, it was more fun than anything else ever

and all the talent all the chutzpah the mind-boggling invention the gleeful fun of mind and word and body from Jabber, and Tim Turnbull, way back when and Pink Sly and Akure Wall and Mr Social Control [where are you now, Dave?] and Christopher Twigg and Stacy Makishi and now, again, here in Canada

where i met Jonno Katz and TJ Dawe and Alex Dallas and had met Keir Cutler

and now found Cat Kidd and Chris Gibbs and Ryan Gladstone and Bruce

Horakand Jacob Richmond and Chris Craddock most of whom would become some of the gang

the family i was finding

a veritable unthreshing unmachine of unbackstabbery

the bestest gang that ever there was the tribe of which i have slowly become kinda the Tribal Elder repository of lore and knowledge

and myth

and when I first arrived in Canada I had two hour shows worth of material some of which I had done 5 to 700 times so in 2005 I

who sometimes wrote only a few new lines every year wrote a whole new hour show of ten or twelve or fifteen poems

9000 or so words of it and then the next year, 2006 I wrote a show I was extremely happy with though I can no longer account for 20 minutes of what was in it

and then every year since I have written a whole new show apart from 2009

with an ill-conceived greatest hits show and this year with a remount

of my show about a Nuclear Physicist no-one has ever heard of Leo Szilard

for I can’t stop the ever-compulsive

edge-of-the-edge precipice-dangly


and this has all been a colossal

aesthetic and personal adventure

and commitment and joy and struggle and joy and all because of Fringe

… thirteen shows! thriteen hour shows!

thirteen whole wild different brain-bursting headfucking sixty minute show

… who else has done that?

its crazy compulsive monomaniac glorious

with perpetual liberation perpetual slog

perpetual discovery perpetual creation perpetual newness

perpetual shows

where there is no establishment bullshit written into the system and few idiots to impress no dull doorkeepers keeping you out

so you do not have to force yourself into the shrunken prisons of other people’s minds and again

skins are perpetually shed

the bankbursting lakes of bullshit are avoided while freedom is enjoyed

relished loved mistreated and loved again

for it’s doable so beautifully problematically obstacle-course-ly doable

for those with the nouse and guts and energy

so, in 2006, I stopped having a proper home and became a modern incarnation of the itinerant poet the wandering bard with no possessions except laptop passport and bank-card and an evolving collection of 20 shirts which is all I need these liberated days

while i was never any good at possessions anyhow or much good at domesticity the field of which

did not mourn my passing

for the Fringe has released me from so many ties

freed me to create whatever I want and go wherever I want for you can create whatever you want on the Tour as long as you create something audience will want and give yourself time.. anywhere…

India? why not? Indonesia? why not?

way up the Amazon? why not Vietnam Spain Cyprus Winnipeg Thailand, why not?

as long as you give yourself the time to get it first good and then killer the space to allow it breathe and stretch

and fully extend and reach and flower

for the Fringe has been a vital force in my life a great change for the good

a liberation of life of art of mind of body so here we go the first World Fringe Day sounds good to me great to me

and here we go another charge into the Prairies sounds good to me great-fabulous-killer to me and here we go Ottawa


Winnipeg, next


Edmonton, can’t wait


Vancouver… here we go sounds good to me great to me

and here we go

i start Wednesday 8.15

Planetarium Winnipeg here we go sounds good to me great to me


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