On the Fringes

The area's first Scottish cultural festival finds it necessary to play the name game

When San Francisco bartender Alan Black decided to organize a Scottish cultural festival he thought the easy part would be finding the right name. Black, a 30-year-old Scottish expat and co-founder of the local Scottish Cultural and Arts Foundation (SCAF), made a few semiofficial calls back home to Scotland and garnered the first overseas endorsement from the Edinburgh International Festival, an annual three-week arts festival that ranks among the biggest in the world.

Part of the Edinburgh International is called “The Fringe” because it features the work of new or marginal dramatists, poets, dancers, and musicians — exactly the role Black wanted SCAF's festival to play. The name would be simple then: “Fringe on the Fault Line.” Fliers were printed, and Black called the San Francisco Bay Guardian to place an ad.

“Then I got a call,” Black explains over a beer in the Edinburgh Castle, the cavernous Tenderloin pub where he pulls pints for a living, “and somebody says, 'We're the Fringe, you can't be the Fringe, blah blah blah.' “

The call came from the Exit Theater, which stages the San Francisco Fringe Festival every year. This year's seven-day Fringe Festival is scheduled to begin Sept. 8, the week after SCAF's Labor Day weekend event.

“They asked me why I was calling it 'Fringe on the Fault Line,' ” Black says. “I told them because it was affiliated with the Edinburgh International. I could hear them choking on the other end of the phone.”

Black was ready to fight for the name for many reasons, the Edinburgh endorsement being the most compelling (the least compelling being “because I'm Scottish and they're not”), but he finally had to give in to reality. In this case, reality took the form of the Guardian, one of the sponsors of the S.F. Fringe, refusing to run any of SCAF's ads until they changed the name of their festival.

Feeling they needed the Guardian more than the Guardian needed them, SCAF rechristened its event “Fest on the Fault Line.”

“I've got no beef with the Exit Theater,” Black says, softening his Scottish growl despite what he sees as the Guardian's heavy-handedness. “I don't want to piss anyone off because of a name. We are new on the block. But nobody's making money here. Our production is totally grass-roots.”

A call to the Guardian for their side of the Fringe flap was shunted off into voice-mail limbo.

With the help of fellow Castle barkeep Frank McGuire, Black and SCAF co-founder Allen Aitken have put together a four-day arts festival Black hopes will debunk the “fake myth that Scotland is nothing but bagpipes and haggis.” SCAF's version of Scottish culture, sprinkled across San Francisco in 14 venues, will include everything from traditional ceilidh dancing and Robbie Burns poetry to the world's biggest James Bond party.

But the bulk of the fest's productions will be taken up by local actors, musicians, and artists, which, McGuire says, is all part of the tradition of the original Edinburgh Fringe.

“There's a lot of untapped talent here,” he explains. It's McGuire, an actor by trade, who has roped in most of the local artists for the fest. For him the name game illustrates the divisiveness of the local art scene. “It's time someone gave San Francisco a kick in the ass and woke it up.”

For info on the Fest on the Fault Line, which runs Aug. 31 through Sept. 3, call the Edinburgh Castle at 885-4074.

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