Culture

Tragic Ruby McCollister takes on Edinburgh, ‘the live-performing Olympics of the world’

Taking on the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time, Ruby McCollister says a world in crisis is the perfect place for a show obsessed with death

Ruby McCollister in a flowing white gown, for her Edinburgh debut

Ruby McCollister makes her Edinburgh debut in Tragedy. Photo: supplied

“Edinburgh,” says actress, comedian and New York downtown legend Ruby McCollister, “just feels like the live-performing Olympics of the world. It’s a lifelong dream. As the world becomes more complex, and our conversations about AI intensify, my political belief is that live performance and live events are going to be ever more vital. I so don’t think it’s outmoded.”

This August will mark McCollister’s first plunge into the pandemonium of the Fringe. As an actress she’s appeared in Curb Your Enthusiasm, BBC Three series Search Party and cult indie horror movie Uncle Peckerhead (trust me, if you love punk music and Evil Dead-style gore, you absolutely must check that film out). As a comedian and performer, she’s a stalwart of the scene in her hometown of New York.

So her Fringe debut isn’t so much about making her name, as it is about proving she’s equal to the challenge of the biggest arts festival on Earth. She’s part of a wave of US performers taking advantage of favourable exchange rates this year to blunt the expense that comes with “doing Edinburgh”.

“I don’t feel like I’m going alone at all,” she says. “All of my best friends are going.”

This August is also a chance for McCollister to spend a whole month immersed in her obsessions – the stage… and tragedy. Those twin passions started way back in her offbeat childhood in LA. Growing up in her dad’s theatre – “in the late 90s, and 2000s, you didn’t do theatre in Los Angeles” – she was surrounded by actors who “just couldn’t get jobs in television, so that was a splash macabre”. An only child surrounded by pathos, she became fixated on the theatre’s resident ghosts, “with the idea of having friends that I couldn’t see, and never being alone”.

Chief among the ghosts at the Coronet Theatre was Shakespearean actor and movie star Charles Laughton, who directed 1955 noir thriller The Night of the Hunter.

“For years Charles Lawton was just like the ghost in my dad’s theatre. Like, I did not get who he was,” admits McCollister. “But it’s an excellent film.”

McCollister’s “childhood friend’s” movie is frequently named among the best ever made, an expressionistic classic that draws on the true story of serial killer Harry Powers, who used lonely hearts-style ads to lure his victims.

Ruby McCollister as a Hollywood siren
Ruby McCollister. Photo: supplied

“Through the obsession with ghosts,” McCollister continues, “comes the obsession with death, comes the obsession with tragic stories. It’s like, if you were raised in a theatre, you have no choice but to be obsessed with the saddest aspects of humanity.”

As a spooky girl and eerie young adult, McCollister spent most of her life being called a “freak”. But times are changing, she thinks. “I do think more and more people are accepting of more ‘impossible possibilities’,” she explains. “We had the existential threat of the pandemic, and there’s the ever-looming existential threat of global warming. The beautiful part of those existential crises is that we do sort of surrender collectively to the knowledge that we don’t know everything.”

Post-pandemic New York saw rents fall to the lowest levels in years, allowing artists to come back to the city. McCollister found herself in the middle of a “resurgence of local, mini subcultures”, amongst which she developed her critically-acclaimed, Edinburgh-bound new dark comedy cabaret show. Tragic is a confection of dead actresses, drug addiction and gothic songs that promises laughs, revelations and tears.

“It’s also a coming-of-age story, and it’s a survival story,” she adds. “I think women gravitate towards darker stories as pre-emptive survival, morality tales. Like: this is how people survive against all odds. Because just being a woman – or someone that is outcast in some way in society – you have to sort of preemptively plan how to get through the hurdles. I felt like I had to prepare myself for the worst.”

To get ready for the “levels of tragedy I felt was inevitable for my life” McCollister spent her teens and 20s down a rabbit hole of dead actresses and It Girls. But to her surprise, the huge real-life tragedy is yet to come. “I tried really, really hard to fuck up my life so many times,” she laughs. “But there was something larger than me protecting me. I failed every time to blow up my life completely.”

Yet she still believes it might be possible to reach through the veil between life and death. “If you do believe in ghosts, you inevitably believe that death is a part of life. That life is also about reaching into the unknown, accepting the unknown. It’s a very beautiful thing to believe, I think,” she says. “I feel like it’s weird when people don’t believe in ghosts. Who would want to sleep with someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts? You know what I mean?”

Ruby McCollister: Tragedy is at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Underbelly, Belly Dancer, 5.45pm, 3-27 August, edfringe.com

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