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7th September 2014
The Edinburgh Bar
There are a lot of bars in Edinburgh. There are a lot of bars in Amsterdam. In terms of bars, Amsterdam and Edinburgh are on a par.
Yet in terms of the Fringe bar, is Edinburgh really higher than Amsterdam ?
At Brighton Fringe I have witnessed a fair number of shows that have won Argus Angel awards or gleaned five star reviews from the Latest Magazine react with dismay and shock at the two or three stars the same shows get at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Is the bar really higher, or just harsher?
I believe that some critics in Brighton are more forgiving of incomplete stagecraft and even less accomplished skills as long as a show makes the audience laugh or is creatively bold. This can lead to star shock north of the (soon to be?) border.
In Amsterdam I’ve seen performance art that many reviewers in Edinburgh would give one star to with relish. And yet that same show had crowds of Amsterdamers rushing to the front to congratulate the performers and plea ‘where can I get your album?’
Is the danger that when a fringe such as Edinburgh becomes too genre-based, too mainstream in its bias (at least among some reviewers) that edgy gets edged out?
Isn’t unfinished art fundamental to art itself? Aren’t the edges vital and valuable for bring less finished, ready and defined?
Or is that just an excuse for flakey work?
Here at Amsterdam Fringe the edges stand at the core. Hey Edinburgh critics, how wonderfully fucked up is THAT?
6th September 2014
The Twix Exorcism and Charcoal
It’s only day two hear at Amsterdam Fringe and I’ve already seen someone poop and someone pee live on stage (in two separate performances. I exorcised these memories immediately the next day with a Twix and a glass of lemonade – one should never let such images linger and turn into life-long haunters of the sub-conscious.
It was only a matter of time before I encountered some live art, and this took the shape of… The Shape –
Machinery. With more effects pedals, synthesisers and sequencers I’ve seen in many a fringe, Arnold Kooij and Levi van Huygevoort, who formed the duo in 2012 after a couple of jam sessions (Oh I nearly forgot, I saw a show with blood aplenty as well), an industrial soundtrack, played live on stage is accompanied with some movement and charcoal art onto a large canvas thus…
The art emerges, emerging out of a responsive interaction with the music. I think I would have loved to have seen this more explicity responsive in both directions, where the visual is also impacting on the music. The musician did emerge occasionally from behind the “kit” but largely the visual art seemed to be flowing from the music. Each performance is different and it is the spirit of full-bodied and full-hearted committment that shines through this artistic performance. The musician is immersed in the soundscape, able to play with it in ways that generate music that led a crowd of audience to stay behind to find out where to get the CD or download more.
The canvas transforms and the image evolves over the half an hour. The artist becomes both a vessel for the sound and also an originator of reaction and proaction. Of course, this has been done many times before over the decades, and I’ve even seen it done before with charcoal and industrial soundscape. The smudging of lines really added intriguing effect to the picturescape, the charisma of the performer-artist added moments of comedy and occasional moments of affecting suffering. This is a journey we share; it isn’t original as a form, but it still works as a performance. What is original is the music that blends pulse and rhythm, disturbing melody, and a quirky interplay between sound and blackened forms – lines, slashes, shapes and disturbing landscape.
We step back with the performers and look at what has emerged. The performers take a bow. What shall we try tomorrow?
5th September 2014
The Amsterdam Fringe Learning Curve
There are many curves in Amsterdam. If you walk along one of the canal-hugging streets (I’m still narrowly avoiding being run down by toddlers on tricycles and over-focused two-wheeling commuters), you’ll curve round and round and end up back where you started.
I’m interviewing art and theatre makers and travelling along a different learning curve. All are on learning journeys of their own and I am learning from that learning. Learning from other peoples’ learning often yields up a rare kind of thing – insight. Insight gained from reflecting on one’s own experience is always valuable; insight gained from immersing yourself into what other people have learned can be harder to gain, but is often more priceless when it shines forth.
Sometimes theatre can reconnect you and others with place – place in physical space and time (thanks Luc de Groen
Collaborative writing need not always be always in the same room, but can be shared by sharing out characters and scenes and then going away and writing before bringing the fruits of that effort back into the shared conversation. (Thanks to Nieke Lombard and Lesoko Seabe
Sometimes you get to the authentic core of a theme or problem by utterly immersing yourself in one thing, flodding yourself with it, until it can then flow away properly; then you find the gold. (Thanks to Igor Vrebac
We need what is outside to help shape and define what is inside. We pay a price when we soundproof the performance space, especially where interaction is at the heart of our work. Intimacy beomes a balance between the sacredness of the designed, enclosed space, and the emergent and often wonderful encroachment of sound from beyond our precious walls and doors. (Thank you Marrit Bausch and Ursel Braaksma
The struggle to emulate others is also a struggle to be fully be ourselves. (Thank you Marius Mensink).
We must enter the space of others with humility. We are not their to preach but to respond and understand. Our artistic expression is all the better when it is a genuine, felt and experienced, response, not a projection of our haughty opinions. This lends itself well to site-specific work, but the finding of that sight requires patience and openness. Sometimes our performance space finds us. (Thank you Lilja Björk Hermannsdóttir
We can choose, in artistic collaboration, not only to be on our own, ego-led learning curve, but also sharing the learning of,and with others. It often is as simple as listening. What is quicker than light? asked Goethe. Answer: Conversation.
4th September 2014
And so to Amsterdam…
is a manageable Fringe. If it were a room, you can see all four walls; unlike Edinburgh which feels like a vast, ever-outwards-expanding cavern. There is experimentation and groundbreaking at Edinburgh Fringe, but it is easier to find and get into and intimate with at Amsterdam. Amsterdam Fringe has also spawned a free fringe, and it isn’t flooded with stand up (there’s one I think) – in fact it’s even more experimental, weird and wonderful in places.
There is plenty of theatre at Amsterdam Fringe, yet this unique Fringe is primarily about performance in its many and varied forms. Blending genres is normal and transcending traditional performance spaces is a common feature. With out reach to South Africa, Sweden and Edinburgh alongside home grown work, with many shows categorised as “language no problem” there’s variety and plenty of work that doesn’t require you to speak Dutch.
So, diversity but also visibility and accessibility. What more could you want?
Browsing through the many press releases we have received for this Fringe, I’m also struck by the refreshing lack of market opportunism in the work on offer. This is less about making money and selling tickets and far more about sharing work and personal and social and experiences and artistic journeys. Even many of the live music offerings will most likely offer a film backdrop or some combined performance art. Amsterdam is different. Not all of the work hits the heights of perfect stagecraft. And why should it. When the spirit of experimentation rules, often the passion goes into the purpose and not perfection. I’ve felt a lot of that passion in the way this fringe is run, and also in the aspirations of many of the artists. Technology is emerging as a cornerstone of many artistic projects here; the digital sometimes clashes, sometimes synergises with the physical. It can be brash, crass, clumsy and also beautiful and frightening. I wonde that this year’s fringe will bring…
23rd August 2014
I’ve met a lot of people at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe who have defined themselves quite specifically. Others are working very hard to define themselves. I believe it is a myth that staying focused on our “goal” is vital to our success in our life and work.
The problem with focus is not the act of focusing itself; it is that focus can quickly become habitual, a comfort zone, even a compulsion. Focus turns into narrow mindedness and then develops into insecurity.
“I’m a threatremaker.” “I’m a clown.” “I’m a stand-up comedian.” For many of those self-definers, further conversation reveals that these are just labels that are really an attempt to big up, romanticise the definition to cover over a more real one. And that deeper self definition I call a “not that”. A Not That can be best described with an example: I’m a theatre maker because I’M NOT AN UNCOOL UN-ARTY-TYPE. Or I’m a cabaret performer because I’M NOT A BORING OFFICE WORKER.
NOT-definitions are often born of angst. They are founded on hope – the hope that if I call myself something long enough and exclusively focus on it, then I might even shift myself, or at least my perception away from the thing I don’t want to be and become my ideal self.
Now there are two problems here.
The first is that building a strong self-definition requires a lot of effort – effort which is stolen from the actual work you should be doing. Real actors don’t regularly need to call themselves actors. Real cabaret performers are just cabaret performers – the name is rarely invoked, and they certainly don’t use it is an opening line in a bar at the Fringe. “Hello, I’m Zora (changed from Sharon)) and I’M A CABARET PERFORMER> DID YOU GET THAT? A CABARET PERFORMER!!!”
So, self-defining, especially if it is an attempt to rip you away from a NOT-ME definition steals energy because it is a facade, and facades have to be kept up. It can be fun to name ourselves temporarily or realise what we were, looking back. But compulsively fixed self-naming deadens our real changing potential.
Secondly, self-defining requires focus. I am THIS and NOT THAT. And labels are often also curses us. “I am a solo actress”, which means I am not an actor in a group. I am a cabaret performer, which means I don’t do straight music. By being compulsively THIS in order not to be THAT means that I am often closed off to the OTHER, which could be just the opportunity I need to move my personal and/or professional life forward.
I’ve observed it a lot this Fringe – people trying to assert their self-named identity, which lacks authenticity, limiting their openness to new ideas, new thoughts, new opportunities and new risks and dangers. Of course it is useful to have a clear web site that states in no-nonesense terms who you are. You may well have a business card that says “Georgina Jones, Actor and Director”. But these are artefacts of who you are – statements of your current main activity. Don’t confuse that with a much more responsive, malleable and open self-definition. Be ready to rip up those cards in a moment, to transform that web site in a breath, to change your story right there, in the moment. It has shocked me how unwilling to change and respond some people up here are – from top venue comedians to free fringe magicians. And the reasons to bevablevand willing to change can be opportunistic, born of your own creative urges and restlessness, or both.
And then you are screwed. Because less definied change and opportunity is emerging all around you here at the Fringe. And your potted little definitions simply block out that creative possibility. And you can’t act in the moment because your self-definition has cursed you for this moment, the next and the next…
What’s the solution? It is always the same one – to let go of fixedness, no matter how secure it makes you feel. To enter willingly, dare I say surrdender into the messy zone, the risky realm of serendipity and play, the place of emergence and improvisation. And here your fixed labels will turn into heavy weights.
Drop them all.
Treat your self-definition with playful suspicion. Make your labels temporary and be ready to morph and adapt. If you must fix anything for a longer time, make your deeper values in life more sure and sturdy. But as you wander around the Fringe, be an open system, not a closed one, a canvass with space for the new, not a fixed print. Then be ready to leap…
16th August 2014
Kids with Parents in Tow
In a way it is a bit worrying and strange. In a way it’s touching and beautiful. I’m talking about parents on leads. There are parents up here holding the leads too, but far less than kids holding the leads that drag their parents along.
These are the fringe shows funded by mum and/or dad. These are the shows where parents wear the show T shirts, do more than their fair share of flyering, sit at the back of the venue, script in hand, and who sit through every single performance. Some are the token producers, some are more hands-on. And they are up here, keeping an eye. making sure their babies are safe. Others are in more refined relationships where the family unit is a team, and this shared experience is more or less nourishing and bonding.
Of course, objectivity often goes out of the window as protectiveness kicks in. Pride rules, but so does the occasional wish to live the fringe throgh one’s kids. There are a few shows where it is the parent(s) on stage.
It’s part of the genuinely awesome diversity of tihs 3000 plus show madfest.
Now back to the objectivity. If the family unit is too protective and too close-knit, the danger is that the family becomes a mini-cult, defensive against honest feedback. The show suffers as a result.
Also theatre is both a shared and a solitary experience, so familly members must give each other space – space to reflect, space to make new connections and have new ideas.
Family performers at the Fringe can look like mini versions ofthe von Trapp family. They can also be too much of a crowd. They can also be syngergistic support teams, where the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. I love my mum and dad. They’ve always supported my theatre work to the hilt. I’m glad though, that mum ism’t directing and dad producing my work.
There’s a more generic principle here that applied to bringing excellent work to the Fringe. Even our friends can begin to collude with our mediocrity, let alone families who love us to bits. The fringe is a place to make necessary fresh connections as well, to gain new input and perspectives, even if they are uncomfortable. So, get the benefits of support that close ties bring. But create space for the new and the fresh as well.
14th August 2014
Punished in the Starry Heavens
Last year we dropped star ratings. So what? Indeed. The consequence for us has been that it hasn’t been easy to explain that the old 3,4 and 5 have not simply been replaced by the new Recommended, Highly Recommended or Outstanding ratings.
I won’t try that again here. Blah, bleh.
What has struck me here at FringeReview’s shedquarters is that a lot more companies are proudly quoting our RECOMMENDED rating for their shows (and quite right too) as well as appending direct quotes from those reviews to their posters. So, for those that insist, the old “3” has been revived for us and the good work we review.
Venues on the other hand – not all but some of the bigger ones – can’t get the heads around anything BUT stars. So reviews from FringeReview and other publications such as the Stage, don’t always make it onto star-studden posters. One venue has their stars pre-made, ready to paste up, all at standard size. Others, despite their over-manned offices, seem bemused by anything except stars.
We send our new banner graphics to each venue and some are responding. Companies deserve all of their good reviews to be reflected on their posters. Venue press offices need to be serving them more comprehensively that just primitive X stars.
I hope they do so this year. Fortunately traffic to our site is on the up again over previous years. And there we notice our new ratings all over the bloody fringe world.
6th August 2014
Lack of attention spawns lack of invention
Yes,I read the reviews of other publications. Of course I do. I usually don’t read them before seeing a show, but I certainly check them out afterwards.
One thing I’m noticing more and more is something that relates to a book I’ve been writing and will be out in September (not a plug, I promise, I won’t even mention the title). It’s the declining attention span of the TV and other electronic media-addicted generation. If you watch a lot of TV and films, you’ll have been groomed to expect and be used to scenes that change every few seconds. It is actually taught on film and TV courses these days. Any film that allows the camera to rest for a minute or even half a minute on someone or something without cutting to a different view or another scene, is likely to be called “off the wall” or “arthouse”. I’m serious!
Attention spans are lessening apparently and TV and film is just responding to that. Could be possibly be creating it in the first place? Hmmm?
What does that mean for Fringe theatre? Well, it means I’m finding more reviewers complaining (and star-punishing) shows that are called “slow”. This is more of a function of the hyper-impatience and inability to focus for a more than a few minutes at best, of the reviewer him- for herself. Theatre isn’t slowed gentleness anymore, it has no right to expect patience and a long attention span. So some reviewers blame a show for their own ability to stay tuned in for more than a few blinks.
Yes, you know that term: Blink! It’s the age of blink. Added to this, we have another side effect of lack of attention. This is when the reviewer or audience member gets lost, can’t follow a complex story and has no way of putting story puzzle pieces together unless they are laid out in glaring simply and linear ways – just like simple dumb movies. So they then label the play as “confusing”.
This is a shame as some theatre is too long and slow, and some would benefit from clarity and some dramaturgy. But a lot of theatre I have seen this year that is excellent – as writing, as narrative, as a latticework of ideas and emotions, is simply flying over the head of reviewers and audience members who can’t tune into it.
Should theatre companies hold their own or do they need to wake up to this new generational phenomenon and adjust accordingly? I would certainly hope that decent reviewers could see past their own subjective quirks and impatience and at least take that into account, see past it, and then observe the work that is in front of them.
Edinburgh has been heading towards the sub-hour show for years. It’s hard and seen as awkward to offer a play over an hour.
Soon, I guess, we’ll have theatre that is half an hour long with coommercial breaks for the booze sponsors ever eight minutes?
30th July 2014
Star-ving Us of The Space to Move
So, here we are again. The big hitters at the Fringe have the biggest posters. These posters are large – taller than you and I. Along one wall near the Plesance Dome in Edinburgh there are over twenty of them, larger than snooker tables. Some are for stand-up, a few for theatre, cabaret and circus. All of them share one thing in common going into Edfringe 2014. They are all amazing. They have all achieved perfection, several times over. All of them boast a clutch of fifve star reviews, nearly all more star than review.
So, given that posters are part of a rather dubious and discredited process at the Fringe called “communication”, what we have here is really one big poster, the size of a 60 metre running track and all that poster is saying is: All of this is perfect.
A couple of posters have got very clever and stapled stars from earlier reviews onto the posters to give them a “just freshly out of the review oven” look.
So, what should I see? Well, the posters help me find what or who I might already be looking for. They help me located big shows in a genre – comedy, theatre, acrobatics etc. But when it comes to any kind of role for third party opinion, well the information game kicks in and we are back to star inflation and “you can get five stars from just about anyone in the age of social media and the web”. Yes indeed, anyone looking for review help will find that every single poster has evidence for having arrived at a perfect score. And then, just as reviewers themselves are often accused of doing, the shows themselves vanish up their own rear ends, publicity-wise.
The Fringe hasn’t even started yet and everyone is announcing that every show has already achieved gold medals at the Fringe which is yet to start. I several couples, a family, and a few loners all looking bemused at the star-packed posters, gaining no help from this kind of publicity at all.
The solution? Well, you can do a bit of homework and discover what kind of reviews they really are. You can check if the reviews are recent. And most of all (Gerald Ratner moment coming…), you can ignore the whole fucking lot, and trust your instincts and the recommendation grapevine on the street. Personally, I haven’t looked at a poster in years. Or was that minutes?
July 25th 2014
How long? How long?
The vast majority of companies who bring a show to the Fringe play for the entire month. Clueless rookies think that is the only option and pay venues thousands to play over 25 performances in a row.
That was be a terrific experience if you are new to it. It can be terrifying and soul-destroying if no one is reviewing your show or if you get one stars on the preview nights.
Yet it isn’t the only option. Forest Fringe, which sits on the Fringe of THE Fringe – though one might argue it is a wonderful thing in its own right and sits only on the fringe of itself – contains some installation art events and happenings that run for the month, but the majority of theatre is for a couple of days only. Theatre and arts makers “place” their work carefully up here in August. This also happens in the main Fringe. Some shows only go up for a week. Some bring their work only in the final week, or the first week.
Sometimes that placement is about over-cautiousness and budget, but for many artists, it is about experimentation and also seeing the Fringe as part of an ongoing journey, a stopping place on a tour, or a place to try out work and enjoy the networky buzz for a few days.
One example is Bryony Kimmings, award-winning creator of Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel that played for three weeks in 2013 at The Pleasance and won a raft of awards. This year she is back at Forest Fringe just for a couple of days with a new bit of work to try out. Another show, Hats Off to Laurel and Hardy
plays at Sweet Venues just for part of the Fringe. This show got an Outstanding review from as at the Brighton Fringe and has been touring all over the place. The two performers are just back from the U.S where they met Stan Laurel’s now fairly ancient daughter! They are in the main Fringe as a late entry. Hopefully Sweet will ensure their show gets a fair amount of PR as it deserves to sell out as a fine bit of biography theatre. Either way, it suits the company to not play the whole Fringe, to bring the show back to the UK and offer it to the Fringe audience without going bankrupt. It lays down a challenge to them to get out doubly on the Royal Mile in costume and to create their audience. The key point is that they have made a decision that was conscious, not based on fear or habit, and that suits them as artists.
You don’t have to run for the whole month. A couple of days sold out may be better than three weeks with hardly anyone in. You can make use of the Fringe in whatever way suits your work. Remember that, it is your Fringe as much as anyone else’s.
For theatregoers, it can be harder to find those experimental shows and one-offs but they are there and you may well miss them during the month. But it is worth looking at the Fringe in a two-fold way. There are the three-weekers, and there are the show-placers. Look for one-offs and you might just catch a bargain on tour, or an experiment just starting, a work in progress finessing, or a final blow of a show.
Long runs are not the only phenomenon at this unique three weeker.
June 6th 2014
The Danger of Fringe Personality Cults
I’ve decided to not name names here. By that I mean not name Fringes, though, in many cases, it also means not naming people too. Some Fringes have survived and grown over decades because they have become institutions. This isn’t all good. Institutionalisation can lead to inertia, a group of trustees who cancel each other out when it comes to being bold. Institutions like repetition. Platforms can be solid when they are honed through repetition. Year after year, the shows may change, the art may evolve, but the particular Fringe Festival remains the same.
This is all very well when a sturdy platform is needed. Yet often, in a changing world, the platform itself may also need to change. Some of the big Fringe Festivals simply put up their prices year on year (often above inflation) and the only other change they make is to the programme cover. This serves stability, but can lead to collusions of mediocrity, where stability becomes a goal ahead of responsiveness to the exciting and changing landscape of arts-making, as well as the world at large that much of that art is inspired by, or seeks to influence, even transform. Changing platforms allow us to develop free fringes, put the same show in different venues or at different times on different days; rethink the financial model, even for the nature of “venue” and “fringe” to be redefined or re-imagined. Without that change, the workers in those fringe institutions begin to resemble the worst aspects of civil service bureaucracy and organiational reluctance to adapt.Instead of being transient stakes in the shifting ground, they become sticks in the mud.
There are quite a few institutional fringes. They breed similar behaviour in the arts-makers who use their platforms. For example, companies return year after year with the same show, they play the same venues, and they play their choices of work too safely.
There are also Fringes with small communities at the heart of them. One or two in the UK are led by families and friends. In some cases the Fringe is a group based around a set of venues and a core set of values. One I know is led by a community that tends towards an age in the forties and fifties. Another is based around a group of younger folk. Here the core often remains the same but the community members often refresh themselves, feeling ownership in part of their fringe”, involved in some decision making, and often directly involved in the art itself. Sometimes a community creates a fringe as a platform for its own work (also a springboard). Things grow from there. These Fringes tend to turn over people in their community as they come and go, and this keeps things fairly fresh. Even here repetition year on year can lead to an institutionalisation of the core model and a growing reluctance to change and experiment. Whereas with the larger fringes where a new trustee will be outnumbered by the status quo-addicted other trustees, here the community has the chance for a bit more influence. Yet even these community-driven fringes are tending towards fixedness and unchange.
Thirdly, there are the personality-driven Fringes, often founded and led by one person, a bit like a small business. In the early days their energy achieves quick and impressive growth of the Fringe. Further on, the year after year cycle of repetition burns them out and things can dip, even die. Sometimes they cling onto power; occasionally they reinvent themselves; once or twice I’ve seen them courageously hand the baton on to someone else or, ideally a community. These Fringes become defined by the filter that the founder has turned into. The founder delegates poorly, doesn’t seek out a successor, and often the Fringe dies for at least a while. Personality fringes are cropping up all over the world.
You’ve probably guessed that I’m a fan of the more emergent community-owned Fringes. There’s nothing flaky or amateur about this. These Fringes may still have a leader, a board, a group of trustees. But they activiely seek, often through the design of their core processes and plaftorm, to reinvent themselves, to innovate and to encourage new blood into the leadership group. The community is a core resources and a critical soundign board, a link to the wider audience. They reach out to their audiences, performers and create models of involvement and participation. They often seek fairness and equality. Most of all, they abhore institutionalisation, love experimentation and play with their form. That’s what the spirit of Fringe really is.
A true Fringe festival always seeks to create a vibrant and influential Fringe on itself! A true Fringe welcomes change and is suspicious of repetition for its own sake. When a Fringe becomes either an institution built in stone, or a personality cult, its growth becomes cancerous and, even if it grows in the primitive numbers, it dies in so many other ways. It loses innovation at its core. It starts to alienate itself at its core from its periphery. It loses freshness and freeness. It dies inside.
April 28th 2014
The Mix, the Match, the Mush.
There seems to be Fringe Theatre in the Brighton Festival this year and Festival Fare in the Fringe. Overlaps have never been greater, but is that a problem? It does seem strange that the Brighton Fringe and Festivals are more, uneasy co-occupants of the city art-space, rather than close bedfellows or even collaborative partners. Or does it? Perhaps it is a virtue that these two beasts are not in close cahoots with each other. Certainly most of the funding goes the way of the “main” festival and yet both festivals seem to do well in May, not at the expense of each other, but partly because of each other.
I personally love the overlap of theatre across the two fests. We are certainly aware here at FringeReview of Fringe-fans delving into the main festival more than ever, and plenty of main festival goers checking out our fringe theatre recommendations here on FringeReview.
There’s a mix between “Festival” and “Fringe” that, I believe, increases the overall fringe theatre audience for both. There isn’t always a match. In Edinburgh the main Festival is fairly clearly delineated from the vast majority of Fringe offerings. yet, at the more expensive end, venues such as the Traverse and the Assembly are really more Festival than Fringe in terms of at least some of their “commissioned” offerings.
Without doubt, there’s also a mush that creates a confusion of identitiy where the Fringe tries to be high-brow and the Festival street-wise. I like the mush. Not everyone does.
But I do advise Fringe goers to dive into the main festival programme, especially for some of the theatre and live literature on offer. And I equally suggest that Festival lovers should dip into the Fringe programme. You’ll both be surprised at what is there to tempt you.
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