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Reflections on Fringe

Date: 
Fri, 31/05/2013

   Reflections on Fringe

 

In August 2012 I hosted my last ceremony as producer of the Total Theatre Awards and explained to the assembled crowd of artists and managers why I had lost faith in the world’s largest theatre festival. Several people asked me to write these thoughts down. They echo sentiments articulated last summer by UK comedian Stewart Lee and, more recently, by Scotsman reporter, Brian Ferguson. It’s about time we talked more openly about the injustices of this particular showcase festival model that is propagating across the world. For six years I held a highly privileged position, saw hundreds of shows and talked to thousands of participants. Right now people are busy analyzing various cultural systems to understand why they aren't working, I believe there is an appetite for change and hope those in positions of power will listen and act.

 

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest performing arts festival in the world. In 2012 it boasted‘a record-breaking 2,695 different shows staging 42,096 performances in 279 venues by 22,457 performers from over 47 countries’. Notice the emphasis on big numbers, increasing year on year despite economic downturn – more on that later. It’s mind-boggling stuff, both on paper and in the flesh, a huge hustle of creativity, filling the city with a unique energy throughout August.There, you can find almost any style of performance, discover previously unheard of talent and bump into stars, as people rub along together in this huge temporary feast of the senses. Nooks and crannies are turned into makeshift venues and hundreds of thousands of visitors come. Edinburgh has pioneered a ‘festival city’ model, hosting festivals all year round. The fringe is not the only festival on during August, but by far the biggest. It is here the international theatre community come for a multi-million pound trade fair, a busman’s holiday, where theatre artists pay extortionate sums to play on makeshift stages. Their hope is of getting further work – either touring the existing show or ‘identified’ as talent for future productions. There is a multitude of simultaneous events to delight disparate audiences. Even if they don’t pay to take part, the streets are full of entertainers desperate for attention and people come to Edinburgh for the ‘buzz’.

 

Many know the Fringe legend: how, in 1947, a group of defiant artists rose up to claim space for themselves because they felt excluded from the program of the new Edinburgh International Festival. They felt excluded despite the spirit of reconciliation that had inspired this exciting post war initiative. The distinction between the International Festival and the Fringe is still significant within the festival system, entrenched by class, money and status. From humble beginnings, Fringe has become synonymous with ‘alternative’, cutting edge artistic freedom, and creative empowerment with a rebellious spirit. People go to fringe to witness something extraordinary and Edinburgh Festival Fringe IS extraordinary. The spirit of artistic enterprise was incorporated into The Fringe Society in 1949, which stated that:‘the Society was to take no part in vetting the festival’s program’. Notionally this framework places greater control into artists’ hands but, over the years, various other layers of management have stepped in to help control the enormous numbers of performers and companies wanting to take part.  Most significant of these are the self- titled ‘super venues’, that present a high percentage of Fringe shows.

 

In the prevalent mist on the streets of Edinburgh, rising with the dawn even at the height of summer, questions linger: Is the economic model for the festival now exploiting the very people who sought empowerment; a monstrous machine suffocating artists and shows in its absolute excess? As a microcosm of wider society, does the fringe system mirror an unstable economy, a sub-prime market waiting to implode? Why are artists prepared to spend beyond their means and operate at a loss? Does false hope and desperation drive this bubble economy?

 

Property prices drive escalating costs. Many temporary venues use properties owned by the University of Edinburgh or the student union right in the heart of town. The fringe is a solid income stream for these organizations; wider educational aims do not apply despite the huge numbers of students and recent grads taking part. One venue director complained to me in 2012 that costs were set to rise by 10% that year. He was reluctant to appeal to UoE because his fragile business relies on their expensive goodwill. Nor was he keen to make friends with his competitors – other venue directors in similar positions. We find this reticence to ‘rock the boat’ endemic within the arts, as good relations determine future opportunities, and so bad systems are perpetuated and the rebellious voice of the soothsaying artist is drowned out. The fact remains that with a 10% hike, costs would inevitably be passed onto staff, artists and audiences.

 

Artists and companies already pay high prices for their participation. The average guarantee to venue is 40-45% of ticket sales, based on a 40% capacity. Using this formula a show charging £9 a ticket in a 100-seat venue over 24 days of Fringe costs a minimum of £3456 for a 60minute slot. There is a percentage cost on all tickets sold and often an additional marketing fee. Ticket prices have to be competitive due to the sheer volume of shows so artists are stuck in the middle and inevitably sacrifice themselves. Ed Fringe offers useful ‘reality check’ guides predicting shows are unlikely to return even half of their outlay, whether that is the £6k or £30k outlined in their sample budgets. 

 

In a backlash against spiralling costs, various free fringe venues offer artists a sweeter deal where risk is more possible. Artists busk, collecting donations for their shows and the venues, often pubs, use acts to boost drink sales. It's a noble reaction to appalling conditions but not a very satisfactory solution and serves to further undercut those artists struggling to sell tickets to cover costs. Many Edinburgh residents jump on the bandwagon to make extra cash during fringe when property rentals skyrocket, locals rent out their flats and escape.  Restaurants cash in and people complain that Edinburgh is much more expensive during August. So much for a community welcoming artists to its city, Edinburgh strives to fleece them and then crows about economic investment in the arts. But we can’t just blame Edinburgh. Our growth model economy relies on cheap (often foreiegn) commodities to boost profits. Unfortunately the performing arts trade in local labour where there is little room for economic manoeuvre and with supply always exceeding demand plus inflated real estate costs; there simply aren’t the margins to sustain small-medium scale shows.

 

So, you can pay your money and take you chances and yes, perhaps if you are ‘good enough’ you might be ‘discovered’ by an audience and/or get critical acclaim. But despite a reputation for openness, the structures work against you, unless you are already initiated into the strict hierarchies of the existing professional theatre system. Add then there are the layers of management, including producers, PR and marketing consultants, all working very hard to ensure their clients are visible in the maelstrom. For artists these additional services incur additional cost. Most programs are carefully managed by the big venues controlling popular time slots for estabished acts, so artists playing outside fashionable forms or without a solid reputation, struggle to find a place that will get them any attention.

 

Further, there is a strange double standard running through the festival – uncomfortable seats, poor sightlines, leaking roofs and temperamental equipment is dismissed in the name of fringe – that spirit of pop-up irreverent spontaneity, despite being run by well-established organizations and people on year round salaries.

 

So, credit cards are maxed out and emotions frayed in the knowledge that your 'baby', a creative ‘loss leader’ show, will never be able to recoup its outlay. Supply exceeds demand to such an extent that the average paying audience size is low, many shows playing to a handful of punters, if any. The drive for success outweighs the pleasure of experimenting or simply taking part. This success is achieved by a very few ‘stars’. And, because of the expense, the types of people performing in the fringe increasingly reflect a narrow band of society.  Folk are required to sell their souls, tax their parents or spend their savings to afford to play, unless they receive funding.

 

Creative Scotland has started the Made in Scotland program to help local artists (chaired by CEO of Fringe – so much for Fringe ‘taking no part in the festivals programming’), while Arts Council England seem to have a schizophrenic attitude to supporting artists performing at the Fringe. If you are based in East of England or (as of 2012) in the North East then there are avenues to funding support via Escalator East to Edinburgh or Northern Stage, but for independent artists in the rest of the country there is no support via Grants of the Arts (lottery funding) unless you are a regularly funded organization. The British Council produce a showcase of British performance in Edinburgh every two years, but they rarely offer financial support, instead funding a collection of international producers and programmers to come and see the shows they have selected to showcase, relying on artists to fund the ‘opportunity’. All these organizations feed on the size and system of Fringe. ACE relationship managers have been known to advise emerging artists that producing successful shows in Edinburgh will significantly increase their chance of receiving grant funding.

 

This has serious implications for the sector, as the huge cost of producing shows in Edinburgh prevents many from participating, thus reinforcing the elitism for which Theatre is already world renowned. And although this is an international Festival in Scotland, posh English blokes run most of the major venues. Edinburgh is very white and middle class; the big venue bosses are predominantly white men. In fact, since Laura Mackenzie (who started Universal Arts with Tomek Borkowy) was snatched up by Creative Scotland, there is only one woman running a major venue. That is Orla O’Loughlin, Artistic Director of the Traverse theatre - Edinburgh’s year round new writing theatre – and the first woman to lead the organisation in 25 years. Look at central government, where there is a high percentage of posh white men in power, and you get the picture. 

 

The myth, constantly being reiterated by profiteers, is that a free-market economy is fair and accessible. As public subsidy is being squeezed the fringe financial model looks increasingly attractive as an excuse for cuts and a justification for economic rationalists pursuing profit. An idea floating around the theatre scene for some time, likens the current emphasis on cultural ‘revolution’ to the industrial revolution, where - on the back of slave labour - nations industrialized. This comparison quickly falls short as conditions are by no means as desperate for cultural workers now as they were for workers then, but please humour the analogy… Are venue organisers the new factory bosses and the artists their production-line workers, manufacturing ‘creative product’ for an overcrowded market? Many organisers are creating an increasingly corporate environment that undermines the ethos of much of the work in their venues. The corporate sponsorship supporting large venues, in the name of ‘Fringe’, is not generally paying artists but supporting an increase in infrastructure. Certainly the costs seem to rise year on year regardless of additional investment. Public are encouraged to spend ‘cultural pound’ unaware of the enormous cost to presenters or that little, if any, of the ticket price actually pays the acts. Many punters are the artists themselves, paying twice for the privilege of working in order to remain knowledgeable about their field and surrounding competition.

 

The growth agenda of all major parties, including the Fringe Society, echoes the unsustainable growth model unsuccessfully driving the UK (and world) economy.  Not only are a relatively small percentage of the 22,457 performers paid, but also audiences can less afford to take risks or see as many performances as they once did, so the culture becomes increasingly conservative - a worrying sign of the times. Artists become co-opted into the economic reality rather than focusing on asking difficult questions and pushing the creative envelope, which begs serious questions about the purpose of the art or indeed festivals. While theatre makers are desperately hoping that their work will be picked up for touring where they might recoup some of their outlay, this is becoming increasingly unlikely. Shows made to be noticed and succeed in this festival environment, where so many punters are from the arts community, are not always going to work in a tour of regional venues for audiences that only go to the theatre a couple of times a year.

 

Festivals like these may also be partly responsible for undermining the UK regional theatre ecology, as Dominic Cavendish recently suggested in the Telegraph. Certainly, audiences in Edinburgh have started behaving like producers and programmers, overheard in queues reciting the number of shows seen in a day, clocking show hours rather than focusing on the work put into individual performances. The work of theatre to touch hearts and change minds is seriously compromised by these levels of consumption and the regimented 60minute show slot. Thriving on unaffordable excess could also be transferred outside fringe to other parts of our culture.

 

 

There are, of course, many extraordinary people engaged in managing the fringe system that believe passionately in the importance of artists and make great efforts to support them. The lasting impression of fringe as ‘cutting edge’ or ‘alternative’ still attracts many people eager to touch this magic and get involved. English theatre is still riddled with class and the Scottish context provides a more egalitarian environment for them, where unlikely conversations can happen. Aware of the problems, some venues do attempt to run in a less cutthroat way (E.G. Universal Arts or the revamped Assembly Rooms & Famous Spiegeltent on George St) but, to survive, they must find other forms of financial support - whether it's the subsidised theatre at Traverse, the subversive volunteer activism that started Forest Fringe or the philanthropy of Robert McDowell at Summerhall.

 

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is part of a complex ‘festival city’ agenda that brings income and visitors to Edinburgh each year. In 2007 a new position, Director of Festivals Edinburgh, was created. Based in the office of the Edinburgh International Festival, a small “super team” focus on strategic development, ensuring the different festivals are not competing for sponsors, and using the festivals platform as a way of bringing further investment to the city. It strengthens cross-city and international relations, boosting Edinburgh’s profile, but inadvertently locks the existing festivals (and participating artists) into hierarchical positions (with IEF maintaining jewel-in-the crown ‘high art’ supremacy during August, anxious to justify public spend and appeal to wider audiences but determined not be confused with fringe). It inevitably endorses the exploitative nature of Fringe, as this activity is only possible with the footfall of such the enormous open access festival.

 

Although Edinburgh is the home of the first Fringe, the model has spread to many other events with a burgeoning collection of Fringe Festivals multiplying across the world. This is most worrying – the ‘pay to play’ model is winning over entrepreneurs because (despite the fact that venues are more able to raise money than artists) it’s easy to exploit artists’ dreams to pay for management. Artists have been encouraged to embrace corporate business models and adopt an agressively commercial approach. Countries such as Australia have copied the model almost exactly, to the extent that Adelaide is a ‘Festival City’ and have just appointed a director of Festivals, mirroring the position in Edinburgh.

 

I must also acknowledge that ‘Fringe’ means different things in different places and the overriding ‘brand’ has strangely diverse applications. The Director of World Festival Network, Holly Payton, is passionate about fringe festivals and puts a strong case for those smaller fringes that offer artists decent deals and look after them. Apparently, one of the benefits for those performing at these festivals is the ‘free’ training they can access while participating. I am intrigued that they all want to call themselves fringe - despite the problems in Edinburgh and curious to learn how the economic models for these smaller festivals work. Is the support they offer a transitional stage until they can become as big as Edinburgh or Adelaide?  

 

I took an experimental piece of theatre (a version of BiDiNG TIME) to Adelaide Fringe in 2012, partly as a nostalgia trip and partly to test the system. Working with local performers and a local band (part of BT's environmental agenda to focus locally) we made a community show in a week. I had last produced a version of this same show in Adelaide 20 years earlier and the experiences couldn’t have been more different. Then, we were welcomed, encouraged and helped to find press and a local audience. We did well. This time, I received dozens of emails from ‘artists services’ trying to sell me their wares - and those of other businesses in Adelaide - to help market the show. During the run the only conversation with fringe staff was about box office. No one from Adelaide Fringe took any interest in what we were doing or why. Part story telling, part gig (thanks to young band The Giveaways) with guest experts talking about climate change from an Adelaide perspective, this event was part of the wider experiment. The only reviewer who came was a leading star from a local amateur company who said she couldn’t review the show because she didn’t understand what she was watching… so much for Fringe being a place for experimentation. I am not suggesting the show was a ‘hit’ in fringe terms; it was made in a week but I am questioning the very definition of 'hit' in this context. Luckily we did OK, almost broke even and the people who saw the show said they had a good time. But I felt sorry for the local performers, disillusioned by their fringe experience. 

 

While in Adelaide, I overheard a member of Fringe staff chastising a distraught solo performer from Tasmania for not working hard enough to sell her show. She was on her own and had spent her savings - looking to Fringe for support - and got an ear full for her trouble. And this is the harsh reality: many performers have a miserable time at Fringe Festivals. It can be a very challenging environment and even seasoned companies see the Edinburgh Fringe festival as a necessary evil they must endure because of who might be watching. Those programmers and festival directors cherry picking the ‘best’ work are implicated in this analysis. One Total Theatre Awards assessor in 2011 witnessed a performer having a nervous breakdown on stage. It wasn’t part of the show! This solo performer was camping with his partner and baby in a field and the 2011 Ed Fringe was wet and cold. The show had received a bad review and while telling this story, he hid behind a curtain and wept. I got straight onto the fringe. Apparently the ‘usual public services’ (NHS, etc.) was all staff could recommend. In any other working environment the employer has a duty of care to look after the workers. But we are all self employed now and artists are clients of the Fringe and participatng venues.

 

Some argue that participation in Fringe is an artists choice and even imply that lack of talent of people making 'bad art' excuses poor working conditions. This is outrageous. As producer of the Total Theatre Awards I have seen more than my fair share of terrible shows but am also acutely aware of how undefinied notions of excellence and current trends in theatre making keep hierarchies in place and maintain an unjust social order. Many artists refuse to come to Edinburgh but in tough times the lure is refuelled by desperation. Consider too the numerous young interns and volunteers working free to prop up the system while tourism is winning and so many non arts businesses do well. Something is not right.

 

There seems a deep sickness at the root of our society where no one wants to take responsibility for bad systems. I appreciate that it is a complicated scenario and beyond the remit of any individual. I believe we have a duty in the arts to aim higher, to use our collective imaginations to dream up better ideas and experiment with putting them into practice; not just on stage but in the way we manage ourselves and conduct our business. In this context, we must not believe the fringe hype. An aggressively commercial fringe ecology is denting its ‘cool’; the spirit of adventure and enquiry seems to have all but left the festival. It needs a re-think. Edinburgh, the grand dame of all fringe festivals, working with the super festivals team and partners could take this lead, assume responsibility and reorganize the event. There are mechanisms in place for people to work together to improve the overall system. On behalf of the thousands of independent artists at the mercy of it, and all those too afraid to speak up, I echo the sentiments of Brian Ferguson, Stewart Lee and others in calling for change.   

Pippa Bailey

Since writing this blog it has been pointed out that I failed to mention Karen Koren, Artistic Director of the Gilded Balloon as a woman running a major fringe venue. My apologies to Karen. I maintain the general point about the dominance of men running major fringe venues.

PLEASE NOTE: BiDiNG TiME will be present in Edinburgh this August to share this story. There are free walks and talks to share the ethos of the project and Louise Quinn will present Biding Time (Remix), the Scottish version of the show. BiDiNG TiME has been conceived as a response to the system of theatre making, a provocation to imagine something more democratic and accessible.