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Reflections on Fringe

Fri, 31/05/2013

 Reflections on Fringe

In August 2012 I hosted my last ceremony after six years 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 and I do so in anticipation of the 2013 Festival. 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 casually 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 the 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 their existing show or being ‘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 people fill the streets to see entertainers desperate for attention. Crowds come to Edinburgh in August simply 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 inspired this exciting post war initiative because it was propelled by the elite. The distinction between the International Festival and the Fringe is still significant within the festival system, distinguished by class, money and status. From these 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. Driven by commercial forces the most significant of these are the self-titled ‘super venues’ that present a high percentage of Fringe shows.

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 prospects, so bad systems are perpetuated and the rebellious voice of the soothsaying artist is drowned out in the process. Of course with a 10% hike, costs are inevitably 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 on sale so artists are stuck in the middle and inevitably sacrifice themselves. Ed Fringe website 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. In these establishments 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. Sadly it serves to further undercut other artists struggling to sell underpriced tickets to cover costs.

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 lots of other non-arts shops and services benefit. This is a vicious cycle and people complain that Edinburgh is much more expensive during August, driving locals away. 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. With supply always exceeding demand, compounded by inflated real estate costs, there simply aren’t the margins to sustain small-medium scale shows at the Fringe. In Edinburgh we can see the growing discrepancies between rich and poor arts producers that mirror British and global patterns.

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. Then there are the layers of company management, including producers, PR and marketing consultants, all working very hard to ensure their clients are visible in the maelstrom. For independent artists these additional services at Fringe 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 organisations and people on year round salaries. Credit cards are maxed out and emotions frayed in the knowledge that your artistic 'baby', a ‘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 play to a handful of punters, if any. The drive to win despite the odds often outweighs the pleasure of experimenting or simply taking part. However success is achieved by very few ‘stars’. And, because of the expense, the types of people performing in the fringe increasingly reflect a narrow band of society where posh white men rule the roost. So artists sell their souls, tax their parents, spend their savings and go into debt to afford to play and, despite popular opinion, there is barely any funding to support them.

Creative Scotland funded the Made in Scotland program in 2010 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’. Then you will stumble across country themed programs where foreign governments promote their artists to try and boost exports and tourism. All these organizations feed on the scale and exploitative 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 which once again, advantages the privileged.

This has serious implications for the performing arts 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. Many artists making shows for this festival are targeting colleagues in the industry, not a wider uninitiated audience. And the industry structures echo problematic power structures in our culture. Although this is an international Festival in Scotland, posh English blokes run most of the major venues. Edinburgh is very white and middle class (compared with Glasgow). 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's financial model looks increasingly attractive as an excuse for arts funding cuts and a justification for those 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. Conditions are by no means as desperate for cultural workers now as they were for industrial workers then, but please humour the analogy… the venue organisers cast as new factory bosses and artists their production-line workers, manufacturing ‘creative product’ for an overcrowded market. Many managers are creating increasingly corporate environments that undermine the ethos of much of the work in their venues and corporate sponsorship supporting large venues, in the name of ‘Fringe’, is not 'trickling down' to artists but supporting an increase in infrastructure. Certainly the costs seem to rise year on year regardless of additional investment. The public are encouraged to spend ‘cultural pound’ unaware of the enormous risk to artists and profit to presenters or that little, if any, of the ticket price actually pays the act. Many punters are the artists themselves, paying twice for the privilege of working in Edinburgh in order to remain knowledgeable about their field to stay 'competitive'.

The growth agenda of all the major players, including the Fringe Society, echoes an unsustainable growth model unsuccessfully driving the UK (and world) economy.  Not only are a relatively small percentage of the 22,457 performers paid, but in a shrinking market 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 have become co-opted into this economic reality rather than championed to play their unique role in helping us to see the world differently, focus on asking difficult questions and push the creative envelope. This begs serious questions about the purpose of art in this context or indeed about the role of too many festivals in the 21st Century. The environment is certainly more heightened and intense than your average daily grind but the wildness is not necessarily on the stages. Also shows made to be noticed and succeed in this festival environment are not always going to work in a tour of regional venues or for audiences that only go to the theatre a couple of times a year.

Festivals like Fringe may also be 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 huge amount of work put into individual performances. Its a sweetie shop and the sugar high is infectious. Theatre can touch hearts and change minds but is seriously compromised by these levels of consumption in regimented 60minute slots. Thriving on unaffordable excess could also be seen as a metaphor transferred outside of fringe to other parts of our culture. And few are prepared to admit that ideas are being generated in this environment and cherry picked or stolen by wealthier players.

There are, of course, many extraordinary people engaged in managing the fringe system that believe passionately in the importance of artists and who make great efforts to support them. This economic analysis is news to many. A lasting impression of fringe as 'accessible' or ‘cutting edge’ and the sheer scale of the event still attracts many people eager to touch the magic and get involved. Its good for English theatre, so riddled with class, because the Scottish context provides a more egalitarian environment for them, where unlikely conversationsand connections can happen. Some artists do get to tour regularly and stars are occasionally born. 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’ government agenda that brings income and millions of 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 use the festivals platform as a way of bringing further investment and international acclaim to the city. It strengthens cross-city and international relations, boosting Edinburgh’s profile, but inadvertently locks the existing festivals (and participating artists) into set hierarchical positions with IEF maintaining jewel-in-the crown ‘high art’ supremacy during August. There is an interesting tension, where IEF need to justify public spend and appeal to wider audiences but determinedly not be confused with fringe. It maintaiins poll position internationally because of the size and quality of the Fringe. And every so often a show or company crosses the bridge and secures a seat at the top table. Perhaps the Scots are happy to be fleecing the multitude of English participants, certainly this small fierce country is very proud to be punching above its weight. 

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 easier 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.

Admittedly ‘Fringe’ means different things in different places and the overriding ‘brand’ has strangely diverse applications. The passionate Director of World Festival Network, Holly Payton puts a strong case for those smaller fringes that offer artists decent deals and look after them. Apparently, one of the benefits for folk performing at these 'fairer' 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. Its a testament to the way corporate power has incidiously placed brand ahead of content and purpose. I am curious to learn how the economic models for these smaller festivals work and whether they simply long to be as big and important as Edinburgh or Adelaide?  

In 2012 I took an experimental piece of theatre (a version of BiDiNG TIME) to Adelaide Fringe 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 money. 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 international experiment. The only reviewer 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 valuing experimentation. Luckily we got reasonable houses, broke even and many people who saw the show said they had a good time. 

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. 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. The staff were young and strangely detached from concern. In any other working environment the employer has a duty of care to look after workers. But we are all self employed now on zero hour contracts. Artists are 'clients', 'customers' and 'consumers' of the Fringe 'services' and participatng venues. Then there are teams of interns all learning the system. What kind of culture are we creating when endurance of hideous conditions are necessary bruises when climbing the professional ladder?

Some argue that participation in Fringe is an artists' choice and imply that lack of talent and '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 to maintain an unjust status quo. Many reputable artists refuse to come to Edinburgh. In tough times the lure is refuelled by desperation. Sadly programmers and presenters are complicit in this tragic circus. Professional networks are also fiercely hierarchical and deals done behind closed doors see the same shows touring festivals around the world. Are these the 'best'? Globalisation has homogenised the arts and from these saturated markets, prestige Festivals are dominated by wealthy white shows when audiences around the world are so vibrantly diverse. The buzz of Edinburgh becomes a backdrop for a rich social whirl, the performances increasingly seen as interchangeable and irrelevant. I have known UK arts managers regularly come to Edinburgh for meetings and never see a show.  

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, influence our cultures and conduct our businesses. In this context, we must not believe the fringe hype. The spirit of adventure and enquiry seems to have all but left the festival. 

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 these festivals just exploiting the very people who sought empowerment, 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? and what responsibility do we have to the artists still so prepared to spend beyond their means and operate at a loss fuelled by false hope and desperation to drive this bubble economy?

The grand dame of all fringe festivals needs a makeover. She has been a fascinating place to champion, empower and award artists, particularly independent artists. They are the lifeblood innovating our culture. Since I joined Total Theatre as Director I am proud that rigorous processes have been put into place to ensure the organisation is doing all it can to take a lead, host difficult conversations and include artists in the process. I am confident that my fabulous successors will continue in this vein. I long for more radical solutions. As environmental crisis deepens and millions of tonnes of carbon are burnt via airmiles and artificial lights during Fringe, the performing arts sector here seem to be desperately 'fiddling' while the planet burns. So I am done. On behalf of the thousands of independent artists at the mercy of this system and all those too afraid to speak up, I echo the sentiments of Brian Ferguson, Stewart Lee and many 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 white English men running major fringe venues.

PLEASE NOTE: In 2013 BiDiNG TiME will be present in Edinburgh in 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 and enact more democratic and accessible systems.