The Fringe is Bananas

Like countless others this summer, I am making the return trip from a visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And like some of you no doubt, also involved in the theatre industry, I’ve been mulling over the customary raft of chatter online and on the street from independent artists finding themselves put through the annual wringer of what can be an eviscerating few weeks’ theatre-slog. And the more I read and hear, the more I feel that the fact these thoughts are all too familiar shouldn’t simply consign them to the ‘What Doesn’t Kill You…’ pile.

Artists have been complaining consistently and clearly for some time of the compulsion to meet the rising financial (not to mention emotional) demands of taking work to the Fringe. I know the stock response. I can hear it loud and clear from funders, from promoters, from press, and from venues: “no one is making you”. And I can hear it clearly now because I have heard it directly before, and from the horse’s mouth; we’re not making you go to Edinburgh…. we’re not making you spend your time and money or shed your blood, sweat or tears.

But they must accept that they are, at the very least, complicit. Because they fill studio programmes with work from the Fringe, because they flock north of the border every summer, because they do half their business in the venues’ courtyards and bars, at pitching events and networking breakfasts, and because, directly or indirectly, every year they allocate resources to making this continue. Edinburgh works for them, so they keep going, and any artist or company who realistically wants to give their work a shot at sustained, small-scale, national touring effectively does have to go.

For a creative team larger than one or two, playing a space with less than a couple of hundred seats, even a sell-out run won’t cover the artists’ costs and pay them a wage for a month. So in effect, artists are paying to put their work in front of programmers, who for the most part are being paid to be there (and request free tickets from the artists for good measure). At best, this balance is problematic. It’s understood that venues too operate with tight resources and pressing demands of their own of course. It’s pragmatism, not sadism, that drives them on the hunt for shows and contacts in a place where they’re all gathered; but at worst, it is exploitative. Venues can’t be blamed for buying into a model that is clearly a convenient one for them, but it doesn’t make it right. Let’s just say that if there was a theatre industry equivalent for those Fairtrade stickers you get on bananas, they’d be conspicuous in their absence from many a venue’s visiting programme brochure.

The second thing no doubt being said right now over a plastic pint or two of overpriced lager, is of course that Edinburgh does work for some artists. For some. Yes, it is possible to book a honking tour off the back of a Fringe hit. So it can work for artists too, and it’s survival of the fittest, right, now whose round is it? Come on, we’re better than this. It’s no longer the level playing field of the romantic Fringe imagination, it’s a machine. There is now a de facto requirement for significant resources around artists to effectively compete up there. And it is to take nothing away from those companies whose own hard work and talent have paid off handsomely to recognise that today, this is increasingly only happening with significant backing from either larger organisations, or where people are fortunate enough to be able to afford to take the financial risks themselves (or both). But what’s wrong with this? What’s wrong if quality work is being picked up and pushed, if investment is being made to give work a longer life, or even to expect artists to back themselves?

There must be questions of efficiency, and of representation here. For the first, well put it this way: if you were to design a cost effective showcase for English touring theatre from scratch, can you honestly tell me that a) you’d concoct a model anything like the Fringe, and that b) you’d put it in another country? As for the second, is it so much of a stretch to accept that by selecting shows being created by a shallowing pool of young artists from an increasingly narrow range of backgrounds, programmers are doing a disservice to the breadth and depth of their potential audiences back at home? Finally, might it be possible that by perpetuating this trade-show in its current form, with all the attendant market imperatives squeezing artists’ creativity, and stifling diversity, that the quality of the art being developed itself might suffer? I wonder how many times in a row will people mutter that “it’s not really a vintage year” before they concede that there might just be a pattern emerging…..

I write this fully aware that across the country, there are many examples of venues and organisations doing good things to develop artists’ work and their audiences in positive ways. But as long as the industry attend the Fringe in such critical mass, theatre-makers are justified in asking that we all consider the implications of this environment’s conditions upon the creation and distribution of work. And we owe each other at least an attempt to come up with some answers.

But where to start? Well, whatever your thoughts on any emerging artists’ work, why don’t we start with them. One reason I suspect that the Fringe experience can cut to the depths it does may be to do with finding that the industry’s own pedestal for new work never quite seems to embody much of the ethos that makers themselves cultivate back in their own home towns and cities. I’m guessing these feelings may be echoed in creative communities all over the country, where it’s often the artists digging the ground for their own work to grow. So maybe it’s in the passion of the independent artists, and in the ecology of nurturing spaces in the regions, that an alternative to the Fringe could be dreamt up; an alternative to show off the best, most innovative and exciting new work at the small-scale that deserves to be toured across the country.

The Fringe’s reputation as the unparalleled showcase opportunity will remain until the collective imagination and leadership is shown to invest in something different, until the industry that purports to develop and support artists steps up to unburden theatre-makers of all of the risk we feel that we have little choice but to shoulder ourselves. Is it really beyond us, an industry built on creativity, to come up with something better for audiences in all the regions of England, better for theatre-makers’ careers and well-being, and better for creating better work?

Simon Day – 23rd August 2017

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