Stephen Fry. Jo Brand. Rowan Atkinson. Eddie Izzard. Flight of the Conchords. Taskmaster. Fleabag… so many household names….
Edinburgh Festival Fringe curates optimists – could I become that household name, win a TV pilot, go on tour, or secure a spot on the West End from performing in the sprawling cacophony of Fringe?
It’s a common musing from Fringe-makers, who simultaneously chat about the rite-of-passage Fringe has become for young performers and international acts, the latter a factor which Edfringe organisers are particularly championing this year, with a record 63 countries represented.
Let’s keep it real and practical: how do you actually approach Fringe as a standalone director or producer with an idea? How do you take a single show and expand on it during and after? What the hell do you do as that individual!? As your usual gossip gal Caitlin is away, who has penned the last few entries to this blog, I, Jack, sat down with the Artistic Director of Interactive Theatre International to chat about running a production company and the spruce-y Scottish springboard Edinburgh Fringe can be…
Alison Pollard-Mansergh has been at the helm of Interactive Theatre International (ITI) for 22 years, since it started in other words. When our Venue Director was interviewed by The Mumble, he said that the secret to ITI’s strength was ‘drive, determination, and Ali’.
Ali knows a thing or two about attaining international success from one Fringe-friendly production in particular: her show Faulty Towers The Dining Experience has toured 40 countries, welcomed almost a million guests, been on in the West End for eight years, and become a firm Fringe favourite since its Edinburgh debut in 2008. Now she and her company produce four original shows as well as several independent others and have started their own venue too.
We figured that some producers and directors of the near-4,000 shows coming to this year’s Fringe may be interested in the journey of an Artistic Director and producer of a show with accolades like that, so here we go…
J: Let’s start at the beginning: how did you first become acquainted with the performing arts?
A: As an active child, I was enthused when a brand-new television set was brought home – I distinctly remember there was a fantastic programme back in New Zealand called Happen Inn which featured go-go dancers complete with all the bells and whistles, and it would always liven up our lounge. I began to dance along with them, and my mother simply thought, ‘oh, she’s going to be a performer’. From there, I was sent off to dance classes and auditions – a relatable story for many artists no doubt! My first role was at the age of five in The King and I as one of the children – that’s how it all started, in amateur theatre, and the story just grew from there.
J: And what about Interactive Theatre International? How did the production company emerge?
A: Back in 1996, I had been the director of a company in New Zealand which created and performed theatre for corporate functions. One of the items on the company’s roster was a Fawlty Towers themed night, which we did on rotation around the conference centres. I then moved to Australia and was a bit stuck as to how to get a shoe in the Australian theatre scene. My husband encouraged me to continue with the Fawlty Towers theme, which is what I knew, and so I thought for six months I would do this thing to get going. Faulty Towers The Dining Experience is the show that kick-started the company, and here we are 22 years later!
J: So despite ITI having recently celebrated its 22nd birthday, with multiple productions touring the world to much critical acclaim, that wasn’t the vision at the very beginning?
A: No! When we started I thought it was only going to last a small amount of time. It gained momentum, however, and we started getting more and more actors involved so it became something that really took off. It just grew organically. [ed: don’t worry readers, Ali touts to me regularly that ITI’s vision these days is world domination!].
J: How did a one-show company touring Australia in 1997 become an international production company with four original shows today? I’ve heard Edinburgh Fringe may have something to do with that…
A: Yes! In 2008 we took Faulty Towers The Dining Experience to Edinburgh Fringe for the very first time and it was a massive success. That really was the launch for us on the international scene. We’d previously invited international promoters to the show at Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but it was Edinburgh that really launched us. Then on the back of that, we started international touring for Faulty as well as the London residency.
So many venues loved the show, the style and the format that they were crying out for other similar productions. So we created Confetti & Chaos, a dining experience based around a wedding reception gone wrong, and Only Fools The (cushty) Dining Experience, which started last year. We have Pamela’s Palace too, our first foray outside of the world of dinner theatre – but it retains our signature elements of being immersive and interactive.
All in all, Edinburgh Fringe has been the crucible for many ITI shows: thrusting Faulty Towers The Dining Experience onto the world stage, providing a platform for Pamela’s Palace to premiere and flourish, enabling us to regularly tap into an audience crying out for Confetti & Chaos, giving Only Fools The (cushty) Dining Experience to opportunity to tread the same path… The list goes on, and is no doubt similar for many production companies!
J: There seem to be more and more tribute shows around (you can read more about that in this BroadwayWorld article) – and you talk about your tribute shows as originals. Yet there’s been some talk recently around the issue of tribute shows potentially infringing the copyright or trademark of their source material. For producers, writers and directors considering a possible future for other tribute shows, how do you approach that issue?
A good question, and I can answer clearly as far as our own tribute shows go. The copyright of the TV show scripts below to John Cleese & Connie Booth in relation to Fawlty Towers, and to The Sullivan Estate, in the case of Only Fools & Horses. That is the only thing that is copywritten – the actual words on the page [for TV]. Our scripts [for Faulty Towers The Dining Experience and Only Fools The (cushty) Dining Experience] have been written completely apart from those scripts, and we have had our legal team go through all of the scripts that we do, and they do not infringe any copyright. You can’t copyright characters and you can’t copyright ideas, so no we don’t infringe copyright. Meanwhile, the trademark of the Fawlty Towers and Only Fools & Horses belong to the BBC, so we checked with the BBC and have letters from them stating that they have no objection to us doing the shows that we do as we do them.
It’s an area people don’t understand very well. Copyright refers to the words actually written on the page. You cannot copyright ideas – for example, you can’t copyright the idea that one person goes and places a bet on a horse. That is a regular occurrence in life. You can’t copyright characters, because the words on the page say the name of the character and the line that that character says. It doesn’t breathe life in to those words. The people that breathe life in to those words are a combination of the actor who portrays and speaks those lines, the costume designer who designs a character’s costume, the director who tells you how to move and the tone of voice that they want you to use – there’s so many people that are adding to that, so you can’t actually copyright a character. We use the characters and we have taken some of the ideas that are well known in the TV series, and we’ve created our own storyline around those things.
In the case of Faulty Towers The Dining Experience, it grew organically. It’s still growing today, after 22 years – our script is really honed, and many many performers have added to the words in the script. The script for Only Fools The (cushty) Dining Experience was created over a period of six months, where we had a group of people devising our show. Both are completely original, and we own the copyright on those scripts.
Certainly, if new producers and writers are considering their own tribute shows, they need to check for all the same kind of copyright and trademark issues.
J: What would be your advice to anyone looking to become an Artistic Director of their own production company?
A: DO IT! Do it, do it, do it, do it – but expect it to not be the easiest thing to do. But do do it. If it’s your passion, do it.
J: Whilst you’re here, let’s have a brief chat about Imagination Workshop, this year’s new festival hub. ITI is the driving force behind it, so what gave you the idea to develop it?
A: Well, to be honest, it was Jared. Jared is ITI’s Global Business Development Manager (we chatted to him in the last instalment of How do we EFFing do it! about programming), and also my son. Jared has been coming up to the Fringe regularly, and we have this fabulous venue in Edinburgh, The George Hotel, which we’ve called home to ITI shows for a number of years now. ITI has a fantastic working relationship with the team there, and they’ve talked to us over the last couple of years about bringing other shows in. It’s been Jared’s project and, as such, Imagination Workshop the hub [v119] was born!
J: What’s the vision for Imagination Workshop? What do you think Fringe-goers will get out of it, and what do you think the hub will be remembered for?
A: We have primarily tried to programme immersive, interactive theatre – shows that break the fourth wall. I would like to think that people will recognise the hub for those types of shows. There are also five show which include meals – I think that makes our hub unique to this year’s Edinburgh, and I’d like us to be known to be at the forefront of interactive theatre and dining experiences – the recipe ITI has been perfecting for over two decades!
Readers, I hope Ali’s insights have answered some questions for aspiring Artistic Directors looking to head to Edinburgh Festival Fringe and forge their own production company. Maybe we’ve created more questions. If you have any specifics you want to ask Ali, do get in touch and we’ll try to set you up with some answers!
We’ll be back for more soon.
Interview 19 June 2019, which includes questions answered as per the blog above and more besides, including more on the thorny issue of copyright and copycats: Alison Pollard-Mansergh, Artistic Director and Company Founder, Interactive Theatre International