Reflections on Fringe from FringeReview founder, Paul Levy
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June 19th 2017 – The Changing Fringe Landscape.
With the Edinburgh Fringe celebrating its 70th Birthday in 2017, the Edinburgh Fringe venue landscape is changing this year, not radically, but significantly. Big is getting bigger and small to medium is disappearing. Assembly has got its Assembly Rooms back and there is now only one Assembly brand, which reduces confusion as well as diversity. Pleasance doesn’t appear to be pursuing an overt growth strategy in Edinburgh, and with the loss of the Spiegeltent, George Street is in for a few changes. (Click here – it feels tumbleweedish strange).
Underbelly has also stabilised around four venue hubs in recent years. And Just the Tonic hints at a “200 capacity space TBC“. So, at the big end, it all feels fairly stable with the loss of the Spiegeltent feeling the most significant and the gain by Assembly of er… Assembly, the ending of some epic quest, more or less satisfying depending on who you are.
Summerhall, a year-round arts venue as well as a dedicated Fringe venue, has also spread its wings with a few venue partnerships. For example, Army @ The Fringe in Association with Summerhall. Returning is Northern Stage, who had a stab at St Stephen’s and are now Northern Stage at Summerhall. Zoo seems to have also stayed with stability. And the ever-expanding C Venues adds a couple of new venue hubs to its stable, including C Royale and C Primo. Certainly Assembly with the claiming back of the Rooms, and C which has spread further across the city, and added more reach across the fringe map.
It’s when we get to small to middle sized venues that you can really notice the landscape change, and it’s those smaller venues that some might say represent the “true fringe spirit”. This year there is no Spotlites. It’s a shame as legendary fringe venues like this played host to many award-winners alongside first timers and kept a homely feel about them. A few years back, Gryphon Venues along from the Grassmarket closed its doors. Spookily its web site is still up and running. Don’t click on this Gryphon venues link as Google warns it might have been hacked. I just clicked on it and my lap top seems to be still working. Vote SNP! Vote SNP Vote SNP… Get off!
A few in the mid range vanished within a year. I stand corrected, but here’s what you get if you search for newbies Theatre Exchange. If they have re-branded I’ll happily amend. It could simply be that the economics of smaller venues no longer works, (Did it ever in expensive Edinburgh?) unless you do it for love and the venues really pay to play or get offered free spaces by benefactors (the old patronage model, now modified by Thatcherism).
Bucking that trend are the legendary Sweet Venues, sticking with their fringe knitting where smaller (but “expanding the view”) is still seen beautiful (and more human scale), on the Grassmarket. And there’s Greenside who expanded a few year back to occupy three spaces/hubs, playing host to new work, smaller scale often, and more open access than most, which, for me is true Fringe spirit. Long may these venues thrive, though it does seem that the economics are very tight and there’s no model beyond pay to play and profit share.
At Brighton Fringe 2017 there were also monolithic hubs such as The Brighton Spiegeltent (along with the Bosco) and the ever-growing Warren. Yet I also counted a trend towards growth in the number of small venues, really fringey in feel, scale and delivery, some just hosting one show. In Edinburgh, that “small is beautiful” fringe-iness seems to have further reduced.
The Free Fringes continue to find new spaces to augement their longer term spaces such as the Free Sisters, free hubs of no small scale. But overall Big is beautiful at Edinburgh Fringe to those running the giant hubs and even some of the smaller venues are now branding with T-shirts and behaving as if they are big-bound or bigger than they really are.
I think the heart of the Fringe still lies with breadth, diversity and a backbone of free-thinking human scale work and venues to host all that emerging creativity that is brimming in (Generations X,Y,Z and even the forthcoming Generation A – go on, look ’em up).
As Edinburgh Fringe clocks up seventy years, it might be a good year to think about the original impulse – the Fringe, not as a corporate growth and management model, not even as a tightly controlled charitable trust, nor a set of venues with ego-personalities at the head of each ship, like captains, but as a reaction, as a creative response to mediocrity, mainstream and exclusiveness. And the clue to that may lie in the seeds, not the branches, now too big and artisicaly breaking with the weight of their pesticide-grown fruit.
P.S The most recent Edfringe Stop Press has been the news that fringe-on-the-fringe (but mostly a fringe-in-itself) Forest Fringe is to quit Edinburgh, and perhaps set up elsewhere, or even become a film or a political party. Well, perhaps it might. It led me to pen these words recently:
“True Fringe is never about repetition for its own sake. Real Fringe is when you sit on the edges of your own personal mainstream, and then leap away to somewhere even edgier.”
That’s harder to do when you behave like a business that sells products called shows in the arts realm. It becomes easier when your deepest reasons for doing Fringe are about the art, not the business, about the impulse and not only the outcome. About restlessness rather than ruthlessness.
Let me give Forest Fringe the final words in this column entry, in their own words:
“We have made the decision that Forest Fringe will not be running a venue at the Edinburgh Festival for the foreseeable future. We want to explore what else we might do with the collective energy that we have previously dedicated to our presence at the festival. We plan to fill the space it took up in our lives with a commitment to a new large-scale special project. It might be the making of a film, the building of a venue, or the creation of a new political party. As was always the case in Edinburgh from our earliest years with the Forest Cafe, it will involve artists, volunteers, audiences and ourselves working together to make something remarkable that none of us could achieve individually. And once we’ve finished one special project, we’ll decide what the next one will be.”
May 20th 2017 – The Drama of Digital
Over the years I have noticed that the use of authentic gestures, on stage in the theatre, when done well by performers, really adds to the power of the drama.
The effect is more compelling when there is control and boldness in how the actors move and speak. When it is all rather undefined because the actor does not create it with intention first, then the gesture doesn’t go anywhere, not even as far as the audience a few yards away. So, if I am in London and you are in Edinburgh, there are a few hundred physical miles between us.
As I press ‘send’, I imagine you across the space, geographically distant but still in the same realm as me, and I direct my intention and my gesture, my message and its meaning, across space and not through the screen. I might even turn my gaze away from the screen and look towards where I imagine you to be. We put a gesture into the real world though we send it via the digital realm. What we are doing by making a willed gesture is attaching importance to the relationship we have with that person.
The technology will deliver the message while we are being mindful of the relationship across that distance. (I’m not suggesting anything psychic or paranormal is going on here, though it might be.) Otherwise it is all abstract, and abstraction is a place which the digital realm is really good at keeping us in.
The ease with which we can text each other can dim our awareness of the importance of seeing each other physically. Feeling the physical distance and the separation can ignite the will which moves physical feet to undertake a real visit.
August 21st 2016
Ghosts in the Fringe Machine
We have several people reviewing for FringeReview here at the Edinburgh Fringe. They are writers, directors, producers and performers who brought shows here last year and who had more or less happy and successful times. This year they are not doing shows. But they’ve come up for a few days or a week or more. A few simply couldn’t keep away. Others are taking a year out from the Fringe and are up to see work or simply to enjoy it as a punter.
As I’ve observed and spoken to some of them I couldn’t help noticing a wistfulness about them. They are here but they are not here. If you are part of the FAM (Fringe Addiction Machine) nothing less than that compelling risk of losing your shirt will do. You can be here, but without the haunted look, you become a kind of friendly ghost, wandering the streets, popping in and out of shows, but feeling a shadow or shade of your fully alive and stressed Fringe self.
One person is up here and didn’t want to review. Having been haunted by worry and doubt last year, with pressure to flyer and fear of ticket sales, they want to fully feel like a ghost up here, hardly noticed, actually taking flyers and feeling fully anonymous. When you are up at the Fringe without a show, but with the memories of many risks, losses and a few victories, you can scream and that scream will only possibly be heard as a whisper on the Mile or in George Square Gardens. It can be a disconcerting experience to be up here, not as one of the living, but as a memory of a year gone by. (Though the burger stands find your money to be real enough).
Reviewing can be a salve for the ache, for the pain of realisation that you are up here haunting a missed opportunity to be fully here, or the even worse realisation you just can’t keep away.
If you are going to come up here, then be fully alive to the opportunity to gather new ideas, new impulses, to experience not bringing a show here as a chance to properly reflect on why you really come here. It can be uplifting and refreshing to be a ghost in the machine. But get this: it can also be healthier and more refreshing to take a proper sabbatical and stay home for a year. But, if yo must be here, use it as a chance to renew your mojo.
August 12th 2016
The Fringe Motivation Machine
in one of many several other lives, I write about personal change and development. Much of my own theatre work explores issues of personal life change and how we find purpose in our lives.
Many people fear depression and lack of motivation in their lives. Feeling without purpose can bring you down and even create fear. Purposelessness is an empty place, a “wasteland”. It is possible to retreat into fun and escapism for a while, but there are also bills to be paid and, when we are older, the majority of people don’t look back on a life lived with any sense of achievement or purpose (though it is possible to escape right onto our death beds via digital distraction, drugs, alcohol and leisure for years, even decades.)
The Fringe offers a place of temporary purpose. This can be refreshing, enjoyable, useful and highly motivational. Many people don corporate style T-Shirts for venues and work long hours for little money for an entire month because the Fringe becomes a temporary escape from that nagging question for the rest of the year: What am I really doing and what is my purpose? Fringe Festivals become an escapist catch all.
Temporarily, ushering queues in and out of venues or covering walls with show posters, has an intensity of short-term purpose that can fire up our motivation and help us to feel extremely purposeful. The sound of staplers clicking review quotes onto little proud flyers becomes a signature noise of intense temporary purpose, an anti-meditational meditation on the Now.
Even if we have no interest in the arts, even if we aren’t really connected with it as our purpose, the Fringe offers a four-week intense deep dive into something, a something that is fun enough, immersive enough, to distract us away from the growing realisation the rest of the year that we haven’t a damn clue who or what we are.
So people flee here to the Fringe, plunder the social possibilities on offer – to have things to do, to have instant friends, to be “cool” (in the place where the T-shirt makes everyone at least a bit cool, a bit wanted and valued). At the Fringe, as on social media, we become avatars.
There are artists here who have found a purpose, who bring their work here as part of purpose and as a living inquiry into it.
There are artists who can’t afford to bring a show here, so they volunteer to work for venues for little or nothing, because they can be here, the place that represents their life wishes – their vocation.
Yet there are many up here for whom the Fringe is a lazy escape, or even a fearful retreat from the place in life where we are seeking – fearfully and/or hopefully – our purpose in life. Our elusive muse, our slumbering mojo. The Fringe offers us a hint of it, a diluted and distorted version it. And isn’t that better than the void ?
This can lead to withdrawal symptoms in September and after. It can even make the rest of the year feel like a real comedown and we just drift for the rest of the year, waiting for that month where the motivation machine kicks in and makes us feel happier and more motivated than at any other time.
The Fringe can offer a pathological escape from living our whole life. It hints at how a 12-month year of purpose could feel. But its a temporary escape, and even an unhealthy distraction if we become addicted to the Fringe motivation machine – a machine that dumps you back into the wasteland at the end of August.
The answer? Let August be part of the search for purpose. Record your reflections. Make some genuine friends and engage in some real conversations. Let the diversity or people and creativity inspire you. Turn manic into measured. Bring some questions at the start of the month and see what you’ve learned by the end. Don’t become manically motivated; do it more gently and fold it into the bigger, important questions you need to ask in your life, such as: what’s my purpose in life?
August 1st 2016
The Changing Landscape and Shuffling the Pieces
The Fringe hasn’t grown this year, in terms of numbers of shows and events. And I’m noticing many more companies not playing the whole month. I bet the “prices” to play to plau haven’t gone down, of course.
Pieces are being shuffled. For example, C Venues has taken over St Stephen’s as it adds another venue to its collection and Northern Stage has headed up to Summerhall. Spotlites have moved around the corner from the Merchants’ Hall. And Assembly are getting into pop-up venues as a new venue also hits town – the Theatre Arts Exchange. Gilded Balloon has spread to the Counting House (offering pay what you want) and, in the Free Fringe Realm, La Favorita Freestival is taking a year out, promising to be back next year. (And now a dead web site?) The loss of Gryphon Venues has also extended for another year, possibly more? Oh and the “old” Assembly is back at the Assembly Rooms with a full-blown Digital Entertainment Festival.
St Andrew’s and St George’s West has re-awoken as a fringe venue, even as Hill Street Theatre has seemingly gone and the New Town Theatre has changed hands. (Farewell Universal Arts at the Fringe or au-revoir?)
It’s all change – some radical and some incremental. I think change is good for the Fringe. But so is stability. I’m glad to see Greenside bedding in, Bedlam being happy with “less is more” and I think we’ll see stability as a virtue in the years to come, for some venues, whilst others will push the envelope. It does feel as through there are less venues and more in the hands of the big four again. That probably isn’t good for smaller companies seeking success and wanting to be noticed. Diversity is better. We’ll see how it plays out this year, as New and Old Town continue to compete for audience and attention. Roll on the 2016 Fringe!
June 8th 2016
The Joy of Not Growing
It is alright not to constantly grow. Chaotic growth is cancerous. I first heard the horrendous term “Double digit growth” in a multinational pharmaceutical company. Imagine that, a company making medicines, committing, and even pressurising, its staff into seeking pathological growth. Even as it claimed to be interested in innovation, learning and creating a human working environment, it was putting its middle and senior managers into relentless targets.
This year the number of registered events at the Edinburgh Fringe fell slightly. I think this should be a cause for celebration. Even with a slight fall, the Edinburgh Fringe is still an enormous monster that creates tiny audiences for the majority of shows that perform there. To use a bit of irritating jargon, perhaps people are becoming more mindful about what they bring to this costly fringe. Perhaps some performers are realising that Edinburgh can be a wonderful experience and opportunity, but it isn’t a must.
Also the number of free shows is down fairly significantly. The 2016 programme lists 643 free shows compared to 807 last year. That could be more worrying or it could be a sign that the stories of horrendous free performance spaces are finally seeping out to the rest of the world. In its current form, I recommend you think very carefully about bringing any piece of theatre to the Free Fringes in Edinburgh if that production has high production values. It remains a great opportunity for experimental work, work-in-progress, and rougher theatre that doesn’t need utter silence or decent lighting.
It looks to me as if the Edinburgh Fringe landscape is changing. This year a quarter of the programme is theatre, with comedy still dominating. But a quarter of three thousand isn’t bad and I’m looking to catching a lot of it this August.
And I like it when things level out a bit. At the top of Arthur’s seat (if you go very early), the summit is a place for a fine view.
May 25th 2016: Making Eloquent Space at the Fringe
Brighton Fringe art and theatre makers have always been imaginative and successful at finding and creating spaces for performance that are not already existing venues. This year is no exception. I really enjoy and value attending a Fringe event where the artists have really “claimed the space”, often transforming a pub room, a workshop venue or even a living room into a theatre or place of artisic performance.
At this year’s Fringe, The Iliad is one example. Claire Goodall has transformed The Black Dove into a place for intimate story telling, You can listen to our interview with Claire here.
Hotels are also often claimed for Fringe. This year, Random Acts Theatre Company invited us to the Claremont Hotel for Secret Innuendos. “Welcome to The Claremont Hotel, where strangers come and strangers go and some may stay for longer. People you might not be able to forget. Unfortunately. So, will a chance meeting with a stranger over a boiled egg and toasted soldiers lead to a fairy tale ending or a breakfast date with disaster?”.
New possibilities emerge when audiences find themselves out of their “comfort zone” of theatre seats, a stage and a bar.
One of my personal highlights at the Fringe was a production that my wife had been involved in (she was interviewed for some of the film used in the piece). Moving into Stillness, took place at Unity, a yoga studio based on the Lewes Road in Brighton. The space was transformed just for this one production. We were invited to “Join Sevanti and the Unity team for the beautiful, meditative fusion of yoga and contemporary dance, including Unity Partner Yoga”. Over an hour we were treated to a blend of film, music, spoken word, live performance and even some designed silence. What really worked for me was how the space had been used. There was a sense of welcome, of careful placement. A film screen had been rigged up and there was some impressive shadow dance. Overall, what we had was use of a “found space” that was not a traditional theatre and yet something was added as a result. The whole event felt more sacred. Of course, as with Random Acts or Claire Goodall, it helps that these are quality performers who know what they are doing.
Moving into Stillness felt sacred, but that sacredness didn’t feel forced. It felt natural in the space – a space ideally chosen for its purpose. The music was genuinely enchanting,, magical and evocative. The movement and dance was captivating, especially in relation to the film and music. The partner yoga offered many possibilities and was a unique way to share yoga with the public. I’m not sure that would work in the same way in a more established dance performance space. There was a silence that was native to the space – listening and witness became easier. In Moving into Stillness, the willing participation of the audience as “beholder” (as with much storytelling performance) is partly down to fine performance and creation, but also down to the choice of venue, and the claiming of the space as a place of welcome from the moment we arrive to the moment we depart.
So, I’m glad that Brighton Fringe continues to offer small, made-up venues alongside the trend to offer the big corporate “hubs” that are all beginning to look a bit like each other.
May 15th 2016: Deadliest Fringe
One thing I have noticed in those who run Fringe venues and Fringe festivals is that, even as they claim to be open to feedback, they don’t take it well and many deeply resent it. There’s an unspoken convention that you don’t criticise because everyone is over-worked, underpaid and any criticism, even constructively posed, is just party-pooping, spoiling and attacking already martyr-level folk. There are also myths (based as myths are, in some truth) floating around that remind me of large corporations and public organisations that if you question or challenge anything too much you’ll be “kicked out”, “banned” or that your “card will be marked”.
The result of this is a certain amount of mediocrity, because of the collusion that arises. Venue managers, particularly of larger venues, remind me of the captains of fishing boats in reality TV shows such as Deadliest Catch. They are world-weary, seen-it-all, battle hardened old troopers, whom ‘no one really understands’ and who take criticism as an attack on their authority, and the fine balance they are maintaining between life and shipwreck. Criticism can’t be tolerated because it challenges the very heroic authority that is keeping the whole thing afloat and catching fish (In fringe terms, buying tickets and selling liver-smashing amounts of booze).
So it isn’t acceptable for me to say that the larger Fringe venues could have gone even further in making their night-time outdoor spaces more Rivendell-twinkly, making their toilets cleaner, and ensuring their catering offers more value for money. It isn’t acceptable for me to question or challenge noise bleed from too-flimsy theatre spaces. It certainly isn’t okay for me to suggest that box office staff become increasingly officious and rude under pressure as the Fringe goes on, despite the fact that people are paying around £20 per ticket for some shows. It can’t even risk saying that things feel better in many aspects than last year (especially in terms of food on offer) but that things could improve further.
I certainly can’t suggest that these “beautiful” spaces were put up too quickly, and despite many virtues, still lack the imagination that artists could bring to them.
I’m also going to totally steer clear of how some venues should improve the way they manage queues, talks to punters, and also put the brakes on making it bureaucratically harder for press toquickly arrange tickets to review shows (often on the back of being flyered by the shows themselves).
I like what happens at Fringe. I’m in there most days – right in the thick of it. Unlike many Fringe generals and venue captains, I’ve made a lot of theatre myself. But I would never dream to suggest that venue managers are too far removed from the real pressures of people trying to afford to see Fringe, or to want comfortable seats and not feel freezing cold during a show. If I did that, my card would be marked and we might not get press tickets to review shows.
Finally, it is simply too risky to put into print the notion that venue and fringe managers should operate in what psychologist Edgar Schein calls a mode of “humble inquiry“. That’s all about asking instead of telling, and making feedback a welcome norm. It’s about stepping off the heroic-self-image pedestal and seeing oneself as a genuine servant in the community, recognising that expertise can and should come from anywhere. Are venue managers captains of ships, or actually privileged human beings who are doing a job many others would die to do – operating in the heart of the creative realm of humanity?
By making complaint and feedback the exception rather than the norm, by even traumatising it, venues and Fringe festivals end up with clunky, largely fake feedback mechanisms highly reminiscent of 1970s factory-style suggestion boxes or local council style “consultative” questionnaires, By making feedback seem like complaint and “spoiling”, everyone collectively lowers their expectations, re-labels mediocrity as excellence and that fake brilliance soon becomes the disappointing norm.
Which means I would never write in this column that I find fringe festivals bureaucratic, detached from the people they are there to serve, arrogant and inefficient. It means I would never suggest that many venues could do with listening a lot more and that I find them often uncomfortable, overcrowded, expensive and ugly. I’ll remain silent. Just in case.
May 9th 2016: Popping up or pooping out?
The number of “pop up” venues, both indoors and outdoors, has increased at this year’s Brighton Fringe. Now, pop-up venues are nothing new. Conference rooms turned into neat little theatre spaces, cafes turned into cabaret stages or homes for spoken word performance, even lecture theatres doubling up as end-on theatres – the bigger a Fringe gets the more it resorts to pop up spaces.
The venue makers and performance space creators would have you believe these spaces are as good, if not better than traditional theatres. Certainly indoors, a non-theatre space such as a meeting room can become a very satisfying theatre space if it is done well. There have to be needed blackouts, clearly demarked entrances and exists, comparable tech and so on. It doesn’t always work. Hotel conference rooms can be muffled and lack atmosphere, cafes can bleed natural light or noise from everything from plumbing to people clomping about upstairs. None of this supports the needed silence of intimate theatre, or the sense of sacredness that theatres can provide. It can all looked cobbled together, rushed and lacking respect for art. It can also look too clinical and neat. Half-hearted attempts to hide notice boards or windows can undermine or ability to suspend needed disbelief fr what we are watching on stage.
And now there are more pop-up theatres that are essentially outdoors. They are not in buildings. Some strange and imaginative constructions (bubbles and stretched fabric) are borrowed from various sub-Glastonburies, others built from scratch. Containers are converted, yurts are used, and even enormous shed-looking structures are assembled within days. All good. Or is it?
Photo by Peter Williams
I’ve certainly seen comedy and theatre both fail to ignite audiences in such spaces as traffic outside haunts the space. Yet I have also seen new artistic possibilities arise from such spaces. This is the social media age and many millennials can easily split their attention. Performers adapt and use the flimsiness to their advantage, increasing movement in the performance, playing creatively with volume, clarity and even blocking. There can be even more of a sense of sacred occasion as the world around us thrums into the space. We, the audience, have to up our game, raise our attention and lean more into the performance. When we do that, theatre becomes what many believe it always should be – a collaboration.
When pop-up poops out, it lets both performer and audience down – lazy venue design, too much noise and light bleed, creaking seats. When pop shines it adds something new, it re-asserts the idea that theatre can and should happen anywhere. Then the audience will grow.