Reflections on Fringe from FringeReview founder, Paul Levy
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October 14th 2017 – To Immerse or Not to Immerse
Immersive theatre can be more or less active from an audience point of view. We can be invited into an operating theatre and watch a play about a life-threatening decision at the hands of a surgeon’s knife. We can truly feel part of the action, immersed in the context. We may be allowed to move around the space or we may be confined to a fixed viewing position or sat on chairs. We do not interact with the performers and, though our presence as witnesses to the play may have an effect on the performances (by us sinply being there and up close), we do not overtly influence the action. Immersion here is in being close-up witness to the context. Our participation is in the act of beholding fairly passively.
We may stand or sit around a bed in a hotel room (as it award-winning play Scarborough). Or we may wander around a disused department store as in the work of Dreamthinkspeak. (in the latter there was some interaction between actor and audience).
Or we can get our audience-hands dirty through more overt participation. We may be the jury at a trial and asked to make a decision. We may be invited for tea in a small house of an old man. Or we may be part of an army battalion about to scream into battle. Here we can come closer to the work of Boal where theatre attempt to immerse us and even invite us to co-create theatre that explores., exposes and possibly resolves a cultural or social issue. We become immersed, not only as witness (with the Fourth Wall primarily up and in place) or we may be involved, active influencers, participating in the drama and even influencing mood, narrative and outcomes.
Stuff like this, along with verbatim and site-specific work is all over the Fringe Festival world.
Alongside this is immersion in the digital realm where we may put on headsets and experience virtual or augmented reality to further immerse us in the unfolding theatre experience.
It can be pretentious, gratuitous, poorly designed and thought through, and poorly realised. It can be powerful, important, unique and the immersion can be shocking, hugely enjoyable and even life-changing.
There has to be a good reason to do it. Immersive Theatre works best where the immersion enhances and feels necessary. As in all good theatre it takes us on a journey, but the immersive element takes us INTO a journey.
September 10th 2017 – Panel Addiction in the Arts
I noticed at the Edinburgh Fringe and Brighton Fringe 2017, that almost all events held by the Fringe organisations offering sessions on all kinds of topics, questions and themes, tended to default to very out-dating and inefficient (from a communications point of view) meeting approach.
This involved the “panel” discussions, where experts on stools or behind desks at the front of the auditorium or meeting space, delivered their wisdom, were asked to comment on questions from a “chair” and used up nearly the whole hour doing this, while the audience sat silent, like pupils at school, listening to these experts until they were bored. Of course what they said and delivered was more or less relevant to different audience members.
In most meetings there was time for questions at the end of the session, and these were then further answered by the experts at the front. At the end, the chair asked panellists to round off the session with more final comments.
I found most of these meetings dull, and ineffective in terms of allowing the audience to participate, add their own comments and experiences, or shape in any way the content or process of the meeting.
It seems to be a default setting for most Fringe meetings and events. It is out of date, boring and tends to stroke the egos of those with higher status at the front. At its worst it is dreadful. At its best it sheep dips the audience more or less successfully in the content delivered (and often pre-prepared) from the front. At many meetings I have noticed that nearly everything that is said in these little panel speeches can be found online anyway.
Panel addiction turns meetings into stale, uncreative forms of meeting – feels like classroom or a formal meeting of management and staff. It defeats its purpose if that purpose it to create an engaged, energised and useful event. Meetings become pompous or just informational. They are tick-box exercises for those people organising them and pay little respect to the participants who form the audience.
It’s time to let go of this format. We can all find the information we need online. What we needs us customised conversation. Often (though not always) circles of chairs are better. Facilitated discussion is better. If there are to be experts, we should shape our conversations flexibly out of the questions and concerns of audience members, heard at the start of the meeting, not only the end. We should see the audience as a vital resource to help make the meeting effective. We should say when we don’t know the answer, and seek out experience and wisdom from anyone in the room, not just the gods at the front.
Panel addiction is a lost opportunity to tap into our shared experiences. It’s time to drop this format as a default and use it selectively and skilfully when it genuinely is the right format – when expertise from the front is going to be helpful, original and inspiring. Otherwise, let’s all get around the table, not across it.
August 14th 2017 – Playing with Theatre’s Digital Future
Today I am attending the FuturePlay Exchange at the Edinburgh Fringe, hosted by Assembly, in partnership with Riverside Studios. Topics such as how tech can improve accessibility to the arts and how narrative can enhance gaming experience sit alongside questions of the digital organisation in the arts, and a lot more. The programme looks relevant and exciting. I’ve been writing in this space for years as well as making theatre about the digital realm.
This year at the Edinburgh Fringe I became particularly aware of theatre makers who “don’t do digital”. They pay people to flyer their shows and wait for the traditional newspapers to show up along with plenty of audience. And for many of them, numbers are down and no reviewers have shown up. These theatre makers, traditionalists at heart, see themselves and their work as largely beyond digital. They don’t need to “catch up” because they are fringe legends, even royalty and have turned success – achieved before digital was even present in the fringe mainstream – into a feeling of entitlement – always a danger at a Fringe Festival like Edinburgh with its 3000+ plus shows competing for attention.
Many have turned in desperation to the internet and social media and now are quoting crowd-sourced audience reviews in the absence of a quote from The Scotsman or The Guardian.
Now, they’ve been warned for years. The traditional paper-based publications have been in budget-cutting meltdown for years. FringeReview has a dedicated page that links to every review publication and web site we could find. This year at the Fringe there are over 120 – from blog to broadsheet.
Posters at the Fringe from even famous comedians are sporting star-rated banners from myfriendsblog.com alongside those from the Times or the Herald. Well, we know all that.
But as I sit here, laptopping in my cafe (If I were alone I’d be using voice to text dictation), I’m aware that the themes in FuturePlay are potentially game- and life-changing for theatre makers. Augmented and virtual reality are paradigm-shifters for gaming but will continue to move beyond novelty in theatre-making, tangibly increasing, changing and potentially improving accessibility in the arts. Sensory enhancement can improve access to the arts for those with visual or hearing impairment as just two examples.
But it is also a two-way street. The genius and skills of arts makers can also inspire and improve stale narrative in first-person gaming. Story-making and realisation in gaming can be informed and inspired by artistic skill and work developed over, literally, millennia. (Storytelling as an art is age-old).
The issues that arise more broadly can also be explored. From the use of artificial intelligence in lighting and sound to the use of virtual reality in enhancing and changing audience encounter with theatre and performance there is also scope to explore and experiment with Big Data to innovate financial and logistical models in arts touring. Box office data across the world could be meta-analysed to inform ideal and most effective tour-pathways for companies. Where next is best for our show? How should we price, based on local economic conditions, and how can we optimise use of social media broadcasting and influence?
Beyond that is the use of robotics in performance and the possibilities of augmented and virtual reality to create immersive artistic experiences are both scary and interesting to me.
The arts and technology have been converging since we lit performance with flaming torches. The technological singularity (apparently arriving in 2045) will re-define the arts, whether we like it or not. Some believe it will herald the end of the world. At this year’s Fringe, with box office sales massively down for their (the technophobes) shows and a prevailing attitude of “I don’t need digital” still spouted, the end (at least commercially and in terms of audience numbers) came early for them anyway.
I’m no technophile and believe we should follow Sherry Turkle‘s advice and pause and gently reflect, to ensure we consciously step forward into this future. Digital offers us hell on earth or something inspiring and useful. The arts needs to inform and influence that development, benefit from it, but not submit to it, just because it is loudly there.
FuturePlay promises to be an interesting day here at the Fringe.
August 14th 2017 – Spotting Spotty Comedians
I’ve seen a fair number of comedians this year right up close. No, nothing intimate in that way. I’ve found myself walking past them in press bars, along the food thoroughfare by George Square and at various street crossings.
It feels almost a relief to encounter the same mysterious mortality that we all share. They have spots, dry skin, bleary eyes, needed dental work, even hairs on their chins (not just men). They are human.
To airbrush or not to airbrush…? (Enter PR-person stage-right with her assistant Narcissus)
Many of those comedians have always refused to be air-brushed into blemishlessness on their 6 feet tall posters. Any many do not dress in fake costumes either. So it’s weird, to say the least, and sad to say even more, to see their perfect chins and skin adorning those posters this year. Even as they wear plain “just-like-the-ordinary-folk” clothes on their publicity shots, they look as if they are immortal gods of perfection. Comedians? Walking, two-legged corporations (Four if you include their PR, twelve if you include their flyerers), but when the zit pops by, there’s a human being again. A human f*cking being.
It’s corporate – even as their comedy sets claim to attack the new corporate politics that even has Jeremy Corbyn looking PR-groomed. It’s also a bit seedy and sci-fi. Are they other-planetary versions of themselves, here to take over the Earth? Finally it is a bit sad – smacking of insecurity and the need to be narcissistically (well YOU google how to spell it) manipulative of audience expectations and reaction.
So, a palpable sense of relief emerges in my as I see someone famous with their airbrushed disguise down. A real face, looking older, more life-lived, more vulnerable to the erosion of the Scottish gale – a bogey hanging down, some nose hair, nails that need a cut or a clean.
No such image-enhancement as they stumble past me, clutching their wraps with crispy bacon bits spilling out of yellowing, cracked teeth and those welcoming spots, rashes and flaking skin. The real deal. The real poster, there on tired legs. Gawd bless ’em, every one of ’em.
August 14th 2017 – Throated Delivery
I’ve seen several shows this year, several of which made us of a naturalistic and realist approach to their theatre-making – in script and in delivery. Others were far more dramatic, some surreal and one very much rooted in music-based fantasy. All of these shows had one thing in common: The performers were not using any kind of (trained) voice projection. I’m sure at least a few of them will go into meltdown (and Boots) as they lose their voices.
The problem with delivering your work only from the throat upwards is your voice sounds tinny, sometimes too much like shouted normal day-to-day speaking. Your face becomes exaggerated as your hardly-moving rest-of-your-body loses the opportunity to express through the venue to the audience members who have paid the same price for a ticket to sit in the back row (5o feet from the front) as those in the front row.
The result is that some work loses dramatic impact, feels diluted, somehow removed from its passionate artistic intention inherent in the script. Speaking largely via throaty deliver can make work feel compromised, weaker and even disappointing. Throaty delivery can even sound technical and emotionally removed, or manic and panicky. Throaty delivery needs to be a conscious choice, suited to the character or the theatrical intention and context.
We can learn how to voice project, to use the whole diaphragm, to breathe properly, to deepen the voice and resonate it with more power, and often with more intended impact, emotional weight and also simply fill the space with decent sound.
People come to the Fringe with huge creative talent, are often not coming here via theatre training and drama schools (no problem in my book) but there is timeless technique that is timeless because it is part of theatre-craft and skill. That is the technique of speaking from the whole of your body, the technique of properly breathing and voice projecting.
Fill the space, not only with head, but also heart and guts. Boom when you need to boom, and open up every corner of the space to the piece’s passion. Throats can be a kind of withdrawal of full bodily commitment. It often does the show no favours as it becomes like a head-scream or a bodily withdrawal from the performance space. Let bile, not just spit smash into the wall at the back.
August 2nd 2017 – Getting Ready for the Madness…
I’ve received many emails from companies and PRs bringing shows to the Fringe, trusting I am well, assuring me I must be very busy with an over-spilling email inbox, and asking if I am getting ready for the madness.
Well, chaos is what you make it. When chaos is an assumption, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the past I have referred to the Fringe as a kind of madness, a month of chaos. We throw up our arms in defeated delight, utter a crazy, anticipatory, excited laugh, surrender and dive in. The symptoms of the madness are certainly there to be created and discovered…
Obsessive texting and calling, as well as social media addiction
Eating and sleeping badly (even staying up all night doing stuff
Calling everything “amazing” and not listening properly to anyone
Not taking time to rest, relax and reflect
Constant worrying and manic busyness
Soon the madness comes true and it all multiplies across 3,000 plus shows in an already busy city.
Well, I don’t buy it this year. Here’s alternative suggested question for your emails… What about getting ready for the sanity ?
In those PR emails insanity is an assumption, busyness a taken-for-granted habit. Split attention becomes a kind of repetitive neurotic twitchy behaviour. We all become, as Bilbo Baggins called it, “like butter, spread over too much bread.”
But it doesn’t have to be like that. The so-called insanity is there to be avoided, denied. We actually are more productive when we do less at the Fringe, when we make each action “telling”, valuable and conscious. When we take breaks and time to reflect. When we breathe properly and taste our food. When we let irritation go, and when busyness becomes occasional rather than the default. It takes just minutes to plan your day, and only minutes to reflect over your day and let go of frown before going to sleep.We can work smarter and calmer and share the load. It might sound boring to be sensible, in a Fringe where sanity and calm are deemed “uncool”. Yet ultimately it is what makes the Fringe a richer, deeper, more satisfying experience. And we then arrive in September ready to roll on, to tour, to book venues, to relax and to continue the successful journey. Try sanity this Fringe. Drop the silly assumption that the madness is somehow necessary. It truly isn’t
July 28th 2017 – Going Fringe Widdershins
You’ll find the word ‘widdershins’ in use at places like the Scottish Storytelling Centre. It’s an old, folky word.
It means several things including going counter-clockwise or “The use of the word also means ‘in a direction opposite to the usual”, and in a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun’ (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Widdershin)
So going Fringe widdershins is about going against your usual predictable Fringe-going habits.
Try out a different genre, a different comedy night.
Go see someone or something you’ve never seen before that is different from your established tastes.
See something in the morning instead of the evening.
Go to a tiny venue instead of the large one. See something that will make you frown instead of smiling or vice versa.
Go out on a Monday instead of a Friday.
See something along Cowgate instead of sticking to New Town Venues.
Sit at the front instead of the back. Go and see something on your own, instead of with friends.
See three different shows in a row instead of one offs. See some short plays instead of a single longer one.
See something site-specific, instead of in a traditional theatre venue.
Take a year off from the Fringe and do something completely different instead of going year after year.
Your widdershins fringe might get you out of your comfort zone, it might refresh your fringe, it might broaden your horizons.
Some decisions will lead to better experiences others to shocks or disappointments.
Turning your fringe (and you) upside down or round=about is what the spirit of the fringe is all about.
So go on, keep the sun on your left side this year (if there is any in Edinburgh), instead of the right. Set off somewhere different this year.
June 24th 2017 – Returning and Repetition at the Fringe
Returning to the fringe with the same show can turn into a nasty habit. It can also be an opportunity to develop, enhance and innovate artistic work.
Too many companies come back year after year with the same material or a show that has only been incrementally changed. Sometimes it is pure repetition as you become a tribute band to your original work.
This can be a lazy thing to do.
It’s like planting the same crop on the same land rather than rotating crops to improve soil fertility. Coming back to the fringe with the same show, often in the same venue, can lead to everything going stale, feeling repetitive, and just being opportunistic for its own good.
Bringing a show back that has been seriously developed, changed for the better, experimented with, can be exciting and a positive reason to return to the fringe with the same show.
The fringe can be addictive, like a drug, especially if you have had a success. You want more of that success, to experience a high again and again. You seek to replicate the glory. Changing things seems like too much of a risk. Why start again when you can pick up where you left off last year?
You quote reviews from the previous year. If your show was a sell-out then you quote that, trumpeting the previous year’s success which people now have a moral duty not to miss out this time and for past audiences to come and see the show again to relight the fire. But there is a danger that you don’t make yourself uncomfortable enough, and risk the dangerously new.
I believe the only good reason to bring a show back to the fringe, in remaining true to the spirit of the fringe, is to authentically develop your work, experiment and risk radical innovation.
Take your work forward, take creative steps, and bring something new to the fringe. Enjoy difference and breaking new ground. If you do still feel restless about the work you have brought to the fringe before, then throw that work up in the air and see where else it lands than on the same ground.
You don’t need to change things for change’s sake, but equally don’t repeat things for the sake of repetition and innovation and creativity are about playing with the status quo, getting out of the comfort zone, and going to places you haven’t been before, and taking your audience with you. It’s much harder to react to the same thing than it is to react to the unknown and exciting untrodden ground.
Some companies at the fringe come back with the same show or with the same format for a show year after year, even decade after decade. For that to work, economically, they have to turn the art into a business, their design into a logo, their artistic identity into a brand, and the whole venture into a bottom line. They no longer invite audiences to see their work: they scheme to fill seats in theatre spaces . They often don’t notice the change, as adventure becomes institutionalised into mediocrity. But other people do notice, for example, the audience and the reviewers. Soon enough, five stars becomes four, and four turns into three. Is that where you really want to be?
It can also be just hard work. There’s a lot of new work at the fringe. If you don’t have a good reason to bring your show back, it can look like laziness, and the lack of an exciting offering. With over 3000 shows out there, repetition is not always seen as value for money, and using the fringe as a stopping off point for a tour has to have a clear justification, a good reason as to why you are doing that. Are you using the Fringe for your own benefit but are genuinely bringing something you want an audience at the fringe uniquely to see? The bar in Edinburgh is quite high. Often on a five star review you gained locally in your home town can turn into a four or even a three in Edinburgh.
Unless you really do have a regular fan base at the Edinburgh fringe, you will have to rely on some intensive PR and cook up some decent reasons for repetition. Some of these reasons include: genuinely loving the show that you’re doing and wanting to bring it again, offering it in a new, enhanced, innovated and exciting version, or simply responding to previous sell-out demand. I believe these reasons have to be truthful, and not made up or built on hype.
Think carefully about bringing the same show back to the fringe. Think back to your original excitement when you decided to do the show in the first place, your decision to bring a show to the Fringe at all, your original impulse and creative motive.
Whatever you do, don’t let that original impulse fade away. And keep the space open to be surprised by your own newness.
Wishing you a fresh Fringe. The opposite of the true fringe spirit is complacency. Deeper down, don’t become disappointed with yourself.
Repetition can turn you into performing zombie.
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” and a new space in Holyrood) 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.
… This column has just been ripped out of my hands by a man with a beard. Beards are very fringey things, especially when they nearly reach the ground. A hero of the Fringe, Bob Slayer adds this: “Crikey I can see a glaring ommission here Paul…
A multiple award winning set of 4 small venues that has attracted some of the cream of comedy at the fringe including 8 previous Perrier or equivalent winners. Has consistently developed new and exciting acts and loves to get up the noses of the establishment. Come check out Heroes of Fringe“… then kindly returns the column to me. I agree, Heroes is reactionary, is diverse, open, forges new venues and keeps the spirit alive.
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.