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26th August 2012
The Great Star System Debate Continues
I most disagree with myself and what is written in the entry below, but it can be useful to argue with yourself if most of your enemies aren’t as pompous and eloquent as you…
So here’s an alternative view. Star ratings are a simple and effective way to rate shows quickly and they are visually accessible to potential audience. They’ve been around for a long time because they are a clear and actually visually appealing way of scoring anything from food to hotels to er… theatre and comedy.
There’s nothing wrong with the concept of star ratings as a concept. The problem is that there are too many publications using them and it is hard to distinguish which ratings are based on considered, knowledgable or responsible use of them, and which come from anything from fraud to well meaning fan publishing based on web design that gives the publications mock-expertise. If it were research it is that there are too many claims and not enough researched and proven evidence to back the claims up. Also many of the claims are misquoted, selectively quoted and only the top end of the star ratings are being published (4 or 5) onto physical artefacts such as posters.
In some ways it is akin to the difference between a spam email for a medicine and a real one.
It may also be akin to someone recommending a medicine generically because it worked for them personally, as opposed to a skilled trial or piece of expert research.
It may also be akin to a perfectly valid subjective opinion based on feeling and personal reaction, as opposed to an attempt to assess from a genuine knowledge and experience base rooted in training, education and a skill in reviewing.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with people from all walks of society using the openness and accessibility of the internet to publish their thoughts and even rate things on any scale they wish. Anyone can come to the fringe and write.
Stars have been used for a very long time. It isn’t surprising that they are replicated as a method across publications – from blog to national broadsheet. You see – there’s no law against it.
The problem isn’t with the stars – it is with the use of them by venues and performers, PRs and companies. If no one is buying your medicine because you haven’t had a professional review and you then start telling the world that medicine is effective, that is great based on a single opinion dressed up through clever web design or paper publishing as if it knows what it is talking about from a "craft" point of view", then you are no better than a trickster who says "this medicine works!" because professor X says so (who happens to have bought her PHD for $30 from a quack university, or has even awarded it to herself!). You are a charlatan and you justify by saying you have to not lose a mint.
To say you HAVE TO do it in order to sell tickets, is no better than saying you have to sell untested products on a market stall in order to feed your family. You can do it. But it isn’t honest. You can justifiy it from any view but a moral one.
Ditching star ratings won’t get rid of that honesty. It will simply picth a whole load of people even further into dishonest soundbiting and inaccurate description and hype – whoops, doesn’t that happen already? But it will get worse. There’s no point in just ditching star ratings alone – you need (as Gur rightly suggests) to have accompanying goverance and root standards in those who are being stuck onto posters in the same of "truthful information". You need quality control.
Now there’s a rub. Because quality control in human expression has too often been used by those governing to suppress freedom. Who decides? Who has the right to remove stars from the skies of our hopes and aspirations. Dare I suggest – not the Fringe, and not the venues, and not the performers ? It would have to be something independent and trusted. And that’s why it is impossible to realise at the Edinburgh Fringe
23rd August 2012
A way to the stars
There’s a debate currently raging again about abolishing star ratings at the Fringe. Just about everyone up here has got at least one four or five star review from someone stuck to their posters yet again. Guy Masterson has set up a forum to discuss their abolition. it’s a fascinating, emerging debate.
One view is that it’s who gives the stars that punters go by, not the stars themselves, which is perhaps why some posters are only putting the stars and not the source (though that is rare at the moment).
I’m interested in two phenonema at Edinburgh that can also be found elsewhere in society but seem to focus particularly on this giant event. One is the phenomenon of everyone else copying everyone else’s stupidity and no one knowing who first blew that wind of dumbness. At the Media at the Fringe event at Fringe Central yesterday, someone from The Scotsman asked if all us other publications could agree to ban stars together. Someone then rounded on him and asked if the Scotsman would lead the way. He didn’t think his higher echelons would allow it.
We are all copying each other and it will take a sudden act of collective will to ditch stars and that ain’t gonna happen soon. Collective wisdom seems absent at the Fringe because all the publications are secretly (and often publicly) insecure, not only about each other, but also themselves. They’ll copy dumbness alongside any smartness at the drop of a hat, if it will make them feel less insecure. Star ratings are plain silly when they flood an event into confusion, but it seems wiser not to buck the trend. Even the Stage’s "Must see" is a kind of five star rating. There’s a fear no one will read us if we lose the stars. The fear is we’ll lose our own star quality, which is a joke as all the stars simply create a collectively overbright supernova where no one can see anything clearly anyway.
The second phenomenon is the inability to "not". The Fringe itself cannot not grow. It cannot not be a fringe. It’s addicted and trapped in a compulsive self-praising conversation. It cannot change easily either. The Festival Fringe Society claims it is proud of its impartiality, yet it has fallen into a trap many organisations pathologically fixated on growth fall into – they equate impartiality and objectivity with slow change. They create filters of unchange claiming they best serve their community by becoming gatekeepers of stability. They turn into benevolent civil servants. They insitutionalise the mass over the individual, the core over the periphery. They put in "systems" to try to improve customer service, but ultimately that creaks under the strain as they grow further. Forms replace face to face, call centres replaces authentic dialogue. And they cannot not. No one can stop this moving train and soon self-conversation develops where we confuse an inability to not with a will to carry on.
Things become defined by the need to uphold core principles, embodied in a "constitution", that, were it a human consitution, it would be sluggish and unable to digest very well.
Not being able to stop is a kind of pathology. Like some pathologies it can be creatively useful. Some obsessions create telling continuity and things can build over time, revealing their benefit and virtues only over the long run. The continuity of the Edinburgh Fringe may only reveal itself in all its glory over many years. But the star rating system seems to be creating a cluttered solar system of pointlessness. It is more repetition than heatlhy continuity and feels a bit like a train that can’t stop and is neither a train going so fast as to be worthy of a glorious crash, not something that is building slowly towards something useful and meaningful. The stars mostly fall to earth with a mediocre plop at the end of August.
It would be good for the press up here to be able to ditch stars. Just for the sake of a bit of refreshing change, if nothing else. But its hard, because the media here are part of the overall Fringe monster whose own pathology is akin to chaotic growth. And there’s a name for that it the medical profession that would probably offend those who have suffered from the condition (myself included when I was thirty).
This isn’t an attack on the Festival Fringe Society. Actually we all made it what it is years ago by also being unable to not. The Fringe community is full of its own repetition and inability to not. Many PR machines lack innovation and freshness and come here each year, unable to not, recranking tired old models. Too many companies come here again and again with the same shows on repeat, mostly because they are also compulsively addicted and unable to not. The fringe reeks of addiction, of repetition, of August being utopia away from a more mediocre eleven months. It bemuses many arts makers who work their socks off for an inevitable overdraft. A depressing run in to Christmas. Yet back they troop the next year. And the next year…Mr Godot can’t come today, but surely tomorrow…
And at the centre of it sits the rating and assessment – the quality control (supposedly) of the work that churns out stars, year after year, largely because of an utter failure of collective imagination, and also a failure of will – a huge inability to change, question, to create freshness of approach. Stars are there, because no one can not do them. It’s a paralysis born of fear and laziness.
So now, in Bristo Square, there are five hundred posters and every one of them sports a four or five star review. It’s about now the star system usually disappears up its own arse. But, wait a minute,isn’t that what’s known as a black hole?
15th August 2012
In Further Defence of Silence.
I hope the following clarifies our position on the essence of why silence is a big part of our reviewing philosophy…
12th August 2012
Get the **** off stage!
So, the lights fade slowly and we are ready for a fairly silent, dare I suggest, stunned exit. Before even five seconds have elapsed since the final blackout, the lights shoot back up again, and there they stand, zapped out of character disappointingly quickly, and smiling at us like Blue Peter presenters. "Thank you, SO MUCH for coming, please do tell your friends, we are on until the 26th."
Another, quicker fadeout. The children are still a bit mesmerised for all the right reasons. They need to exit with the impact still fresh in their imaginations. At last, an hour of thrilling theatre, and not an advert in sight. And up burst the lights and the two characters who were, moments earlier, a giant and an scary elf, are now two gleeful peddlers of their other show and the shocked kids are zapped out of their precious day dreams back into the world of buy-sell. "Thank you all SO SO MUCH for coming. Just to let you know, we have a two for one on our other show…"
I wanted to hurl abuse. I wanted to stick their email addresses and twitter hashtags right back up their desperate and self-important noses. We have a right to silence. To breathe in and digest. The few seconds after curtain down are a time for exiting not marketing.
7th August 2012
Oh, for a Gel!
So, it is time to ‘out’ LED theatre lights. I’ve now been in three venues at the Edinburgh Fringe where I’ve experienced their annoying and show-damaging flicker. Even worse is their step-changing dimming which is just more irritating flicker. Mood flies out of the window. In two cases one light was flickering throughout the performance and, in another, the fade-out was so stuttering it was more like receding lightning.
I suppose, at the lower end of the market, these lights haven’t been fully fringe-tested. It could be that some lighting boxes aren’t properly geared up to handle them. I assume they tick various boxes of cheapness, greenness, or even techno-amazingness.
But they haven’t amazed me yet. And the blue and white hues have a coldness about them. There’s a twilight feel to some and it may be that I am just one of those vinyl-back-harkers but it may also be that this is decent and fair warning. These lights, not properly chosen, implemented, and maintained, might just ruin your production.
So, what to do? You can’t very well rip them all out in a venue that is not yours. But I would suggest not using any with even a hint of flicker and also to look honestly at the coldness some of them might be infecting your show with. A lighting rethink is always a possibility during the Fringe. If you are looking for a gentle, moonlit warmth, then these LED blues at full pelt might just be creating an arctic wasteland. Be open to a bit of tinkering.
And while I’m venue-ranting, I want to say something about fans. Some venues are resorting to electric fans that look like they’ve been purchased on a six for the price of three offer from Argos. They are noisy during a performance, distracting when they are on turning mode and, whilst I understand venues are hot, these are damaging to intimate theatre, to dialogue, to stillness, to quiet mood. Even worse are the industrial scale ones. At one solo show, the fan was so loud that most of the audience couldn’t hear a word the performer was saying. The performer seemed unaware until I called out and asked him to turn it off. It just about saved his show.
LED lights. Nuclear fans. What is the Fringe coming to?
2nd August 2012
We shall go on to the end…
At the Assembly (NOT the Assembly Rooms) launch last night, William Burdet-Coutts issued a Churchillian call to arms, to all of us, to go out and tweet, to go out and flyer, to step out as Ambassadors for a venue and a fringe that is annual not four-yearly, to remind the world that the greatest nation on earth, whoops, I mean, show, is back in Edinburgh and that we will go onto the end, whatever the cost may be, we shall never surrender.
With the West End in meltdown, and the distinct lack of an announcement from the central Fringe office that box office records have been broken again, I sense the Gang of Four are worried that ticket sales are down.
These of course are words of betrayal.
Whenever anyone critiques the Fringe publicly they are labelled as "refuseniks", turncoats against an event that has an unalienable right to exist and, what’s more, to grow, even in a recession.
Apart from a few pot shots at the Big Four, and the occasional broadside by the dying paper media at the smaller unspellchecked web sites (who clearly have no right to exist), there’s very little criticism of the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve often heard writers here claiming they wouldn’t get press accreditation if they were too critical. I doubt that is true. I sincerely hope it isn’t.
Now, back to that call to arms at Assembly. Speaking personally, I think that the arts has a big role to play both in a recession, and on the fringes of an Olympics. Arts is the realm of inspiration, and we need some of that in my humble view. But box office revenues may be down not only because all 57 million of us are either physically present at, or at least watching second hand via Television, the Olympics. They may also be down because peoples’ incomes are down. And I see little sign of any kind of sensitivity to that on the big scale Fringe up here. Ticket price setters seem to live in a world of their own, moslty locked in the greedy good times past.
Ticket prices haven’t come down. Who has got fifteen quid to blow more than once a week on a fifty minute show? So, here is our call to arms, to the income receivers at the Fringe who feel we all have a moral duty to keep them, the keepers of the Great Seal of the Glory of the Garden: You have your part to play. Remember the simple law of economics: drop your prices and your turnover may just go up. Loosen your clutch on those precious tickets and give a few away to those who would love to see your work and have just been made redundant. If you want to invoke a war time spirit, then play your part, down at ground level. There were empty seats at the Assembly launch. How much income does an empty seat bring you?
Never before in the field of arts festivals, has so much been earned by so few, from so many…
24th July 2012
Short Story – The Flyer
I felt like a betrayer.
One who had sworn never to patronise this particular establishment in her life time; one who proudly hadn’t done McDonald’s for over four years; one who boycotted Nestle, here I stood. I was madly in need of a double espresso and a biscotti, and every other cafe on and off the Royal Mile was packed with tourists, performers and the occasional indigenous Edinburger. It had taken me the best part of half an hour to negotiate the desperate performers and the crowds of watchers of street magic and unicycled knife jugglers, not to mention bagpipers and mini kite sellers. I needed to sit down.
And there it had been; a table: Empty, save the score or more of flyers upon its sticky surface. I’d taken the risk. A moment of opportunity, a ‘window’ as our line manager called it when I worked summers at the call centre to earn enough cash to embark on expeditions such as this. So I’d leapt; into a remarkably small queue of just three Japanese tourists clutching their newly purchased lambswool tartan scarves, clan irrelevant, two full costumed vampires and what I took to be a solicitor. I stood and watched as my table was claimed by a family of five in full argument, then received my paper-cupped coffee and cellophaned biscotti from a uniformed over-smile that betrayed its inner boredom far too easily.
There I was, left standing, when I spied a single unoccupied seat at a table outside, its other taken by a suited white haired man who looked as if he also worked at the nearby law courts. As I sat down, without asking permission, he looked up, scowled, then picked up a huge sheaf of papers and slapped down a flyer he’d been looking at onto the table, on top of the micro-mountain of others that had accrued over the morning. Left alone with my espresso, I lazily picked up the flyer he had discarded and gave it a cursory read.
Why would anyone come to this city in order to stage a play about cannibalism on a council estate ? And offer it as a musical of all things? Well, there was Sweeny Todd, I suppose…
I put down the flyer, glugged down my coffee like an ouzo, got up and left for the seminar.
It’s bad enough working here the rest of the year round. Some of my fellow slaves particularly enjoy the August mayhem, the influx of new people and the general buzz on the mile. Some people thrive on chaos I suppose but I’m not one of then. I get irritated but today was going to be different. She arrived around mid-morning, laying her small handbag and her leather-foldered Ipad on the outside table closest to Hunter Square. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and I found an excuse to clear her table.
Flyers. Hundreds of endless flyers and there was nowhere for her to put her frappucino down safely. I rushed over, ignoring the inquiry of a short Italian man as to where he could find the Mens’. I started to gather up the flyers nonchalantly when she looked up and me. I met her gaze and she smiled. Tight lips suddenly opened in a Monroe-like curiosity.
"There", I said. "A bit more space."
"Thank you" she said, and smiled.
I felt her eyes watching me as I stuffed the flyers into the bin, but when I turned round she was reading a flyer I’d left behind. As I walked past the table, I stopped. I couldn’t help myself and looked at the flyer she was reading. "Interesting title." I remarked.She said nothing, but she smiled again.
I was annoyingly busy for the next ten minutes and, behind the counter, serving coffees by the ten, muffins and the occasional ice tea, I didn’t have a clear view of her table. By the time I’d managed to get to table-tidy duty again, she’d gone and the prime slot was now occupied by two gothic clowns stapling review quotes onto their posters. They’d already finished their Lattes and, as I went to clear them, I noticed the flyer, lying on its own, between the two large paper cups. I cleared the cups and retrieved the flyer, the same one she had been reading.
It wasn’t the bizarre content of a performance about cannibals on a council estate that drew my eye. it was some small, neat, blue handwriting. Just some numbers. No name. She’d written her phone number. Furtively I slid the flyer into my pocket.
I spent a horrid thirty minutes picking up dropped rubbish in and outside the cafe, a job given to me with a bit too much calm enjoyment by my supervisor. At one point I was on my hands and knees, crawling in chewing gum, more flyers and a sticky cup of half finished smoothie. It was only when clocking off later that I reached into my pocket and found that the flyer had gone. I looked everywhere, even in the bins.
It was a desperate, almost panicked search. What was I doing? That number may not even have been intended for my eyes. I even searched in the large bin in front of our cafe, now full of chip wrappers and cans, and thousands of flyers. I only stopped when a policeman started to walk towards me.
The flyer had gone and with it a number I would never be able to call.
I’m nearly three years old and I can’t speak. I don’t actually know that I am nearly three years old. I’m very curious and I feel bemused a lot of the time. Most of my world of other people involves looking up, but there are plenty of interesting things to be found looking down as well, though the people I look up to often tell me not to touch and certainly not to pick up whatever I find when looking down.
Some things have very interesting smells. Some don’t taste very nice. This thing was very colourful and there was a picture on it of someone with someone else’s foot in their mouth. I think they were eating it whilst playing the guitar. It was funny. I picked it up and giggled and then handed it to my mummy who told me I shouldn’t have picked it up, that things on the ground were dirty and to drop it immediately. As she was telling me off, a man walked by who looked very sad.
I don’t like people looking sad. When mummy looks sad I sometimes cry and she says she feels better when I cuddle her. So I cuddle her a lot. It feels nice.
This man was looking down at the ground too, as he was walking along. I thought maybe he was looking for something too. I wanted to cuddle him but I knew I wasn’t allowed to cuddle strange people. Suddenly I pulled away from mummy’s hand, which I know was naughty, and I ran up to the sad man and held out the funny picture to him.
He looked at it. Then he looked at me. Then he smiled.
"Janey leave the man alone!" commanded my mummy.
But the man took the picture and said "Thank you." Then he said it again, louder: "Thank you!" and then he did something very strange. He cuddled my mummy and said "Thank you! I’ve been looking for that. Your girl is a little genius!" Then he said ‘sorry’ and walked away very quickly. Mummy told me off again for picking up dirty things off the ground. Then she told me off for talking to strangers. But she was smiling too.
And I wondered why mummy and daddy didn’t ever cuddle any more.
"Are you thinking what I’m thinking?"
"Yes, I think I am."
"It might be terrible."
"Yes, I mean… a musical!"
"Let’s go anyway."
8th July 2012
It’s the day to decide the top tens
This is one of my favorite and yet most daunting parts of the Edinburgh Fringe. We dig deep and pan broadly to decide the shows that we recommend are most worth seeing the biggest fringe. The promises of goundbreaking, unforgettable and side-plitting will wrestle with amazing, multimedia, headphone, verbatim, virtual and and site specific. There are music shows hidden in the theatre pages, and theatre hidden in the comedy section. Everything has either had five stars from somewhere or won an award from someone.
5th July 2012
Victoriana reigns at the Courtyard
I saw a very fine piece of theatre in the making at the Courtyard in Hoxton two nights ago. Directed by James Weisz, Jonathan Holloway’s Jekyll and Hyde was delivered with much craft and peformance skill by Gary Blair who stepped into Victorian character as if he were born for the era, and ably joined by Charlie Allen and Melody Roche. This was a fine example of how to evoke the cobbled, shadow of the streets of horror and fear, whilst also invoking the spirit of the original novel. Holloway’s script needs further honing and the ending felt rushed. I also wanted to meet Hyde more on stage but the conceit of a female Dr Jekyll and some powerful and well crafted dialogue more than helped to create a strong sense of this shadowy and fearful being. Weisz has also created some fine and economically done shadow play that adds to the filmic feel, and the vocal interpretation of Hyde is all part of a piece that brims with simple playfulness.
It’s a dark production – even unto makeup. I looked for a little more physicality but all three actors carried the interaction with strong commitment and skill. It’s well worth seeing and I hope it ventures further and tours soon.
I did enjoy the nightmarish feel of not quite enough light, the shadowed eyes and the restrained feel of the character work. This could so easily have spilled into melodrama but it had a film noir feel to it rather than horror and this was a sign of courageous writing and direction. I think it needs to develop further and there’s something outstanding on the top of its tongue. As it is, it is ful of fine things. Show details here
1st June 2012
On this the day I received the Edinburgh Fringe 2012 brochure in the post I want to share a few reflections on Brighton Fringe.
It felt like a more authentic Fringe with the Fringe team out and about and Julian Caddy often to be seen with his family at shows, or on the Fringe City street. A generous retweeter, and slightly dodgy speechmaker, Julian has upped the accessbility of the Fringe office and team. Of course people will always (and perhaps rightly moan about registration fees and the Five Pound Fringe is an unsurprising reaction) but there’s been a lot of authentic good intentions radiating out from the core. The lack of hype and superlative as well as a lack of unnecessariy detachment was refreshing.
The Warren became a hub in the making, but the whole Fringe felt local, vibrant and more present than I’ve ever felt it. It sat fairly well alongside its junior partner, The Brighton Festival.
A lot of not quite finished but exciting work was on offer and it seems Brighton is becoming the early playground for new and interesting work.
But most of all I want to underline the authenticity. The lack of corporateness was terrific. Sponsores were there and the Citroen cars were promiment yet not dominant. I do hope the Edinburgh Fringe contnues to become more authentic as well. It was good to see Edinburgh’s Kath Mainland and Neil McKinnon and the Edringe team down here in force and so relaxed and also, yes, authentic.
Here’s to authentic Fringes, even humungous ones.
19th May 2012
Permanent Ink and Tumbleweed Box Offices
In some ways this Fringe is still in a childish state. And that’s a paradox. I love the innocence of some shows that come here. In Edinburgh they are like lambs to the laughter. Here there is often a local community and family feel around them and there are few "losers" at this Fringe.
Now, here comes the inevitable ‘however’. This is also a big Fringe on the world stage and there are venues presenting themselves as homes for important work on that stage, at least on the national stage. So, where do raffle tickets fit in? Certainly I haven’t won a prize yet. Some venues are using printed tickets and others are relying on the Fringe’s own ticketing system and paperwork.
Now I don’t intend to name venues here. But raffle tickets seem a bit odd when tickets are breaking the tenner barrier. And then there are the hand stamps (It took me two showers to wash one of them off). Not stopping at that humiliating sense of being branded by someone who doesn’t even care for my skin or possibly blood poisoning (especially if you see a lot of shows at the same venue), there are even hands stamped with marker pens, and at least one was filled with permanent ink. One the one hand greenness here (but not gangrene I hope), on the other it all feels a bit flakey and lazy. The revolutionary feel of some venues might dovetail nicely with anti-paper, but it doesn’t seem t be coming from that place at all. I think big venues need proper tickets.
Now, try to actually get a ticket! One box office refers you with a recorded message to a web site which causes booking problems. Another one goes through to a home answerphone. Yet another simply never answers. I mean never.
This is a big Fringe and it is time for it to rise up and at least risk one big box office disaster in our fair city. Edinburgh Fringe led the way, but we aren’t even scaled up enough to have a collective collapse. Venues need to get their box offices and ticketing sorted for next year. End of powerful yet banal wisdom blog entry.
9th May 2012
Joined up Fringe
So why is the Brighton Fringe joining up better this year? Several reasons I think. Firstly, despite a few grumbles about ticketing processes, the Fringe Box office on North Street and information stall on New Road open daily are providing a higher public profile for the Fringe in the city, along with the permission for shows to flyer daily. Now we no longer rely only on the Dome Box office, the Fringe has a clearer identity. Secondly, there’s a lot of tweeting going on and it is also better, more focused, and, if you use social media, you can really feel a Brighton Fringe buzz online. Kudos here to Julian Caddy for getting "out there" among us peasants much more than any previous Brighton Fringe leader, both physically and virtually. To be honest I think the rest of the team could get out even more as well. You are not anonymous – you need to emerge as specific and publicly aware personalities with clear and transparent roles.
Next up is the press coverage. I’m not self-congratulating here but it’s good to see Broadway Baby back and also Latest TV out there on the streets. And most of us press (especially members of the Festival Media Network) are joining up more in the background, and getting reviews out quicker.
The Warren is also a big new plus, and its attempts to run the nightly Fringe club creates a fringe hub feel as well. Along with Hurly Burly and the sheer spread across the city of other venues, the Fringe is more prominent in local communities. Kudos here also to Mark Brailsford for Hanover the Musical. Community and local feel will do this particular Fringe more and more good.
Finally, I think the non poncy Fringe logo has had a very good effect. It really looks visually as if the Fringe has come down to earth, it’s a no nonsense, recession-respecting logo and it’s probably the most recognisable Fringe logo we have ever had. I hated it at first. Hands up, I was wrong.
Footnote. The Arts-Council-obsessed artistic "community" in Brighton does not represent the artistic impulse across the city; far from it, and some venues and the Fringe itself would do well to remember that. Personally I think the establishment artistic "community" in our city is in danger of starting to recycle the same artists and artistic ideas, a bit like television has been doing for years. There are a lot of work and companies in this year’s Fringe that are not part of that narrow clique. In the "institutions" some of the puppets on stage and in bathing machines are starting to look far too much like each other, and the sound of an accordion playing East European music is no longer special or different, and putting on a pair or headphones or booking a warehouse as a venue is getting old hat. This Fringe feels more synergistic because the artistic impulse, not the narrow "institutional" artistic community, is making itself felt this year. May it continue.
3rd May 2012
Bathing Huts? I beg your pardon?
Bathing huts as performance spaces. I mean, telephone boxes, kitchens, vans, car parks and hotel rooms I can understand but bathing huts?
And then I saw one. On New Road today – closed to traffic and pedestrians as the Fringe builds its presence for a month. They are perfect – all of a piece. There’ll be steps up to get in and then you have an excellent performance space, a micro-theatre, you have mobility if you need it, or a static venue if you prefer. I popped into one last month – cosy, intimate, I’d love to see a musical performed in one, with full accompanying orchestra.
New Road, May 3rd 2012
Here, "site-specific" is taken in a new direction because these are performance spaces, but their siting can be specific, or not. In the world of theatre, these bathing huts are the new mobile devices. Whether they are Apple or Android remains to be scene. They are elegant, they conntect with the city’s seaside heritage and pride, but they are also very usable spaces for Lilliputian audience size theatre. So, take a leap into the waters of Fringe creativity, but before you dive into the safe waters of a large venue, get yourself spiritually undressed by seeing one of the many performances that are "Dip Your Toe".
Am I being serious? Actually, I am. I think Dip Your Toe could have been an artistic solution looking for a problem. Instead with groups like the Karavan Ensemble and the likes of Rachel Blackman and Emma Kilby, we’ve got some home-grown, yet internationally prominent, seaside quality goods on offer and the be-wheeled venues are appropriate, skilfully chosen by the look of the press releases.
So, I’m not going to just dip my toe. I think I’ll dive in.
2nd May 2012
I wrote this a couple of years ago and it seems relevant to dredge it up again:
It’s "Fringe" because it sits on the fringes of the "mainstream". It’s Fringe because it isn’t "West end" or "Broadway". It’s Fringe because its spaces are often on the "fringes" of other activities, primarily the consumption of alchohol and honey- and wasabi- dressed nuts.
It’s Fringe because its creative material is on the "edge" (sometimes the cutting edge) of writing and dramatic experimentation. It’s Fringe because it is eclectic, different, not quite accepted by the "middle of the road mass consumption".
It’s also Fringe because it’s a bit cheaper, at a kind of borderland between profit-share and salaried, earning a living and dreaming of earning a living. These days it can also be fringe on fringe, as some Fringe tries to be corporate and mainstream. The Edinburgh and New York Fringes have their own Fringe fringes.
Fringe Theatre sometimes occupies a kind of twilinght zone where "professional" can mean many different things. It can be unproductively elitist, marvellously and tragically underfunded, realising potential and being a place where, with just a few more thousand pounds, potential could be realised. It is a fiver upstairs at a pub with a "young, emerging group (students) curling up in foetal positions and screaming to the sound of Franz Ferdinand (hard-hitting physical theatre) and with an equally young group (possibly students too) creating genuinely awesome, original, ground-breaking performance.
Fringe is not just a festival in May, July or August. It is also an ongoing festival, all year, all over the world, celebrating creative endeavour, making work possible, creating access of current and new theatre-goers. When it mainstreams, it kind of dies in spirit (though it may arise as something else). It needs to be literally on the fringe of something to keep alive. When it becomes corporate, something is lost. Yet when it remains under-funded and half-baked, something is not found that should be.
Fringe theatre will always be hard to define, will always be multi-disiplinary, will always embrace poverty-funding along side arts-council-elitism. It will also be an open and a closed door, prohibitively expensive, and often raucously community-based and open-door. I love it all. I hate it all. But mostly, I love it all.
30th April 2012
Well, there’s a weird clutch of early posted shows on the Edfringe web site, and Brighton Fringe has also put out a press release that there are shows and events happening the week before the official start date (even earlier). It’s a good sign for Brighton that people are showing faith and confidence in audiences to go live before an official fringe start date. Hurly Burly is going up, the Ladyboys have arrived and it’s not like the night before Christmas – even the mice are stirring. There’s a lot of non-superlative tweeting going on. It’s nice to see enthusiasm rather than satanic superlatives. I wonder how long it will last?
The Warren is nearly built and our review master list is getting longer. There’s plenty to see and it all feels very local, and for the first time, local doesn’t mean flakey. Roll on…
26th March 2012
Climate Change for the Better?
It feels as if there has been a significant shift in Fringe climate up here in the south of the UK. Certainly there isn’t a more seismic style shift in new Fringe leader Julian Caddy
, he of Sweet fame. He’s approachable, occsionally charmingly and bewilderingly bonkers (have you heard his speeches?), definitely on the ball as a leader, but most of all there’s a telling passion AND ability underneath all that McCawber-esque approachability. There’s certainly a decent list of sponsors and hints of a few coups – not only the Hurly Burly
but also an exotic garden or two for a big fringe party. Who needs aSpiegelgarden
? (Well they still do, to tell the truth).
But the climate change is certainly there in the theatre programme. No longer a sense of shame at the amount of homegrown work. Sure, we’d like a few more big names and be a stopping off point post-Adelaide
on the way to Edinburgh. But Translunar Paradise
is here, as well as emergence, not only of new pop-up venues such as The Warren (packed with stuff and even a few soap stars) but also a sheer explosion of site-specific shows and new spaces and venues all over the town, lovingly placed in the month of May. Laughing Horse
is galloping into town again with four venues and over 100 shows, and the emergence of an unofficial Five Pound Fringe Fringe
is, in my view, a good thing for the Fringe and for the city.
With media partnerships with the likes of the Indepedent, the Fringe could well draw national attention to some of the theatre on offer in May. Venues above pubs, in police cells, churches, new age centres and in community centres may well be acoustic-poor and have less lights than you can count on one hand, but pop-up venues inEdinburgh
have become (in most cases) very good at transforming in August and setting pretty high production values. This is a learning curve that may take a few years in this city, so full of creativity and so light on readies and an ability to see through a whole day from 7am until nightfall. But there’s also a different opportunity, one which is not always taken by local companies who show flair and creativity aplenty, a spirit of experimentation and an ease with originality, but who do not make the best of their venues, who do not rehearse and train enough, resulting in work that often looks work-in-progress for the wrong reasons. So, I hope that this Fringe, when a bigger spotlight may well be turned on us critically, will be collectively up to the task of finishing off work BEFORE the first night and will meet the climate of expectation and hopefulness with 101% commitment and hard graft. You cannot use a first night to be a flakey preview night if you are only running for three nights! Sheesh! It’s all very well taking on Faust, but it’s a devil of a play to accomplish to gasps of appreciation right up to the very end, especially if you are only doing a Thursday and a Friday!
The climate change is a shift to warmer, away from a Fringe that was feeling too coldly corporate a couple of years back, and yet wasn’t event being too successful at being a successful business. Citroen seems to have sweetened matters and, weather hoping, I think the city is going to come alive this May.
We’ll be there. Of course.
So, let the climate shift continue. More joined up. More open. More friendly. And let the first stars be real and deserved.
15th February 2012
What I particularly loved about the long-form improvisation of Katy Schutte and Rachel Blackman (of Stillpoint fame) – Katy and Rach – is that it is really theatre. The trouble with ensemble impro is that it is often an almost excruciating struggle for genius that too often plateaus at mediocrity or very good. The audience appreciate the struggle, dropping their expectations but having paid to get in they then relabel mediocrity as good, and very good as genius. Too many improv practioners have become institutionalised "improv creatures" – they are even in improv mode in the bar after the show. I once imagined a comedy sketch where a couple are in bed and the wife is looking like she is ready to leave forever the next morning as her improv-addicted hubby bounces next to her like a puppy, naked and frenzied shouting "Go on, give me a suggestion, gimme a suggestion!"
Mediocre long form can be similar in the UK, as it becomes a poor copy of that best of the Chicago "School" – the impro often comes out like an overblown script in need of an edit. The dialogue between Katy and Rach comes out as already complete script, economic and feeling as if it has already been under the editor’s knife. There are moments of genius in the 45 minutes or so, though Rachel admits "We have good shows and not so good shows". I believe longform improvisation becomes theatre when it is at its best and this releases a skillset that few pure improvisation creatures have got – beautiful and engaging stagecraft and a decent amount of commitment beyond cheap gags and tedious yes, and…
7th February 2012
Peer to Peer Importance
The Fringe Report Awards gave recognition to a number of theatremakers who al seemed delighted with the gesture. But one comment stood out for me from one of the recipients on the stage. With little funding sloshing around, and rates of pay so low, no one is in the arts at a Fringe level for the money. In his view, peer recognition is very important. At one level, benefit flows horizontally, not just vertically through the economy. The last Fringe Report awards with probably be missed for this reason more than many others.
I wonder if there aren’t other forms of recognition also emerging, more or less successfully. Crowdsourced reviews, audience reaction reviews posted online are certainly valued at the Edinburgh Fringe where professional reviews might be thin on the ground. The Fringe Report awards were very specific and I liked the lack nominations and then winner process in the room. Just winners were announced and you could see the audience relaxed at this. Warm peer recognition yet a sense of seriousness about how the choices were made. Never underestimate your peers!
3rd February 2012
Just take a bit off the Fringe, please!
It might surprise some of you to know that the Edinburgh Fringe 2012 appeared on our horizon around June 2011. The biggest arts festival in the universe plans a long way ahead and is probably thinking about 2015 as we speak. Other fringes work to shorter time horizons and we’ve become aware of a mini fringe touring circuit in the UK. For larger and more ambitious groups, this tour circuit may also take in Adelaide, Amsterdam, New York, Dublin, Prague and even Grahamstown in South Africa (not to mention somewhere in Canada). I’ve become aware of several groups in the UK that tour the smaller Fringes and actually it proves to be sustainable. Several groups find their way through Oxford, Exeter, Buxton, Brighton, Camden and even Barnstaple or Bedford, before hitting Edinburgh. There are ready audiences in these enthusiastic towns and cities, and, as long as they remain bold and enlightened in terms of support offered and manageable registration fees, we may genuinely have anew tour circuit on our hands.
The nice thing about touring fringes is the thread of continuity you can create as a theatremaker – you can spread marketing costs, you can allow your show to develop, and you can "peak" at somewhere like Edinburgh, and then even capitalise on good reviews from there as you move on to Amsterdam, Prague or Adelaide, not to mention across the Atlantic.
So, take a look at all the Fringes and, if you were considering only Edinburgh, think of the possibilities of a little fringe tour.
23rd January 2012
Time to synchronise your show with the synchronised swimming.
Yes, it really is important for you to think about the Olympics if you are planning on either taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, or attending as a punter.
As a theatremaker, you may well find your time slot clashing with a major final or a set of heats in a sport that will divert the attention of some of your potential audience away from your stage. So, choose your time slot carefully. If the schedule for the Olympics is published soon, get a copy of it. Watch out for cheap slots on offer – there may be a reason why venues appear to being so generous.
Look out for Olympics-friendly venues that plan on putting a plasma screen in their bars or lobbies. And book your flights and tickets now, you arts makers AND punters – there is going be be a lot of plane, train and coach traffic heading, not only to Edinburgh, but also from the North to the various Olympic venues – capacity and ticket prices for travel may be a problem. Book as early as you can – don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Of course many audience members couldn’t give a fig about the Olympics and many people may travel to the Fringe to get away from it, so there are new opportunities there. So don’t just rely on old mailing lists. There may well be a rush of new blood to the audience seats of Volcano City. What’s more, there may well be a whole potential new audience coming from overseas to the Olympics who could be persuaded to jump on a train or a flight and enjoy a day or two at the Fringe – so a bit of overseas focused advertising might be a good idea too.
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