Resisting the call of the Edinburgh Fringe
So, it’s that time of the year when thousands upon thousands of “pathologically self-absorbed bastards” descend on Edinburgh for the festival season. Normally I’d be heading north, or at least making plans to; this year, however, I won’t be making the journey. Considering the last time I headed up I ended up sleeping on a park bench, I’m kinda glad that I’ve decided to forgo the festivities this year.
The first time I went to Edinburgh during festival season, I stayed in a four-star hotel. I went to the zoo and saw the penguins (seriously, click on the link). I saw some theatre and comedy. I met some friends for drinks. Most importantly, having not yet truly embraced the life associated with working in theatre, I managed to stay distant enough from the Fringe madness to retain my sanity. I had a pretty amazing time, and was bitten by the Edinburgh bug.
Fast forward roughly a decade later: it’s 5am, raining and I’m lying on a bench in The Meadows with glow paint whiskers on my face and the effects of numerous Jägerbombs still being felt. I’m trying to rest my eyes before a café opens after another late Edinburgh night partying into the early hours, and before the friends whose floor I’m sleeping on will be awake to let me in and get my stuff before my train back to London. All the while, I’m trying to convince myself that it was totally worth it – but it’s pretty clear that the situation is as ridiculous as it is cold, uncomfortable and unforgiving. We justify all kinds of things under the premise that “it’s all in the name of the art”, which is just a way of excusing all manner of stupid behaviour instead of admitting we can see a large number of people think us in the arts are weird, indulgent and detached from the real world. As I lie down on my makeshift bed, I can’t help but think – perhaps they have a point..?
I’ve been to Edinburgh in August a number of times, both with a show and as a punter. Everyone says that you need to experience the city during festival season, and I completely understand that attitude – at its best, it’s a place to immerse yourself in the best live performance has to offer, and in a city that is as beautiful architecturally as it is hospitable to visitors. There will be plenty of people out there who will have tales to tell of drinking into the small hours with a selection of television personalities and well-known comedians in Brookes Bar, of being there when a man climbed to space at Forest Fringe via stepladder or watching comedians face critics in the most heated football derby in Edinburgh (sorry Hearts vs. Hibs). But wanting to have the same type of experiences every time you head to the Fringe is like bottling lightning; impossible to do, and leading to an internal struggle between persisting in hope or admitting it’s unlikely to happen again.
At its worst, the festival season is exhausting and stressful. Whether you’re there as someone with a show or just an audience member, you’re almost guaranteed to hit ‘the wall’ – that point where a lack of sleep and a decent meal come back on you all at once, and you walk around the city a hollow shell of the person you are. If you’re running across the city from one venue to another whilst doing back-to-back shows, or perhaps having to do a ten minute get-in involving a hundred cardboard boxes, desk lamps and a shadow screen (yes, I’ve done that), it’s impossible to keep doing that without having looked after yourself. But Edinburgh refuses to let you rest. You may have another show tomorrow, but tonight your friends have a show on and you said you’d meet them for drinks. And you’ve got a radio interview tomorrow morning.
You reason to yourself that you can rest after the festival is finished; this is just one month of the year, and you want to make the most of it. But how can you when you’re walking around in a sleep-deprived daze? Is it really fair to an audience if you do a show at half-energy because you spent the previous night at Silent Disco? It can be incredibly difficult to say no when you’re in the spirit of the Fringe, and you can easily be swayed by the company you keep – the best of intentions are often disregarded when you’re having a good time, and to Hell with the consequences!
The financial implications of going to the Edinburgh Fringe always need to be considered. On a personal level, spending a month not necessarily earning any money whilst performing or seeing shows usually requires a lot of saving in advance; factor in the money you spend on food, drink, tickets to shows, travel and other sundry items and you’re almost inevitably going to be quite considerably out of pocket by the end of the month. And what if you’re taking a show up? If you’re able to raise the full funds to cover the costs of taking part then congratulations, as you’ll probably be in the minority; the vast majority of companies and producers will be subsidising their shows themselves, hoping to sell enough tickets or book tour dates to be able to underwrite their own losses. Like many other producers, I have invested my own money in shows in order to take them to the Fringe – money never to be seen again, alas. Of course, the benefits of taking part beyond the financial ones make it a worthwhile experience in some respects – but returning home with a need to earn some cold, hard cash can be pretty stressful when you’re in desperate need of a rest. And you may not even last that long; one year when producing a show I also found myself flyering on the Royal Mile to give me some money to live on – all the while also producing, marketing and operating my own show.
The Fringe is a false economy. How many authentic unsubsidised, non-profit companies break even, let alone make money? With financial support difficult to find during this season – Arts Council England don’t offer Grants for the Arts funding for Edinburgh runs, and the Escalator East to Edinburgh scheme can only support a limited number of shows (with the caveat that companies/artists are based in the East) – and huge competition for private investment at a time this pot is already being heavily drained, any company either not in receipt of such funding or in Arts Council England’s NPO portfolio will be running on pretty tight budgets as they try to compete with the ‘big names’. The consequence of this is usually artists not being paid, or at least at a level which reflects their ability and work – and even if some people are paid a reflective rate, it could be at the expense of others. Yet this all gets justified through the notion that the experience of being at the Fringe and the potential exposure you receive is ‘invaluable’.
Pippa Bailey recently blogged about the flaws of the Fringe system, and I can’t help but agree with the majority of what she says. I’ve been working in the arts for over ten years now, and feel like I’ve produced work that I’ve been proud of whilst amassing some decent credits. So, why should I have to live on bread and water for a month under the premise that the experience transcends the notion of being paid? There’s a lot about Edinburgh in August which I love, and being there has led to some strong friendships being forged – but the idea that people are being undervalued sits uncomfortably with me. There was a possibility that I may have been taking a show or two up this year, but it was always with the caveat that they would be done properly – everyone being paid properly, and no-one being overworked whilst north of the border. In the end, it wasn’t going to be possible to do this, and subsequently plans didn’t proceed any further; with hindsight, I feel completely comfortable with this. We’ve got a problem across the arts with people not being paid properly, and being taken advantage of – I don’t particularly want to contribute further to this, and especially in such an exaggerated way as operates in Edinburgh. I completely understand and respect people’s decisions to work on shows whilst forgoing a realistic level of pay, and have made the same decision myself on a number of occasions – but this time, and with these shows, I didn’t feel it was right to work in this way.
And what of audiences? They can’t see every show due to time and financial implications, and they need to filter the shows they want to see from a list of thousands – at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, there were a frankly ridiculous 42,096 performances across the month. Not everyone will make a colour-coded spreadsheet like I (and many other producers/critics) do; they’ll probably carry a copy of the programme around, and will take note of flyers, posters and reviews. But even that gets difficult; with the number of websites and publications with a presence in Edinburgh during August – and with the quality of reviews varying across them – how much value can you put in some of these reviews? It feels like every poster and flyer has four-and-five star reviews and quotes plastered across them – does this translate as well as hoped to audiences? Can audiences easily differentiate the value of a five-star review in Fest or The Scotsman, as opposed to one of the many amateur theatre blog which pops up each year, or one where the company are friends of the reviewer?
People may trust more the word-of-mouth effect, and subsequently may look to social media to see what’s being tipped by other punters. This might seem a good way of getting ‘honest’ reviews, but even this isn’t wholly reliable – it’s fairly easy to control this as a company. Sites like EdTwinge act as a Twitter aggregator, and operate under the premise that they work through comments on shows and balance the positive and negative to give a ‘true’ reflection of how a show is being received; the idea is laudable, but like anything on the internet you can work it to your advantage. When in Edinburgh in 2010 with EmptyBox Theatre, our show Norman Shadowboxer was the highest ranked children’s show on the Fringe – beating such juggernauts as Charlie and Lola’s Bestest Play and Stickman Live!; on the surface, this is a great achievement for a small, self-funded company with their debut show. We were all proud of the show, and we got good nice reviews during our run – but, in all honesty, the main reason we were top ranked on EdTwinge was because I spent the month Tweeting constantly about the show. Between the company’s Twitter account and my personal one, we talked about the show constantly and retweeted any review or bit of praise which popped up – and subsequently, we were able to make the most of a platform which other companies either chose not to or didn’t understand how to make the most of. This was hugely valuable to us as we couldn’t afford to spend loads of money on marketing or PR support, but it shows just how easy it can be for companies and artists to manipulate the perception of what Fringe ‘success’ is.
On a psychological level, I’m also feeling like the effects of festival season are becoming a bit too much for me; maybe it’s a sign of my age catching up with me, but as much as I enjoy having a good night out with friends I find they affect me more the following day. I don’t necessarily want to suffer the next day due to an evening of (admittedly great) fun – for all the pleasures the festival brings, it’s still a professional showcase. Granted, you’re in ‘competition’ with what seems to be every other theatre company in the land, but even if you doubt you’ll be heard amongst the clamour you want your show to be well-received and to lead to new opportunities for yourself, your company and your show. What often happens here is that a director or producer takes responsibility for keeping everyone together and ‘on it’ – sometimes policing the rest of the company, which is a position no-one necessarily wants. And, as a company member, does it not feel a bit patronising for someone to be suggesting they need to keep you on the straight and narrow?
Fringe veterans will have probably worked out an approach to the festival scene by now to ensure they make the most of the opportunity – striking a balance of work and play. But the call of the wild is still strong – how often do so many friends and peers find themselves together at one time, both allowing you to see their work and have a catch-up drink with them? I’d want to see as many people, and as many shows, as possible under such circumstances. And, if I were a relative newbie to the scene, I’d want to try and meet as many people as possible. How can I do that if I’m sat at a desk analysing budgets, ticket sales and reviews constantly? Striking that balance between work and play can be exhausting at times, and with so many factors being beyond your control, you have to be fluid and adaptable whilst also being organised.
Perhaps the problem is that I’ve been too weak-willed and easily-influenced in the past? I’m often unlikely to turn down the opportunity to meet people for drinks and hate to extract myself from such situations early, as it’s great to hang out with people in such a social context. It seems the easiest thing for me is to completely remove myself from the situation and the temptation; out of sight, out of mind. Thanks to all my friends who’ve offered me floor space if I want to head up, but for this year at least I’ll just stay at home, enjoy the peace and quiet and save the money I’d otherwise fritter away in Edinburgh. I’ll enjoy the festival season vicariously, through the reviews, stories and social media witterings of others – and, at the point I inevitably find myself wishing I was there, I’ll just think about that park bench.