Though life here in the Theatre Workshop is never particularly normal a modicum of balance is currently settling over the building after a week of excited artists developing shows for the fringe, but is the fringe really worth it?
Following a very successful performance at A Door Ajar last week young company “Funny you should ask” are moving onto the next stage of development for their fringe show and after Stewart Lee and Tommy Shepard’s inflamittory remarks about the Edinburgh fringe last year it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether it really is worth all the work our young artists are putting in?
Some of my happiest theatre memories are of working during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; long days, longer nights, bad food and some really terrible shows. Truly the Fringe did a lot to develop the practitioner I am today; even if it made me swear to never make a play about a pedophilic badger. I have worked in the fringe both as an artist and for venues and seen both sides of the tartan coin but over the last few years something has begun to pique my concern. As Sophie Kinseller says in her book A Shopaholic Takes Manhatten, “People who want to make a million borrow a million first.”
It’s well known that the most successful shows at the fringe are comedy shows by well known stand-ups and it’s becoming more and more difficult for theatre companies to break even, let alone make a profit. Caused by a combination of venue costs, expensive accommodation and disinterested audiences, the financial struggle of the Edinburgh fringe can make or break a company; is it really worth it in the end? Whilst Edinburgh may be one of the more well known and more established fringe theatre festivals; there do exist a literally global amount of other festivals, from London’s fringe festival (this year taking place in June) to the Adelaide fringe that’s just finishing it’s domination of the Australian theatre scene. Why then are people so desperate to present work at the fringe, especially when young theatre companies are struggling to even access the illustrious event because they have more lint than coins in their pocket? Whilst I do not agree with Mr. Lee and Mr. Shepard’s suggestion that commercialisation is to blame I do wonder if maybe we as a community of artists and practitioners have a growing problem on our hands. At it’s core fringe theatre is dangerous and risky, admittedly this isn’t always a good thing (and trust me I’ve seen some bad fringe theatre shows) but the fringe was a heaving mass of culture and innovative new ideas. If young companies are too busy worrying about making enough money to pay their venue costs can they really be staying true to the heart of the fringe? In a world where theatre companies are struggling across the country to stay financially afloat is it really a good idea to break new and interesting companies sheerly for the fact they can’t afford to pay the rent? If we loose these talented young artists from the fringe, simply because they can’t afford it, does the fringe and the artistic community at large not suffer? Whilst funding streams do exist for the support of these young but promising companies they are after all offered by investors and an investor looks at prospects. A safe Shakespeare is likely to sell better than a play about a latex covered nun (dependent on your performance times) and as such more and more of the fringe programme is filled with safe shows about safe subjects; it seems to me that this may be a symptom of money safe shows.
I don’t have an answer to the issue but given that we here at the University of Sheffield are in the buisness of educating and supporting new and upcoming practicioners I think that we cannot ignore the rising issue that is the financial weight of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I would never discourage anyone from taking part; to this day I maintain that it’s something everyone should experience at least once, but I would caution young practicioners to tread carefully. The Edinburgh Fringe isn’t soemthing to be taken on lightly and everyone is watching their figures; from the lowely artist dressed as dog doody to the high-powered venue managers in pink.