Two months ago, I had a surprise smash hit on this blog, which was the Brighton Fringe survival guide, which actually got picked up by the Brighton Rringe organisers and got a lot of pageviews. So, in the spirit of innovation and originality, I think I’ll do exactly the same thing again, this time for Buxton’s fringe. This is a practical guide for how to make the most of the Buxton Fringe, and is mainly aimed at people who have already been to the Edinburgh Fringe.
If you’re familiar with both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes, you will find the Buxton Fringe is lot more like Brighton than Edinburgh. Instead of thousands of shows running the full three weeks, there are dozens of shows all running for a few days – even less than on offer at Brighton. On, the plus side, the people of Buxton are, by all accounts, extremely proud and supportive of their local arts festivals. This somewhat contrasts with Brighton, which has a larger Fringe customer base than Buxton, but where the Fringe punters are vastly outnumbered by people who’ve come to Brighton to get ratted. (This is even true to some extent in Edinburgh.)
Anyway, what I’ve written for Brighton broadly applies to Buxton too, with a few exceptions: for a number of reasons, it’s not quite so weekend-centric as Brighton, and I have a more positive impression of community productions in Buxton than I have for Brighton. But on the whole, expect roughly the same. However, I have a few tips that are specific to Buxton, as follows:
1: Accommodation is a nightmare to arrange
Let’s get this out the the way. You might think that without an influx of drinkers every weekend and with Buxton being a less weekend-centric festival than Brighton, there won’t be any particular difficulty booking accommodation on the weekend. The good news is, yes, weekend bookings are no harder than weekday bookings. The bad news is that they’re both an absolute nightmare. The laws of physics state that no matter how early you try to book your accommodation for Buxton, you will bitterly regret not doing it a week earlier.
You can probably blame this on the main opera-dominated festival. Bit harsh, seeing as the Fringe owes its existence to the Festival, but the problem with opera festivals is that the sort of people who go to it tend to have lots of money and Buxton is consequently dominated by expensive hotels. Plenty of bed and breakfasts too, but they get snapped up by the festival overspill from the hotels. And annoyingly, Buxton doesn’t have any hostels. What’s worse, single rooms in B&Bs are in very short supply. If you do manage to get one you’ll pay a lot less than you would for a single room in Edinburgh, but you’ll be very lucky to have got one in the first place. Even twin rooms are in short supply. Double rooms are better, but that not an option for most people. I suppose you could try the line of “Oh, deary me, the only way we’ll be able to afford to go to the Buxton Fringe is if we share a bed,” but you’re on your own if you want to try that.
For what it’s worth, I would consider camping. I’m not kidding, this is a serious suggestion. Lime Tree Park campsite is roughly on the edge of the town, and although it’s the opposite end to most of the fringe action, it’s not a big town to cross – certainly no harder than trekking to and from the Traverse in Edinburgh, or lugging your between Brighton and Hove. It’s a bit of a lottery with the weather (at least it was in 2012), but, let’s face it, in a hostel it’s a lottery with whether you get a drunken snorer. It may not be the most majestic way of staying overnight, but if you’ve got a tent it’s a hell of a lot easier.
2: A note about venues
One phrase used a lot in Buxton is “managed venues”, especially on the administrative side. If you don’t know what a managed venue is, imagine the venues in Edinburgh. Most of them have box offices, publicity for their shows on the walls of their own venues, their own programmes, usually bars and food available, staff/volunteers available to run the sound and lighting, and audiences marshalled in and out of the spaces throughout the day. That is so commonplace, it is taken for granted. Only a minority of plays – mostly site-specific ones – don’t take place in managed venues.
In Buxton, however, the only managed venue is Underground Venues, running Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room in the basement of the Old Hall hotel, and the Arts Centre Studio not far across the road. In some of the other venues, it might be little more than handing over the key and the performers organise everything themselves. One effect of this is that much of the theatre, and almost all of the comedy, is concentrated in Underground’s three spaces. There are questions over whether one venue should have so much power at a Fringe, but as Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room are going to be redeveloped into some swanky hotel-spa-type-thing soon, it’s a bit of an obsolete debate now.
In the meantime, what I will say is this: please give the other venues a chance. With theatre companies fighting over the Buxton Fringe slots one would assume that those who get through are the good ones, and based on unscientific sample I’m inclined to agree – but there are good plays at other venues too. It is not unknown for a play that failed to get a slot at Underground Venues to book another venue and be a smash hit. Underground Venues has a good record – but remember there’s more to the Buxton Fringe than a single venue.
3: There is no centralised fringe booking office
Anyone who’s used to Edinburgh and/or Brighton will be used to a location where you can buy tickets for any fringe show (except the free unticketed ones). Often you’re better off going to venues direct rather than trying to queue at the central box office, but the choice is there if you want it. At Buxton, however, no such system has been developed. The Opera House offer their booking service for acts that pay a fee, but not all acts take this up. And a bigger spanner in the works is that Underground Venues run their own booking system, and so far no-one has got round to getting the two systems to work together like they do in Edinburgh.
This means that there’s one of three ways to buy tickets: 1) For Underground Venues productions (including the Arts Centre), their own box office system, either in person, online, or (for a short period each day) by phone; 2) Through the Opera House or on the door at the venue for non-Underground Venues shows that opted into the opera house system; or 3) On the door for everything else. If that sound too complicated, you will probably get away with the follows: get tickets at the Underground Box Office for their venues, on the door for everything else. Whilst the Buxton Opera House is a good fall-back if you want to make absolutely sure you’ve got a ticket, in my experience the only non-Underground shows where you might need to worry about a sell-out are the limited-capacity site-specific Shakespeare in Poole’s Cavern. So don’t panic.
4: Age restrictions in the Fringe programme don’t quite mean what you think
This is a specific piece of advice for anyone coming with children. Most fringes now will have something in their programme giving recommended minimum ages. It varies from fringe to fringe; Brighton Fringe’s programme is very specific about what objectionable material might be in each show, whilst Edinburgh Fringe gives more generalised age limits. And, to confuse you even further, an 18+ restriction often means nothing more than the play being held in a pub whose licensing restrictions disallow under-18s. But, on the whole, it’s a reliable way of knowing what plays are and aren’t suitable for young children.
In Buxton, however, there is a quirk. The Buxton Fringe Society is quite happy to publish advisory age restrictions, but Underground Venues is dead against this. In fact, apart from rules governing practicalities of entry, the only rule they are insistent on is that if you want to use their venue, you cannot have age restrictions. You are not even allowed to put age restrictions on your own publicity. This leads to an odd discrepancy where one show with adult content might appear in the Fringe programme with a 16+ advisory, but the next play with equally graphic adult content has no age restriction because it’s an Underground Venues one. Underground Venue will give details to anyone who specifically asks, but the short lesson is: don’t assume it’s okay to take your kids to a play just because there’s no age restriction in the programme.
However, you can’t go wrong with plays marked family-friendly, as no venues have rules against marking a play as family-friendly. If you see the family friendly logo against Little Fluffy-Wuffy Lammykins, you can probably safely assume there won’t be any gratuitous sex in it.
5: The Fringe Club is something unique to Buxton
This is something whose importance I think gets overlooked. As the only managed venue, Underground Venues has a bar in the basement of the Old Hall Hotel, also known as the Fringe Club. Normally, that would be no big deal – plenty of venues in Edinburgh and Brighton have bars, and that’s that.
The Fringe Club, however, is a place where audience and performers across the Fringe are encouraged to mingle and talk to each other, and they achieve this remarkably well. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s officially down in the programme as the place to mingle, maybe it’s the fun and games provided, maybe it’s down to the fringe being small enough to have a community feel, but it works. I can’t think of any bars in Edinburgh or Brighton that achieve the same – there is a much stronger divide between actors and audience. The future of the Fringe Club is in doubt with the imminent demise of the Old Hall basement; I hope this manages to carry on in a new home.
And I think that’s all you need to know about Buxton. Overall, if you’ve seen the Brighton Fringe before, you should have a rough idea what to expect; if you’ve only ever seen the Edinburgh Fringe before, you’ll need to acclimatise. You might think that with the cheap registration costs and large number of local groups this Fringe could be a dumping group for anything not good enough to make it to Edinburgh, but in my experience the opposite is true; like the Brighton Fringe, those groups that go to Buxton seem to be groups who have put some thought in which Fringe is best for them, unlike Edinburgh which seems to be a magnet for groups who see the bright lights and prestige without thinking through things like expense, or whether their show is ready to be exposed to the harsh pens of ThreeWeeks and Broadway Baby.
Next year, most or all of the advice may go out of date. With Underground Venues having such a strong influence over the dynamics of the Buxton Fringe, and two thirds of Underground Venues going to redevelopment before next year, the shape of things to come is unknown. Will this guide make any sense for Buxton Fringe 2014? We’ll see.