The north-east needs a fringe

COMMENT: Open-access arts festivals are now commonplace across southern England. The north-east is missing out.

Those of you who are following my blog will know that this time, after several years of thinking about taking something to a fringe festival, I have finally decided to go ahead and do it. Tomorrow, I set off for Buxton. I chose Buxton over Brighton or Edinburgh because it’s a good balance for a fringe newbie. It’s not big enough that you have to engage in a manic publicity/leafleting campaign to get an audience, but it is still high-profile enough to have a serious crack at increasing your exposure. At the moment, I don’t know how this will turn out, but it’s an exciting experience, I can understand why so many people want to do this.

But, the thing is, much as Buxton is a lovely place for a festival fringe, Buxton isn’t my first choice destination. And no, my first choice isn’t Edinburgh or Brighton. What I would really like to do is showcase my work in the north-east to a local festival fringe audience. I can’t do this, because they don’t exist. I have a number of problems over lack of support and opportunities for theatre makers doing work off their backs, but this is problem specifically faced by northerners. Why? Because in the south of England, you are spoilt for choice. If the Brighton Fringe isn’t close enough for you, there’s Oxford, Bedford, Bath, Reading, Barnstaple, Windsor, Camden, and Ipswich on offer. Okay, with some of these aren’t fully open-access festivals, and therefore their claim to be a proper fringe is questionable, but how does this compare with the north? Not a lot. Buxton is in reach of Manchester, there’s a couple of low-key attempts with the Greater Manchester Fringe and the Nowt Part of Festival (a kind of unauthorised fringe to the Manchester International Festival), but for everyone else in the north: nothing.

The north-east is not without its arts festivals. Live Theatre runs its biannual new writing festival, Stockton has a popular riverside festival, there’s a rather bold Gateshead International Festival of Theatre, and Durham has a long-standing book festival. The difference is that these are all closed festivals. Either someone invites you to take part, or you can’t be in it. This year we had the Festival of the North East. This has the potential to be more inclusive, but it is open submission, not open access. Someone gets to decide who can and can’t be part of it – and that’s if you knew about the submission process in the first place. I only knew because I know someone on the festival committee, and to be fair I did actually consider applying – but in the end I decided I wasn’t prepared to jump through the hoops of an unspecified vetting process. I don’t deny that all these festivals are of value to the north-east – but what they all have in common is that it’s someone else’s artistic tastes imposed on what you can see. Not everybody wants that; some people want to choose what to see and make up their own minds. And if the success of the Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton Fringes is anything to go by, that’s a bigger audience than you might think.

Professional theatres, especially the new writing ones, have an odd relationship with fringe theatre. They invariably idolise the Edinburgh Fringe; Northern Stage runs a highly-trumpeted programme there every year, whilst Live has a close partnership with the Traverse Theatre who showcase most of their work in Fringe season. Ask most people about the Edinburgh Fringe and they’ll probably say it’s where all the greatest theatre and comedy goes – and most theatres, it seems, are happy to go along with that perception. Except theatre managers know perfectly well it’s not true, and that in fact anyone can take part and some shows are dreadful. But some shows are outstanding too, they are also products of the open-access system, and without a good word from the right people many of these shows would have never made it through a vetting process. And yet no theatre seems to have the slightest intention of doing what the Edinburgh Fringe does. When there isn’t a play on, new writing theatres love to hire out their spaces for any sort of function, like meetings, weddings, conferences – that is, any function except theatre. For some reason, the moment you suggest using a theatre space for, err, more theatre, their enthusiasm usually drops like a stone in a pool.

To be fair to Live and Northern Stage, they have to think about their tickets sales. Would allowing anyone into their main space dent the reputation of their own productions? Maybe, and I sympathise. But this near-closed shop that has been allowed to develop in the north-east comes at a price. Most theatre-makers in the country now have the opportunity to showcase their work at a nearby fringe, see what audiences make of it, and if it’s good, get on the first rung to making a name for yourself. Theatre-makers in the north east don’t. Yes, you can take your work to Buxton or Brighton, but getting cast, crew and set over to another part of the country is a major obstacle to taking part that more local groups don’t face. Local fringe participants can spread their performances over the whole festival and build up priceless word-of-mouth publicity; that is simply not an option for people who have far to travel. Increasingly, we in the north-east are finding ourselves at a disadvantage to our southern counterparts.

And before you say “But the Edinburgh Fringe is on your doorstep”, that is simply not an option for most people. If you want to compete against the other 2,000 shows there, you’ll need to run the full three weeks, and that will set you back around £5,000, which most people can’t spare. Even if you do somehow wrangle £5,000, if you want to be noticed you’ll need at your disposal a good publicity machine, or a series of good reviews of previous work, or both. Most of us have neither. The advantage of a shorter journey pales into insignificance against all of this. I would advise anyone from the north-east that you’re better off starting with Brighton or Buxton, in spite of the extra distance.

I have started raising this issue with various people, and the response I frequently hear is that I should look into setting it up myself. Believe me, I am seriously thinking this one over – who I would need on board, what we’d need to do. But apart from Edinburgh (which was a one-off from the days when fringes were new), the most successful festival fringes are the ones that run alongside a main festival, with the wholehearted support of the festival organisers. Because it’s not just about who has the time to organise this, it’s the perception given to the public. When unvetted work is viewed as the poor cousin to approved programmes of theatres and vetting committees – and this is the de facto setup at the moment – it is very difficult for anyone else to be taken seriously, let alone build an audience. It will take a big push to change attitudes, and it’s up to the big players to support this.

The north east arts scene has a lot to be proud of. But it could be doing even more. No matter what vision you have for what the north east should be producing, ultimately the art we should be looking at producing are things where people can look back months, year or even decades later and say “Wasn’t that good?” Festivals like the fringes in Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton cut out the middle men and let people decide for themselves what was good. Perhaps the artistic directors of the big theatres are worried that something might emerge that they didn’t sanction and make them look stupid. They shouldn’t. It does not make you look stupid, it’s an opportunity to develop something further which has proven itself with the public. Open access festivals are not something to be ashamed of – I firmly believe that if they got behind this today, very soon they will be thankful that they did.

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