What now for Buxton and Underground Venues?

Now that’s my involvement in the Edinburgh Fringe is on pause, let’s return to Buxton. As most Buxton Fringe punters will know by now, this is the last year that the space under the Old Hall Hotel, aka Underground Venues, aka Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room, will be used for Buxton Fringe. At least, that’s the official line. It might not be that simple, but I’ll come on to this in a moment. This is by no means the end of Buxton Fringe – plans are already underway for the 2014 Fringe – but it will need to go ahead without its key venue. So the question is, what will replace Underground Venues?

Before, we go into speculation, I’ll begin with what we know. Tom Crawshaw and Yaz Al-Shaater were interviewed by the Derbyshire Times about this. At present, no decision has been made, only a hint that there are “possibilities already” made to performers after the fringe finished. But they made a good point: perhaps it is the performers and audience members who make up Underground Venues rather than Tom and Yaz. So maybe, instead of speculating which venue Tom and Yaz move to, maybe we should look at where the performers move to. There is little I can do at the moment but speculate. But, what the hell, let’s speculate away.

One final thing: sometimes I find out things in advance and keep it to myself until a public announcement is made. Let me assure you that on this matter, this is nothing I know that I’m not telling you. So, without further ado, here are some possibilities on where the would-be Underground Venues acts might end up next year.

1: Underground Venues

Inside of Pauper's Pit

Number of spaces: 2

Capacity: 41 (Pauper’s Pit) and 45-55 (Barrel Room)

Shows in 2013: 56, with 181 performances.

Let’s get this possibility out of the way. It is entirely possible that Buxton Fringe 2014 will include Underground Venues after all. You see, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this announced. Underground Venues, under its current management, was supposed to run for one year before the builders moved in. Instead, it’s run for eight. The only difference this time is that developers says that this time they really mean it. Convinced? Not everyone is.

If we are to see another season of Underground Venues, however, there will have to be a definite start date for the works. No-one is going to start programming a venue if the developers haven’t yet made up their mind if it will still be around in July. So, to this end, for this to be a possibility, there would have to be a final answer by February at the very latest. And that assumes Tom and Yaz haven’t already committed to a different place.

Assuming the developers really do mean what they say this time, here are some other possibilities:

2: Arts Centre

Inside of Arts Centre StudioNumber of spaces: 1

Capacity: 93

Shows in 2013: 13, with 35 performances

The Arts Centre studio is the other space run by Underground Venues. (It can also run as the “Arts Centre Auditorium”, where the same stage is used but a different set of seats are used – however, so far no Fringe act has taken this up.) They still have the option of running the Arts Centre next year, so this is the de facto “Do Nothing” option. But if they choose to carry on running the Arts Centre without the Old Hall spaces, they won’t call it Underground Venues, because it’s not underground, is it?

There is, however, a major snag with this option: the venue is only available in the evening. During the day, the Buxton Festival wants the space. So the 35 performances already offered by the Arts Centre is about this limit. There is a precedent for this: Tom and Yaz also run the Old Fire Station in Oxford as their only space, also limited availability, with a similar number of performances to the Buxton Arts Centre. So it is certainly possible, but it would mean a big change to the Fringe. Instead of Pauper’s Pit, the Barrel Room and the Arts Centre incorporating a wide variety of acts between them, the Arts Centre could become a hotly-contested venue with only a select few getting the prize. So should this future come to pass, we can expect a lot of acts to go elsewhere. Such as …

3: United Reform Church

Inside of URC, Green Room Number of spaces: 3

Capacity: Up to 90

Shows in 2013: 13, with 40 performances

The United Reformed Church (or URC) has taken a lot of the over-spill from Underground Venues in recent years. One might think that this is where the second-rate theatre goes, but that is not always the case. Some highly-acclaimed plays are performed there, and this includes some plays that applied to Underground and didn’t get a slot. Anyway, with three available spaces, there is a a lot of scope available for growth. However, there are a few obstacles here:

  • There is no foyer for the audience. They might have to sacrifice the smallest space, the Blue Room, if it’s to work as a busy venue.
  • URC has its availability restricted by the fact that some people want to use it as, er, a church. Which is fair enough.
  • None of the spaces have lighting rigs. They could conceivably be installed, but would the regular users of URC want that?

So whilst we could be seeing more performances next year, it would be tricky to make this a successor to Underground Venues. Ultimately, this may came down to how much the owner of the church want it to be stepped up as a fringe venue.

4: The Old Clubhouse

Upstairs at the Old ClubhouseNumber of spaces: 1

Capacity: Depends on seating, probably around 40.

Shows in 2013: 11, with 25 performances

The Old Clubhouse is a pub, with an upstairs function room that can be used as a Fringe venue. Until recently, it’s been a relatively obscure venue. This year, however, it’s taken a sizeable chunk of the performances, including The Gambit which went on to win best new writing. However, as you can see from the picture, this doesn’t really look like a performance space at all. Unless it’s a site-specific play set in a location that looks like a posh function room in a pub.

So why keep an eye on this one? Well, this one has the potential to be beefed up into a full-blown managed venue. It’s got another upstairs room that could function as a box office-cum-bar, and you could probably set up seats, curtains and lighting rigs to create a space that does everything Pauper’s Pit did. What’s more, we know this model is viable, because there are at least two major venue in Brighton (Upstairs at the Three and Ten, and The Malborough Theatre) that are upstairs rooms in pubs. If The Old Clubhouse are setting their sights on going up in the Fringe world, now is a good time to do it.

5: Buxton Community School

Number of spaces: 2

Capacity: Up to 120

Shows in 2013: 2, with 6 performances

Buxton Community School is a little-used venue in the fringe, but it is worth considering for one important reason: it’s got a full-blown theatre, thanks to the fact that it’s a school that needs a drama studio for its pupils. At the moment, this is the only option for anyone who needs a proper theatre who wants to run a production of more than 75 minutes.

One obvious problem is that you can’t use the space before 4.30 because the building is, of course, needed as a school. But few productions take place before then on weekdays, and it’s free all day weekends. It’s out of the way from most Fringe venues, but if there was a big push, it could be the new focal point of the fringe. So, the big question is: do they want to be the focal point of the Fringe? Juggling this with a working school is a big undertaking, so I guess this decision is in the hands of the school.

6: The Marquee at Poole’s Cavern

Number of spaces: 1 (when it last ran)

Capacity: About 30

Shows in 2013: 0.

I’ve saved the wildest speculation for last. Although this venue was last used in 2010, it was quite a popular one. In its final year, it had 10 shows giving 26 performances, and served as a counter-balance to Underground Venues. It also had lighting and sound. The only thing it really lacked, being a marquee, was the ability to have a blackout. Daylight can be a nuisance.

Could we see a return of the marquee? Probably not, but who knows? With a lot up in the air at the moment, there could easily be dozens of acts queuing up for a new space depending on what goes on elsewhere.

Who knows what will happen? The only thing that is certain is that what happens next year at Buxton will be a very important year, possibly in terms of where the Underground people move on to, and definitely in terms on where the would-be performers end up. And whatever happens, I’ll be there to find out.