How to make the most of the Buxton Fringe

Picturesque viaduct south of Buxton (credit: Graham Hogg)
Now, you don’t see this in Edinburgh or Brighton, do you?

So, continuing my updating of last year’s “X Fringe survival guide”, here’s my update for Buxton. As with How to make the most of the Brighton Fringe, this is not a list of plays I recommend you see – that will come shortly – but instead a list of tips about the festival in general, and how you can make the most of it as a plain old punter. I was expecting to do a massive overhaul of my tips from last year’s guide, because this time last year it was thought that the two most heavily-used spaces, Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room, would be closing. That hasn’t happened yet, so the overhaul will be postponed. So, with only minor alterations, here’s how to make the most of Buxton Fringe.

About this guide

Those of you who have seen both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes will know that Brighton is very small compared to Edinburgh. Buxton is even smaller – but there is still quite a lot going on keep you busy. Other than that, the format is arguably similar to Brighton – much of the audience are local and the visitors to Buxton are heavily weighted to the local area. Much of what I said in my Brighton guide applies to Buxton, except that, for one reason and another, it’s not quite so weekend-centric as Brighton is.

As with Brighton, this guide assumes you are already familiar with the Edinburgh Fringe. If you haven’t been to Edinburgh Fringe, you may also want to read The Edinburgh Fringe survival guide – not all of this applies to the smaller fringes, but a lot of it does, especially the bit about open access. Remember: in a fringe, anyone can take part – if you want a vetting committee protecting you from substandard plays, find yourself another festival. But enough of the, let’s get on to the tips.

The tips …

1: Accommodation is a nightmare to arrange

Let’s get this  out the the way. You think Brighton Fringe accommodation is difficult to arrange? That’s nothing compared to Buxton. You might think that without the spikes in demand from weekend drinkers and a weekend-centric fringe, it should be no harder to book accommodation on a weekend than mid-week. Technically, that is correct – but only because booking accommodation is equally nightmarish regardless of when you want it. Think of what’s it like in Brighton on the weekend of The Great Escape – that’s what to expect throughout July in Buxton. Luckily for fringe participants, there are some locals who rent out rooms in their houses very cheaply, and I highly recommend that option. But if you’ve just come to watch? The laws of physics states that no matter how early you book, the last room at the price you wanted to pay went last week.

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 – cheaper than a single room in Edinburgh in August, granted, but just about as hard to find one. Even twin rooms are scarce. Double rooms are better, but that not an option for non-couples. I suppose you could go “Oh deary me, only the double rooms are left, I guess we’ll have to 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 Pleasance to Traverse in Edinburgh, or Brighton to 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 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: There is more to Buxton Fringe than Underground Venues

Now, before I go on, here’s a note about “Managed Venues”. Fringe performers are familiar with this term, but punters less so. So, imagine a typical venue in Edinburgh. It will probably have its own box office, publicity for its own shows on the walls, its own programmes, a bar and food, staff/volunteers available to run the sound and lighting and marshalling audiences. That is a “managed venue”, and it 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, it’s a different picture. Until last year, he 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. This year, a new managed venue has appeared at The Market Place, but Underground Venue still dominates the theatre and comedy section of the programme.

In some of the other venues, it might be little more than handing over the key and the performers organise everything themselves. 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: don’t rule out the other venues. It probably is true to say that the bigger and better companies jostle for space in Pauper’s Pit and especially the Arts Centre, but that’s not the only place you see good shows. A decent number of highly-acclaimed shows have taken place in other venues, so give these venues a chance.

3: There is no centralised fringe booking office – but don’t worry about it

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. If that sound too complicated, you will probably get away with the following: get tickets at the Underground Box Office for their venues, on the door for everything else. There’s a few Underground Venues shows that sell out each year, but other than that, the only shows with a real risk of a sell-out are the site-specific pieces and Scrivener’s Bookshop and Poole’s Cavern. The Opera House is a good fall-back if you want to make absolutely sure you’ll get a ticket, you are usually quite safe just turning up with your cash 10 minutes before you start.

4 (NEW): Word of mouth publicity matters

Richard Stamp says:

“I wonder if you have chicken & egg the right way round. One reason we can’t do decent coverage is that the official ‘reviews’ snaffle up all the local talent. And we can’t afford to ship people in because of your #1. All a bit sad.”

One big difference between Buxton and Brighton is that very few review publications cover Buxton. Sadly, most of the Edinburgh Fringe reviewers don’t both looking north of Newport Pagnell the other 11 months of the year. The Buxton Fringe Committee tries to partially compensate for this by providing their own reviewers, but as key cheerleaders for the festival, they have to give everyone a reasonably positive hearing. Once you get used to the reviews, you can spot coded phrases if the reviewer thought is was terrible (e.g. if your review says “We hope this new theatre company will use this opportunity to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses …” you are in trouble), but on the whole, there’s little in the reviews to tell you what was any good.

And this means that the punters in Buxton are possibly the most powerful theatre audiences in the country. Without reviewers dominating the feedback, power shifts to word of mouth publicity. My advice is to treat this the same as you should treat reviews – if one person tells you a show is great, that’s just one person’s opinion. But if several people tell you the same thing, it’s a safe bet the show will be as good as they claim. If you aren’t comfortable chatting to people you’ve never met about Fringe plays, now’s a good time to learn.

5: A note on age restrictions

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 things, an 18+ restriction sometimes means an otherwise inoffensive show is held in a pub where under-18s aren’t allowed. 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 adult content has no age restriction because it’s an Underground Venues one. Underground Venues 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.

6: Make use of the Fringe Club

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, exchange word-of-mouth verdict (see #4), 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 (although the Warren at Brighton is getting better). 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.

But is it any good?

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. If you’re used to Brighton, you shouldn’t be disappointed with what’s on offer at Buxton. If you’re only used to Edinburgh, however. 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, like Brighton, my experience says the opposite – if anything, the average Buxton show is better than the average Edinburgh show.

Richard Stamp of FringeGuru made a pertinent observation about Edinburgh. Such is the expense of Edinburgh, so high are the stakes, that it’s practically a trade fair. No-one with any sense ought to go there with anything other than your best stuff. In practice, it doesn’t work like that – a lot of groups, students ones in particular, go straight for the bright lights and prestige of Edinburgh without thinking things through – but one effect is that competent groups will shy away from taking risks in Edinburgh. Even Brighton can be a risk for smaller groups. Small fringes like Buxton are the places where you can see the really cutting-edge stuff.

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 (and this time, I gather they really mean it), the shape of things to come is unknown. What will this guide be like in 2015? We’ll see.

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