How to make the most of the Buxton Fringe (fringe newbie edition)

Picture of Buxton Pavillion Gardens

Continuing my series of fringe guides, I’m going to do the same for Buxton as I did for Brighton and do a guide for the Buxton Fringe for fringe newbies. This will differ from last year’s guide that was aimed it Edinburgh Fringe veterans who want to know how Buxton differs from the big on. If you are such a Edfringe veteran and the phrase “Unboring” drives you round the bend, stop reading this and start reading the other guide. If, however, you’re new to this festival fringe thing, this is just the place for you.

This is not about which shows are the best ones to see (that will come in my next blog post), but rather what to expect of the festival fringe as a whole. Some of this will be a copy-paste from other articles. I’m in a hurry so that’s what you’re getting. Without further ado, let’s go:

Why Buxton Fringe?

The Brighton Fringe is the the UK’s third biggest open arts festival, after Edinburgh and Brighton. The important bit is the word “open”. There are no vetting processes to decide who can and can’t take part – anyone who wants to do Buxton Fringe can do so, provided someone covers your expenses. Like many fringes, Buxton Fringe runs concurrently to the vetted Buxton Festival, but its relations are almost the opposite to those in Edinburgh. In Edinburgh, the Fringe turned up uninvited as an alternative to the International Festival (and the Festival has never forgiven the fringe for upstaging it this way), but in Buxton, the Festival specifically backed setting up a fringe as something do do during the daytime. Today, the festival have mostly different audiences, and the fringe is more a late afternoon/evening thing than a daytime thing, but the good relations are unchanged.

Why go to a festival fringe? There are many good reasons to go to a fringe (and one bad reason that I’ll get on to shortly), but I’d say the best reason is that you can see anything, and I mean anything. Without an artistic director or selection committee deciding who’s allowed to take part, it’s up to the audience to decide what succeeds. The smallest and obscurest acts stand a fair chance against the biggest names.

And why go to Buxton? For a start, if you live in the Midlands or north-west, Buxton Fringe is a much cheaper and more convenient option than its Scottish cousin. But that’s not the only reason to choose Buxton. Edinburgh is a very intense experience for performers and punters alike, whilst Buxton is far more relaxed for everyone. Edinburgh is such an expensive high-stakes venture than you’d be foolish to go there with anything but your best stuff. Buxton is a good place to try out new material in a broadly friendly environment without the pressure of Edinburgh or even Brighton.

Like Brighton Fringe, Buxton Fringe is tiny compared to Edinburgh, but with Buxton also being a smallish town, and the fringe and festival working together so well, there’s a noticeable festival mood in July. Does this appeal to you? Good. Now read on.

The tips

1: Understand what a Festival Fringe means

First thing’s first. A common misconception of festival fringes (particularly Edinburgh) is that it’s such a prestigious festival, there must be some sort of prestige to all the acts allowed to perform there. But, as I’ve just mentioned, it’s not how it works. Yes, festival fringes attract a lot of prestigious acts, but the fact remains that anyone can take part, and that’s exactly how the Buxton Fringe intends to work.

What this means for you is that, as well as seeing some good plays or comedy, you will probably also see some mediocre, poor or incomprehensibly dreadful plays. Fringe veterans like me develop a bad play radar, but even then some slip through the net. But that’s part of the bargain. If you have a problem with awful plays and untalented performers being allowed into high-profile arts festivals, then this is not the festival for you. If you want a festival with a carefully vetted programme, where an artistic director does that, you’re welcome to go to the Buxton Festival next door. But I’ve seen lots of good acts at the Fringe that have come out of nowhere and would never have made it through any vetting procedure. I think it’s worth it. You will have to decide for yourself.

2: Most Buxton Fringe plays are one-acts

Go to any theatre out of fringe season and the play will probably last about 2 hours 30 minutes including an interval. At the Buxton Fringe however, the typical length more like an hour. There is no rule insisting on this – just that it’s such common practice throughout fringes. It’s not quite as hard and fast a rule as Edinburgh – you do get the odd full-length on offer – but full-length plays are still the exception rather than the rule.

This has mainly come about because most fringe punters now expect to see several plays in one day. Long plays and intervals just get in the way of this.  One-hour plays take a bit of getting used to, but don’t worry – take it from me, you can do a damned good piece of theatre in one hour.

3: Accommodation is a nightmare to arrange

If there’s one downside to Buxton Fringe, it’s accommodation. There’s masses of accommodation in Edinburgh to cover the bug range over visitors over the summer. Brighton is a little trickier, because it’s a big weekend destination and the cheaper weekend accommodation gets booked up early. But Buxton? It’s a nightmare regardless of whether you go weekend or mid-week. The problem with runnig the same time as a big opera-dominated festival is that the clientèle for opera and Buxton is consequently dominated by expensive hotels. The cheaper bed and breakfasts get snapped up by hostel overspilling and there’s no hostels. What’s worse, single rooms in B&Bs are extremely rare commodities. 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, all the twin rooms are gone, I guess we’ll have to book a double, you don’t mind, do you?” 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 with drunken tossers. 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.

4: There is more to Buxton Fringe than Underground Venues

If you are new to festival fringes completely, you might be forgiven for thinking the entire festival and fringe is centred around the square outside the Pavilion, with the box office, opera house and arts centre in one building, and the famous Pauper’s Pit the other side. It’s certainly true that in this hub, the three major spaces used for the fringe (the Arts Centre Studio in the Pavillion, and Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room in the Old Hall Hotel) account for an awful lot of the theatre and comedy programme in the fringe, and they are all managed by the same team under the name of Underground Venues. There are no other venues in the Buxton Fringe than run on anything like this scale – other venues might involve little more than handing over the key to the performing group for a couple of hours. Attempts are made every now and then to set up other managed venues in Buxton, but so far nothing has stuck. In theory, this is all supposed to be changing imminently when the basement of the Old Hall hotel is redeveloped, but this has been said for many years now it’s becoming a standing joke (“The final year of Underground Venues – again!”)

There are questions over whether one venue should have so much power at a festival fringe, but that’s really a debate for fringe veterans. (For the record, I do think Underground Venues has a lot of power, but so far they’ve always used their power responsibly.) But there is one thing you can do as a fringe newbie: remember there’s other venues too. There’s a decent range of things at the United Reformed church, Poole’s Cavern is a good place for site-specific Shakespeare, and there’s plenty of small venues dotted all over the place. And whilst Underground Venues gets a lot of the best acts, it’s by no means all of them. Some of the most successful plays went to other venues.

5: Ticket booking gets a bit of getting used to

The dominance of Underground Venues does have a couple of odd side-effects in Buxton. One unusual side-effect is how tickets are sold. Underground Venues has its own centralised ticketing system for shows in its three spaces. Everyone else has the option of booking tickets at the opera house, on an opt-in basis. In Edinburgh and Brighton, with loads of venue chains selling tickets through different systems, they found ways of centralising this so that you can buy a ticket from any show at any fringe box office. But in Buxton, with only one venue running its own box office, no-one has ever got round to finding a way of getting the Opera House and Underground Venues box office systems to work with each other. This leads to the slightly confusing situation where you can’t buy tickets for the fringe’s biggest venue at the official fringe box office.

My advice is that you can usually forget about the opera house box office altogether. It’s really only the Underground Venues shows where you need to think about buying in advance in case they sell out. For almost everything else, you can quite safely turn up and buy your ticket on the door. (It also means the performers get more money.) The only places where you might want to buy from the Opera House in advance are the site-specific plays in Scrivener’s Bookshop and Poole’s Cavern, which are more likely to sell out.

6: A note on age restrictions

This is the other oddity arising from the dominance of Underground Venues, mostly for anyone coming with children. Most fringes do have some sort of advisory systems for objectionable content. It varies from place to place, and there are a few quirks (the common one being a quite inoffensive play being rated 18 because it’s in a pub that’s not licensed for children), but it is at least consistent. At Buxton, however, there’s a disagreement that was never resolved. Fringe entrants are allowed to put content warnings or age restrictions in the fringe programme, but Underground Venues is dead against this practice. They won’t send any content advisories to the fringe programme (except for extremes such as naked ramblers); acts are not even allowed to put age restrictions on their own publicity.

Meanwhile, some of the content advisories for other plays go to the other extreme. “Romeo and Juliet. WARNING: contains scene of suicide.” (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.) This leads to an odd discrepancy where one show 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 safely assume there won’t be any gratuitous sex in it.

7: Listen to word of mouth publicity

Now, with festival fringes being open access, what a lot of people naturally want to know is which plays are are worth buying tickets for. Not everyone does that – a lot of people are happy to just turn up and see if it’s any good; if so, it’s a nice surprise, if not, well, it’ll be fun telling everyone back home how awful it was. But it’s also fair to say that other people want to pay for something good. Normally, you can get a good idea of what’s worth seeing by looking at review publications. But at Buxton, there is very little attention from the publications that give so much coverage to Edinburgh and Brighton. Unlike the bigger fringes, Buxton does have in-house reviews. This is a controversial topic and I don’t have time to go into the saga here, but what you need to know as a punter is that – with Buxton Fringe having an interest to be supportive of all of its acts – the internal reviews are only of limited reliability.

So what can you turn to instead? The answer is: ask the audience. Possibly the strangest quirk of Buxton is that the fringe punters are possibly the most powerful theatre audiences in the country. Without reviewers dominating the feedback, power shifts to word of mouth publicity. As with reviews, you should never put too much trust in one person’s verdict – that could be anything from an isolated opinion to common consensus. But if lots of people keep telling you the same play is good, that’s a pretty good sign it really is as good as they claim.

8: 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 and exchange word-of-mouth verdicts (see above), 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. 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 whenever the time comes.

And a final tip …

Don’t forget that there’s more to Buxton than a festival and a fringe. There’s plenty of other things to enjoy in the town, especially in the summer months. At bigger fringes you will see people with lists cramming as many shows as possible into one day. This happens less at Buxton because there’s fewer shows to cram, but why do you need to do that anyway? Festival fringes are supposed to be fun, not an endurance test. For heaven’s sake, the Pavillion Gardens is asking to be relaxed in.

There are many different reasons why you might want to go to Bux. You might be a talent-spotter for actors. You might be on the lookout for new plays. Or you might just fancy visiting a spa town in the peak destrict with a bit of theatre and comedy thrown in. Whatever your reason, make you have have fun when you’re doing it.

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