Odds and Sods: June 2016

Slightly later than usual, my roundup of assorted things that have been going on in the last month. Busy sulking over that vote. Arse. Plenty of speculation buzzing around over what this means for the arts, but until we have a better idea of what’s going on, it’s really all guesswork. It will almost certainly have some sort of effect, direct or indirect, but that’s something for anything day.

So sorry for depressing you all by bring up this subject. Let’s have a look at stuff that’s been going on that doesn’t involve political or economic Armageddon just yet.

Things that happened in June

Edinburgh Fringe growth stalling?

St. Stephen's ChurchAfter all the news over Brighton Fringe’s growth (see my Brighton Fringe roundup), attention now turns to Edinburgh. Will Edinburgh see a similar surge in fringe acts? The surprise news is no. There’s a small dip of 45 productions. It’s still be world’s biggest fringe by a long way, and still the third time the fringe has been over the 3,000 mark, but a dip is a dip.

Before anyone panics, don’t read much into this just yet. Stalled growth is nothing new at the Edinburgh Fringe – they just keep quiet about in the years when there’s slow growth and make a big song and dance about it in better-looking years. Such is a the sporadic pattern of Edinburgh’s growth, this could simply be a quiet year in an ongoing upward trend – or it could be that Edinburgh has finally hit the limit of what it can support. We will probably need to wait for next year’s figure before we’ll know if there’s a trend.

Another figure quoted is a cut in the number of venues. Again, the Edinburgh Fringe is downplaying this, saying that this figure is influenced down to temporary venues not being used. I’m not sure how that works, because most of the big venues in Edinburgh are temporary venues to some extent. Either way, semantics aside, the most notable casualty this year is Momentum Venues, the attempt to restart St. Peter’s Church without Northern Stage. There is some debate over whether it was wise for them to attempt to aim themselves at large-scale acts needs large audiences in a venue so distant from the hub of the fringe, but either way, it looks like new venues can no longer rely of growth of the fringe to bring in acts.

The end of Oxford Fringe?

There is worse news for open arts festivals down at Oxford. Until 2013, there was Oxfringe. In 2013, Oxfringe folded, but the venues stepped in and created “Oxford Fringe”, which was the same thing with new arrangement. This continued in 2015, suggesting this might be a permanent arrangement. But now, in 2016, it’s vanished completely. Underground Venues, who have done both Oxford and Buxton for the last few years, are now doing just Buxton.

Cropping up instead, billed as if Oxford Fringe never existed, is “Off-beat”. Like Oxford Fringe, it’s in June, and heavily based at the Old Fire Station. Unlike Oxford Fringe, it’s curated. Perhaps southern England is just too crowded with small fringes and Oxford lost out. But with the disappearance of Oxford fringe, and the rise festivals that claim to be fringes but also curate their programmes, this could be a loss to artists who want to get started, and put them back into a viscious circle of being refused places in curated festivals because they have no previous experience which they can’t get because curated festivals won’t take them. Whatever “Off-beat” may offer, the loss of an open festival is everybody’s loss.

Good start for “Next Up…”

Next Up flyerNow that you’re feeling depressed, time for some good news from Durham. The Gala Theatre’s inaugural scratch night went ahead on the 28th June – and, by all accounts, it couldn’t have got off to a better start. There were two unknown factors that would determine if this event was a success: what line-up they could get for the scatch night, and how many people came to see it. Both went well: the Gala Studio was near full; and the line-up included a healthy mixture of well-known acts from Tyne and Wear and – crucially – someone from Durham itself. It would have been a crying shame if the Gala had repeated the mistake of the Stallworthy era and imported everything from Newcastle, but it looks they’re trying hard to avoid this.

The acts themselves were hit-and-miss, which is exactly what you’d expect for a scrath night. Most of them I’m not going to review here because I don’t think scratch performances can be reviewed fairly, but I’m going to make an exception for Gone to the Dogs, written and performed by Jennifer Carss, because this is pretty much a finished product that doesn’t need any more work on it, and it’s a good self-contained 10-minute piece. Starting with our heroine Hayley waking up from yet another undignified one-night stand, she realises she’s late for a birthday party where she’s playing Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Not really allowing herself time to prepare, she arrives there and discovers it’s one of these very wealthy households that inexplicably believes big-budget bashes are exactly the sort of thing six-year-olds want for their birthdays. There is something else she hadn’t researched, but that will come together at the end. There’s one little detail that doesn’t quite ring true – I found it hard to believe, when the loverat from last night shows up, that Hayley would have got away with saying that much into the microphone without someone switching it off – but really, who cares? It’s a funny piece with some cutting observations about the different worlds we live in, and although this is meant to be written as a radio play, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to make this into a proper stage play.

Oddly enough, Northern Stage and Washington Arts Centre have discontinued their scratch nights for the time being, so it looks like the Gala could be taking over as the prime destination for this type of event. One danger is that if everyone in Tyne and Wear turns to the Gala, it could squeeze out would-be emerging talent from Durham, but they seem keen to avoid this happening. A second one is provisionally scheduled for the autumn, but after the success of the first night, a third, fourth and fifth surely can’t be far behind.

Wharton Park amphitheatre is back

Wharton Park with Chapterhouse bannerLast month I reported, amongst my oodles of Brighton Fringe coverage, the grand opening of the newly-refurbished Wharton Park. This is a park in Durham that, in spite of its proximity to the city centre, has always been a low-key location, possibly because not may people know it’s there. Clearly Durham County Council is hoping to change that after such an extensive refurbishment. But from the point of view of a theatre blog, my main interest is in the old amphitheatre. It’s had many uses over the decades, but in recent memory it faded into obscurity. Might the council take the opportunity to revive the amphitheatre as a performance venue?

The answer is yes. Yesterday it had its first performance, from Chapterhouse Theatre. This company does lots of adaptations of classic theatre, predominantly outdoor locations, and although I’ve got some reservations about them, this was the logical choice for the park’s inaugural performance. Sadly I can’t tell you whether the play was any good because I was double-booked that day. However, what I can tell you is – if their booking system is anything to go by – the performance sold out. So that’s clearly a good start, and if these fortune continue we could see Wharton Park joining the cultural map of Durham very soon.

One other thing to look out for is whether they will use Wharton Park for Lumiere again. Wait, have I talked out Lumiere yet? Hang on …

Lumiere Durham 2017

Fireworks projected on to building

Coming soon to Durham?

The recurring questions that comes up Lumiere Durham every two years is whether there will be another one. It’s hard to believe now, but Lumiere 2015 was touch and go, and it came down to whether Durham County Council got the Arts Council grant it needed at the height of the arts cuts. But it did, and it went ahead. This time, however, there’s been little doubt over its return, and it’s been confirmed just eight months after the last festival.

So, in these early days of planning the next festival, two things to look out for. Firstly, will anything from Lumiere London be heading up to Durham? You can have a look at my Lumiere London roundup for highlights of things I saw there, but I’m putting Circus of Light and Light Graffitti as my hot bets. And secondly, will Wharton Park make a comeback? It was last used in 2011 (indeed, that was the first time many of us went in that park), but missed out in 2013 after the festival was spread out over a wider area (in wake of the overcrowding), and missed out again in 2015 as the park was of course closed for refurbishment. We could well be seeing Wharton Park become a second hub in Lumiere 2017, after the city centre. Watch this space.

Refurbishments galore

Now away from Durham to look at all the refurbishment going on in the north-east.

New seating for York Theatre RoyalYork Theatre Royal recently re-opened its doors after a major refurbishment project. A full list of goodies can be found here, but there are two biggies: the stage has been rebuilt to allow it to be customised or even removed by visiting groups; and the seating has been massively overhauled, especially the stalls where the back seats are now almost the height of the circle. Great for sightlines, not so great for snogging. I have heard some grumbles about the new seats being less comfortable than the old ones though. Will be interested to hear what other people make if it.

Just as York opened its doors, Darlington Civic Theatre closes its doors, and when it re-opened, it will be under its original name, The Hippodrome. It wasn’t that long since their last refurbishment, but that fact this is happening at all is good news considering that it was only a few years ago the Council were actively considering selling or even closing the theatre. On Darlington’s shopping list, the two big ones are probably increasing the number of seats and improving the backstage facilities. Not sure how you can squeeze in any more seats, but evidently someone thinks you can. Backstage facilities might sound boring, but this is aimed at making the theatre more attractive to larger productions. Seems both Darlington and York are aiming themselves at the high end of the market.

And also staring refurbishment is the People’s Theatre. Like York and Darlington, there’s lots of improvements on the go at once, but unlike them, the main interest is their plans for small-scale productions, because the headline improvement is a total rebuild of their studio theatre. This is significant, because the studio theatre tend to be were they do their most original stuff, the larger main theatre tending to have much more conservative programme. But whilst the stuff I’ve seen in the Studio Theatre has tended to be good and original, on the times I’ve been, the ticket sales have never been terribly impressive. I wonder if the inaccessible nature of the studio theatre put people off, because it was tucked away in an obscure upstairs area of the building. Will a new bigger and better studio theatre draw in bigger and better audiences? That must be something they must be betting on. We will see if they’re right – but it’ll be exciting if they are.

Stuff I wrote in June

Apart from everything above, here’s what else I’ve been writing:

Maybe July will be cheerier. Same time next month then.

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