Another open challenge for Live Theatre (and Northern Stage too)

If Live Theatre and Northern Stage are serious about supporting artists who go to the Edinburgh Fringe off their own backs, there’s a little thing they could do which would mean a lot to them.

Last year I wrote an article around the opening of Alphabetti Theatre with a radical proposal that Live could follow in their footsteps and make theatre more accessible by using their undercroft as some sort of open access space. Looking back now, it’s interesting to see how things have developed. To some extent, this is a less important issue than it was because Northern Stage are now doing something similar by encouraging groups to use their Stage 3. Also, Alphabetti is saturated with bookings six months ahead, which shows just how much suppressed demand is out there. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion we can only balance supply and demand with a second Alphabetti-style theatre in Newcastle.

But forget about that for now. I want to make a completely different proposal for how Live Theatre can do more to support small-scale artists, and this one includes Northern Stage too. Unlike my last proposal, this is a trivially easy thing to do, it will cost nothing, but it will mean a hell of lot to some artists out there. Let me explain …

The thing that got me thinking about this was one particular production that previewed at Alphabetti prior to the Edinburgh Fringe. It was An Illuminating Yarn, and I couldn’t make it to that preview but I caught it in Edinburgh itself. It didn’t quite work out, but Button Box Theatre still has my utmost respect for having the guts to do this. And as I say time and time again, the great thing about the Edinburgh Fringe, and the similar festivals in England, is that anyone can take part. No committee decides which acts can and can’t perform, which shows audiences can and can’t see – it’s a wonderfully democratised system where everyone has a chance to be a success. And if it isn’t a hit, you can still learn a lot from what went right and wrong.

But here’s the thing: I’m not convinced regional subsidised theatres actually believe in the ethos of an open festival, even though this is something held dearly by the fringe organisers. Shows like An Illuminating Yarn are ignored by them. I can’t think of a single occasion I’ve heard a figure in a subsidised theatre encourage aspiring artists to take part in the Edinburgh Fringe off their own backs (or any of the cheaper cousins south of the border). Oh, there’s plenty of times they tell aspiring artists to go Edinburgh and be inspired by all of the other acts there, and they’re quite happy to use the prestige of the Edinburgh Fringe for all of the acts previewing at their venue, but the fact that just anyone can perform there barely gets a mention. It’s almost as if the widely-held fallacy amongst the public that only the best acts are allowed to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe is too convenient a misconception to correct.

Live Theatre and Northern Stage certainly help acts get to the Edinburgh Fringe. Live Theatre assists a number of acts every year associated with Live in some way, and give them a lot of publicity during the fringe. Northern Stage go even further, and have their own venue at Edinburgh, and they use their Arts Council grant to heavily subsidise this for the groups that get programmed into it. That is a great service those who can get it, and long may it continue, but the fact remains it’s something that only benefits a lucky few. In fairness, this is realistically the only way Northern Stage at Edinburgh could have operated – if they’d been more inclusive they’d have ended up as just another generic venue – but this is scant consolation to all the north east Edfringe and would-be Edfringe acts who get nothing.

It’s also fair to point out that neither Live nor Northern Stage have taken a position against openness. They, and most other regional theatres, stayed out the push two years ago to introduce censorship into the Fringe when others were pushing to effectively bar artists of the wrong nationality. Lorne Campbell even went out of the way to state he was not taking sides on a cultural boycott when he participated in the controversial Welcome to the Fringe scheme. There again, when the fringe’s openness was under threat two years ago, Live and Northern Stage didn’t exactly make an effort to defend it, nor did most other theatres. One would have thought that any artistic director who valued the open model of the fringe would have been screaming from the rooftops the whole of August 2014. The most cynical side of me wonders if artistic directors up and down the country would prefer it – or at least, wouldn’t object – if the whole of the Edinburgh Fringe was made into a vetted festival, just so long as their plays could be a part of it.

But hey, maybe that’s just me being paranoid. I’m no mind-reader, I could be wrong. In fact, I’d love to be proven wrong here, and wholehearted endorsement of the open nature of Fringe is all it would take. But instead of just proving a point, I’ve got an even better idea. This is something you can do for small companies going to the Edinburgh Fringe which costs nothing, demonstrates your support for openness, and most all, will mean a hell of a lot to some people. Are you ready? … Okay, here’s what you can do for these aspiring artists:

Wish them well.

Serious suggestion. The Edinburgh Fringe is a wonderful opportunity to get started for those of us who don’t have big backers, but it’s still must be quite dispiriting to feel that you’re on your own. Intentionally or not, the current practice surely creates the impression that the shows backed by the big subsidised theatres are the “proper” fringe shows, and they think you’re not a proper one. Especially when the the social media feeds of these theatres are endless plugging north-east shows that aren’t yours. It would feel to me like there’s north-east fringe “club”, and you’re not invited.

It shouldn’t be too hard to wish acts well. Word tends to get round as to who’s doing what, so I’m confident most of the aspiring north-east acts going north in August (or south in May) will be known to Live and Northern Stage’s publicity teams already. But for those who don’t, it wouldn’t hurt to put out something on Facebook and Twitter saying something like “Taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe? We want to know.” And when August comes, yes, spend most of your time plugging your own shows, but spare a moment to say something like “Also, best of luck to other north east groups such as [name] showing at [date and time].” That little thing, I believe, would mean a lot to these people. It won’t help them put on a show or get an audience, but it will be a psychological boosts knowing that there’s important people back home who want them to do well.

And if these groups do well; if they get rave reviews or sell out shows – then acknowledge it. It’s only fair to point out that regional subsidised theatres do a bit of this already – if an independently-produced show is a runaway success, then they will eventually beat a path down to their door. However only the most successful of most successful shows get that privilege, for the rest, you can expect to hear very little. I believe it would mean a lot to these groups if their achievements were publicly congratulated back home rather than ignored.

I’m not sure whether we should include student theatre in this. There are a lot of student productions that make their way to Edinburgh, and student theatre often doesn’t have that much to do with the region outside of their own universities. There’s a danger that this well-wishing list could end up as a shopping list of local student groups going to the fringe. I’m minded to say they should still be included if they’ve gone through the trouble of telling the local professional theatres they’re going, but I can see a case for leaving them out.

Live and Northern Stage might ask “What’s in it for us?” That’s fine, it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask; all businesses have to think about how altruistic gestures affect them. For my part, I’d say the best incentive is that it can easily be spun to make you look good. Practically every theatre-maker in the north-east has had some sort of involvement with either or both of these two theatres at some point – even if they’re not commissioning their work, there’s a high chance they’ve been on one of Live’s writing courses, or taken part in Northern Stage’s First in Three, or done something similar. So if someone who’s been involved goes on to have a successful run at the Fringe, they can say how great it is that someone who was on our [Introduction to Playwriting course or whatever] went on to produce this. (And if a show bombs, best for everyone to say nothing. No-one’s going to think less of Live Theatre just because they wished good luck to an act that went on to get a one-star review.)

There is one other incentive if they need one. As I’ve already said, if you do something off your own back and it’s a runaway success, you’ll get theatres approaching you. But from a theatre’s point of view, how can you be sure these successful performers will go to you? If they’re really that good, they may have better offers from other theatres. I’m willing to bet that any group who is fortunate enough to be in this position is more likely to go for the theatre who’d been backing them all along over the one who changed their tune later. To put it another way, wishing someone good luck can be looked on as a cost-free investment in good will. That could pay off handsomely at a future date.

But this shouldn’t be reduced to a debate on who’s benefiting who. This should be looked on as theatre makers standing up for each other. Back home, the unfortunate reality is that north-east theatre groups are in competition with each other for publicity, audiences and sponsorship, and it is understandable why the big theatres might not want to give too much backing to groups who ultimately are competitors. But the Edinburgh Fringe is different. This time, you are not in direct competition with other acts from the north-east – you are competing with acts from all over the world. The success of one north-east group does not adversely affect the success of another, so we may as well all work together towards a common goal.

The Edinburgh Fringe is our one chance each year to be Team North East. At the moment, it’s Team Live Theatre and Team Northern Stage, and yes, these two teams give each other mutual support, but that’s not the same thing. A proper Team North East should welcome everyone on board, from the tiddliest amateurs to the biggest-budget productions. Because as any fringe veteran knows, there’s no knowing which of the two will be the next big hit. And if it’s the tiddly amateurs, I’d want to be the person who can truthfully say we wished them well right from the start.

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