Underground overground: what happens next?

Womble jokes: coming soon to Buxton.

So Underground Venues lives on. After much speculation (well, much speculation from me), they have moved from their extremely popular site in the basement under the Old Hall Hotel to The Old Clubhouse, a pub just up the road outside the Opera House. This was always one of the hot favourites: plenty of venues work this way in Brighton, I gather Tom and Yaz used to run events at the Old Clubhouse prior to Underground Venues, and this option was seriously explored three years earlier when it looked like 2013 would be the final year.

Applications for Underground Venues were supposed to open two days ago, and from this I was supposed to glean more information from what this might entail. However, due to some gremlins in the system the old Pauper’s Pit information was still showing and applications had to be delayed a few days. However, from this blog post we can already work out quite a bit about what’s in store, and from this ask some questions of what happens from here.

What we know

Before we go into the unknown quantities, let’s do a quick recap of everything we know so far from the move:

1) It’s still Underground Venues

This doesn’t really matter, but I did wonder whether they would change their name seeing as all possible replacement venues I could think of aren’t underground. But they’ve stuck with the name. Probably for the best. Most name changes now seem to be stupid ones, like changing St. James’s Theatre to The Other Palace, or Glastonbury to The Variety Bazaar. We’re spared that.

Underground overground it is. One obvious side-effect is that everyone of the appropriate generation is waiting for the inevitable Womble joke. Underground Venues promise me they have one coming up.

2) The Arts Centre is staying

https://i0.wp.com/buxtonfringe.org.uk/venue74.JPGThis has only been a side-issue over the last few months, but with the Arts Centre disappearing from the listings on Buxton Fringe venues, there was a residual worry that Underground Venues might up sticks from Buxton completely. If so, there was no guarantee the Arts Centre would still be used for the Fringe without them – perhaps the Buxton Festival would decide they now wanted the Arts Centre 24/7. That scenario, I think, would have been a disaster for the fringe. Acts that used to go to Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room could conceivably have found other venues in town, but it’s harder to see what could have worked as a substitute for the Arts Centre. Lose the arts centre, and you could expect to lose most of the best acts that need the Arts Centre’s capabilities. Lose them, and you lose a lot of Buxton Fringe’s hard-earned credibility.

But that nightmare outcome is not happening. The Arts Centre stays, and stays with Underground Venues. One important factor to bear in mind is that the Arts Centre is only really half a venue – Buxton Festival wants it during the day, so it’s only available to the Fringe in the evenings. This means it can only accommodate about 12 acts, as opposed to the 25 or so in each of the Old Hall spaces. That will become relevant shortly. But for the biggest acts that come to Buxton, it’s no change, thank goodness.

3) The Old Clubhouse is being souped up

Up to now, the Old Clubhouse has only had limited usefulness as a venue. It was, like many of the Buxton venues, basically just a room you can hire. There wasn’t any sound or lighting equipment (unless you brought your own), the windows made blackouts impossible, and there were stairs and banisters in the least convenient of locations. The venue used to be a preferred destination for the Underground Venues over-spill; more recently, however, the Green Man Gallery overtook the Old Clubhouse in that respect.

Annoyingly, the Underground Venues website is still showing details for its old spaces (the result of a web glitch, reportedly) but we know from their blog they are planning to have proper sound and lighting equipment, including a programmable lighting rig. So expect more than the bare basics. From this we can reasonably deduce they will bring along blackout material for the windows, as broad daylight kind of defeats the object of lighting. I’m not sure how the stairs will be taken into account, but I can guess this is all part of the plan.

The new and imporoved Old Clubhouse might not have the same technical capability as Pauper’s Pit – without those iron bars mounted in the ceiling, it limits where you can put the lights. My guess is that, in practice, it won’t make much difference. This is not too different to the ad-hoc lighting rigs in in hotel suites like Sweet Venues, which generally does the job provided the performers have the sense to work within the capabilities of the equipment. Plays that are really technically demanding tend to end up in the Arts Centre anyway. So I expect this at most to be a minor issue.

It’s also envisaged that the “fringe club” will move to The Old Clubhouse. I will come on to this later, as this is a little less predictable.

4) Underground venues is going down from three spaces to two

Now for the big change we know about. Welcome though the move to the Old Clubhouse is, this is only a single performing space serving as a replacement for two. On a rough approximation that the Arts Centre can take half the performances of the other venues, I calculate the combined performance capacity of Old Clubhouse + Arts Centre is going to be around 60% of what it was with Pauper’s Pit + Barrel Room + Arts Centre. This might be reduced further if The Old Clubhouse still want to do their Sunday Carvery upstairs. Bookings made with The Old Clubhouse prior to the Underground Venues announcement are being honoured, but that reduces the slots further.

So if demand stays the same, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to get a slot at Underground Venues.This leads to the first question about who this will pan out …

What we don’t know

So now that we’ve established what can be established, now we can move on to the more unpredictable matters. Not so much speculating what what’s not been announced yet (at this point, I doubt there’s much Tom and Yaz know that they haven’t told us), but what the effect of the venue move will be.

Off-hand, I can think of four questions, covering a few opportunities and threats:

1) Will Underground Venues remain an entry-level venue?

Underground Venues, like most venues across the fringe, do not publicly set out explicit criteria for who gets slots in their venues. What we do know is that they aim to get a balance across everything. Local acts are balanced against acts from further afield, cheery plays and comedies are balanced against dark dramas, and experienced professionals are balanced against first-timers and novices. The last one is particularly notable. It is possible to be programmed in even if you have no prior experience of a festival fringe and minimal experience of producing theatre back home. I know I was.

Now that Underground Venues is down from 2½ to 1½ spaces, this may change. This year only, there may be a drop in demand as acts unwilling to wait for news of new Underground Venues with either registered with another venue (although the current list of registered acts suggests it’s not many), or abandoned plans for Buxton completely; but I’m still expecting a considerable increase in demand versus supply. With The Old Clubhouse likely being a bigger space to fill than either Pauper’s Pit or The Barrel Room, it could well be the first-timers who lose out.

If Underground Venues are determined to remain inclusive to fringe newbies, they will, but that would probably entail some painful decisions as to which established acts to say no to. We could be headed for a situation where Underground Venues transitions from an all-inclusive venue to a kind-of Premier League of the Buxton Fringe, rather like The Warren is to Brighton or Pleasance/Assembly/Underbelly/Gilded Balloon are to Edinburgh. But the most important question isn’t who’s end Underground Venues’ lineup, but who isn’t.

2) What will happen to acts who don’t get slots?

I’ve said this many times before, but one ongoing issue with the Buxton Fringe is the dominance of one venue chain, and with it the great power they have over the overall line-up of the fringe. Credit where it is due, Underground Venues have always exercised their great power with great responsibility. In particular, they made considerable efforts to avoid being a closed shop, welcoming acts performing elsewhere and allowing them to leave flyers in their venue. This is in sharp contrast with the Great Yorkshire “Fringe” (note my used of inverted commas) where acts that fail to get through the vetting process cannot be part of the festival at all.

But for all the efforts to be inclusive, there’s evidence that many prospective acts want Underground Venues or nothing at all. If the last few years, applications to Underground Venues went up and up and up, but overall registrations to the Fringe stayed about the same. Although a few acts who failed to get slots booked other venues and went ahead (some of them going on to be smash hits), it looks like most of them just gave up. This is probably the biggest worry for Buxton Fringe now. It’s not a big deal if Underground Venues’ programme is 30 acts shorter, but it will be a blow if the Buxton Fringe programme is 30 acts shorter. And if those 30 acts are the entry-level acts cutting their teeth on the fringe circuit, I believe this loss will be felt far beyond Buxton.

The critical week will be week after applications close and Underground Venues chooses who to invite. If there’s a sudden flurry of registrations from other venues, that is good: it means that they’re taking the overspill from The Old Clubhouse. In particular, keep an eye out for what happens to the comedy overspill. There are viable alternative venues for theatre, but I can’t think of any obvious alternatives for comedy, especially stand-up comedy (now that The Old Clubhouse is no longer an alternative to Underground Venues).

Luckily, there is a venue that could come to the rescue here …

3) Will the Green Man Gallery emerge as a second major venue?

https://i0.wp.com/buxtonfringe.org.uk/venue86a.jpgWith the question over the future of Underground Venues rumbling on for the last four years, one development that’s barely registered on the fringe radar is the rise of The Green Man Gallery. Once a niche venue for visual arts in the south of the town, they moved into a more central location and took 11 registrations last year, the most of any venue outside of the Underground Venues chain. And I get the impression that this year, they mean business. Their entry in the fringe venue listings is one of the most detailed, and media coverage of Buxton Fringe is beginning to mention them alongside Underground Venues next door.

Doing a rough calculation, if we suppose new Underground takes 30 fewer acts, and half of those go to the Green Man instead, over and above the 11 from last year, that would give them 26 registrations over their two rooms – not far off the number programmed into Pauper’s Pit. That number would present a few challenges: you’d probably need a good pool of volunteers to manage this many acts, and you’d need to think about where you hold all the punters waiting for the next show. But these are challenges that can be overcome if they’re serious about this.

Again, keep your eyes open after Underground Venues registration close. If the Green Man want to take the overspill, we should see quite a prominent push around then. Late March looks set to be an interesting week for the Buxton Fringe.

4) Will the Fringe Club survive?

This might seem like a small detail, but it could be important. Until last year, the Underground Venues bar was referred to as the “Fringe Club” where all Buxton Fringe performers and punters were welcome to hang out, network and socialise. In practice, as the only venue with a bar to itself, it would probably have served this function anyway. Nevertheless, Underground Venues a fair number of board games to keep us amused such as Jenga and Guess Who (or, as per a Buxton Tradition I’ve discovered, “Who the fuck it is?”, which is like Guess Who except that instead of asking questions about physical characteristics, you ask questions about their likely personality e.g. “Does this look like the sort of person who’d use the word ‘Feminazi’ in an internet argument?”).

The plan is that the Fringe Club moves with the performance space and the booking desk to The Old Clubhouse. What we don’t know is how the Fringe Club will work in a place that is already pretty busy as a bar in its own right. In the Old Hall basement you could be sure that everyone down there is interested in the Fringe. That won’t necessarily be the case now. There might be plans to give the downstairs of Old Clubhouse, or a section of it, a fringey feel, but it’s difficult to predict how well this will work.

The reason this is important is that Buxton has a hard-earned reputation as a friendly fringe. A major factor in anyone’s decision to take part in a fringe is how much they enjoy being there, and in the case of Buxton – even if it’s not a great option for finances or publicity – it’s a small enough fringe where everyone knows each other and there’s a lot of mutual support and camaraderie. And I’m not saying it would not exist if it were not for the Underground Venues bar, but it must have surely helped. So it is in the interests on the fringe as a whole, not just Underground Venues, that the Fringe Club works in its new home.

Most of these questions we should know the answer to by April once the Fringe programme is finalised. For the fringe club question, we will need to wait until the fringe itself. Overall, the most disastrous scenarios for Buxton Fringe without Pauper’s Pit are now out of the question, but there’s still a lot to play for in the months to come. The only thing we know for certain is that Buxton Fringe 2017 is going to be the most interesting and unpredictable  fringe for a long time.

UPDATE 17/02: Applications are finally open for Underground Venues, and with it the accompanying details have been published. There aren’t any particularly unexpected twists here. Possibly the most interesting detail is what hasn’t changed. The site still says: “From new student groups to established touring professionals, and local groups performing alongside companies from around the globe.” So no sign that Underground Venues wants to move towards venue of full professionals.

However, as I suspected, the guarantee (in effect the hire fee for small groups) has risen from £45 to £65, in line with the long-established precedent through the fringes that higher-capacity venues cost more. That sticks another £60 on the costs for a three-day run; a piddling amount for Brighton and Edinburgh veterans, but a not insignificant hike for some entry-level performers. This probably won’t stop anyone who’s determined to apply, but it could conceivably put off some groups. Not much else I can say except wait for the listings and see. (And even then, it’ll be near-impossible to separate the effect of the higher guarantee from the effect of the single space.)

The only completely unexpected development is that there’s no Womble joke on the site like they said. I did, however, get this terrible joke when I asked after it.

This is a blog and not a vlog, so you’ll have to imagine me groaning.

Another update: And heard from Underground Venues on the new Fringe Club. They are going to have a separate bar within The Old Clubhouse as the Fringe Club. That is significant. I didn’t think this would be possible, because there’s two rooms currently used with a bar, both in heavy non-fringe use, and as far as I could recall, no obvious other rooms that could form a fringe club. But somehow they’ve done it.

So if they’ve got what it looks like they’ve got, I reckon this will be enough for the Fringe Club to survive. Holding off a final verdict until I see it in use for myself, but there’s now reason to be optimistic here.

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