Edinburgh needs to become evangelical

Vice-Pope Eric explaining the true meaning of the Edinburgh Fringe, yesterday.

COMMENT: The Edinburgh Fringe’s renewed commitment to open access is welcome – but they badly need to sell this benefit to other festivals.

In the legendary Brand New Monty Python Papperbok, there’s a panel discussion where Vice-Pope Eric explains the Catholic Church’s current position on sex and marriage. He explains that whilst their stance on sex outside marriage is well-known, what currently concerns them is the uncontrolled prevalence of sex within marriage. That’s not to say they oppose it outright – like it or not, it remains the best method for procreation; whilst they prefer Immaculate Conception to be used wherever possible, the Vatican has been forced to turn a blind eye to this matter, but only for outnumbering purposes mind, never for fun. When queried about where this was mentioned in Jesus’s teachings, however, his Vice Holiness admits that it wasn’t in his teachings as such, but it was an oversight they were quite happy to correct, by using St. Paul’s later writings and passing that off as Jesus’s own words quite successfully.

The relevance to the Edinburgh Fringe might not be immediately relevant here, but bear with me.

When Shona McCarty took over as the new chief executive of the Edinburgh Fringe, the first thing she did was stress her commitment to keeping the fringe open access. One year on, and it looks like she means business here. I’ve been a little sarcastic over the catchphrase “Alliance of Defiance” (a bit difficult to portray yourself as anti-establishment when you are the establishment), but I fully agree with the sentiment behind it: the true roots of the fringe is those original eight groups who turned up to Edinburgh in defiance of the International Festival who wouldn’t programme them and expected them to stay home. This story, along with the bit that these eight groups received no encouragement from the rest of the arts world, even appears on the website to all new visitors.

I am glad they are renewing their vows, because open access festivals are just as important now and they were then. Outside of the fringe circuit, theatre is far too hierarchical. In every region, a massive amount of power is held by a handful of artistic directors and programming directors, deciding who gets to perform in venues of any standing. Nor does it help that smaller venues seem more interested in supporting acts already promoted by bigger venues than developing their own grass-roots local talent. There’s nothing to stop people finding their own spaces to perform, but there’s such a deeply-ingrained culture that anything not endorsed by “proper” theatres isn’t worth acknowledging, let alone encouraging, the system is massively stacked against you, both in terms of developing an audience and honing your own talents. (I get the impression that London is better for little fish competing with big fish, but here in the north-east it’s still pretty dire in spite of a few recent improvements.) That was the beauty of the Edinburgh Fringe – it was the great equaliser, with no cultural gatekeepers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the National Theatre or three nobodies – your status was reset to zero when you go in the programme, and people considered everyone and decided for themselves what to see.

I say “was”, because the massive growth of the fringe has made this less effective than it used to be. Now that you are up against 3,000 groups and costs run into thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of pounds, it is a lot harder to be competitive without a good reputation – something you can only really develop outside the fringe with the backing of a major regional theatre. Fortunately, smaller fringes have taken over this job. Edinburgh should always remain open to anyone who chooses to take the plunge, but the smaller fringes are becoming a far better bet for entry-level acts. It is ludicrous that I had to take plays to Buxton (and later Brighton) to hone my skills and build my reputation, with zero opportunities on offer closer to home – but I cannot begin to say how useful this has been to me and many other people like me. Now, however, Brighton too has grown to the point where it’s too competitive for newcomers to stand a realistic chance, and depending on what happens to the venues at Buxton, that fringe might also cease to be a viable entry-level one. This means that we need more fringes still for performers to get started. Which exist, but often in name only.

The problem is that this new wave of fringes doesn’t seem nearly so keen on getting rid of cultural gatekeepers. Instead, half of them want to be the cultural gatekeepers. They control all the venues and control who gets programmed into them. Now, it could be said this isn’t too dissimilar to Buxton Fringe where Underground Venues dominated the programme, but there one crucial difference: acts who could not or would not perform there could find other venues and still do well. Not so in these new fringes – if the selection committee says you’re out, you’re out. This is just about forgivable for fringes just starting off, where I understand the fears that one bad play could kill the festival, but these festivals establish themselves, carry on curating their content, and keep on calling themselves fringes.

The “fringe” I particularly have a problem with is the Great Yorkshire Fringe. I have held off criticising them by name up to now because I didn’t want to damage the reputation of a festival getting started. But now they have got started, and they’ve made it clear that they will take on more accredited venues – and control who can take part in each and every one of them. Don’t let the wrong sort in, and definitely don’t let the people of York have the freedom of choice enjoyed in Buxton or Brighton. I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t called a fringe, but by hijacking the name it makes it ten times harder to set up a proper fringe in Yorkshire that is truly open to all. (“What do you want a fringe for? You’ve already got one.”) Another offender is Dublin. That is also curated, and the justification for that is, I quote: “We have all these different voices alongside each other in the same program, with hybrid, experimental, and populist work—that’s fringe.” In other words, change the meaning to justify something completely different what it’s supposed to mean.

And that is where the parallel to Vice-Pope Eric comes in. For 2,000 years the message of Messiah has been so popular around the globe, defying the power of the Establishment – so the Establishment has been very hard at work attributing ideals to him that he never said. Okay, so we can’t find anything in the Bible where Jesus actually said that stuff about sex outside marriage, but what Christianity is all about is living a good virtuous life free from temptations such as the sins of the flesh, which is what we know Jesus really meant. In a similar way, the veneration of the Edinburgh Fringe also gives the festival its own Messiah status – and just like the real Messiah, the establishment has been working very hard to attribute ideals the Edinburgh Fringe never held. Regional theatres have been bad enough, allowing the misconception to go unchallenged that the Edinburgh Fringe is meant for the greatest acts out there, but this new wave of not-fringe fringes is a far bigger threat. The message is basically that, okay, when we say “fringe” we know you all think of Edinburgh, and yes, you’re welcome to think we’re just like that big famous one, but what we think is really meant by a fringe is the boldest cutting edge work out there, which is why we’re carefully curating the festival for your benefit. What’s that? That’s the opposite of what Edinburgh does? Excuse me, I’ve got a train to catch.

But it’s no use me saying this, nor is it any use coming from other people who badly need the chance to get started. We can just be dismissed as not knowing what Fringe means. No, if these so-called curated fringes are to be challenged, and these challenges are to carry any weight, it’s got to come from the Edinburgh Fringe itself. I don’t like the idea of the Edinburgh Fringe telling other fringes how to fringe, but if they don’t speak up, no-one else will be listened to. I’m not saying they should berate Yorkshire or Dublin for curating their programmes – I don’t think that would be helpful. Instead, they need to make the case that you have nothing to fear by opening up your fringe to everyone. Brighton and Buxton have always done it that way and they are thriving, but it’s going to take the Edinburgh Fringe to make that point. Brighton and Buxton will back you up. If the Edinburgh Fringe is the religion all theatre aspires to, it’s up to you to evangelise. Jesus can’t speak out against the misinterpretation of his ideas because he’s no longer with us, but the festival fringe society can, and should.

Fringe theatre is too important to be left in the hands of a small number of unaccountable individuals deciding who can and can’t have their breaks. Of course some acts who aren’t favoured will overestimate their talent and bomb, but there’s no proven way of knowing who’s going to be any good. And I am of the firm view that it is better to allow an act to try and fail then prevent an act from trying and succeeding. We need Edinburgh to fight this battle for us both inside and outside the Scottish capital. Lose this battle in the minor fringes, and we lose it everywhere.

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