10 ways the Brighton Fringe has changed

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One of the early hits on my blog were my guides I wrote for the Brighton, Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes.  Brighton was the original inspiration – as someone who’d previously been used to Edinburgh, Brighton was a very different environment to get used to. I was supposed to do updated versions every year, but, true to form, I was too disorganised to keep that up and the latest version of “How to make the most of the Brighton Fringe” was written in 2014.

I was thinking of doing an update, but it then occurred to me the more interesting thing is the record of what it used to be like. A lot has changed since then. Looking through the things I listed back then, it’s remarkable how much is different now. So, for a new angle, and because Buzzfeed has decreed that articles are now only permitted if they’re done in lists, here’s my observations on everything that’s changed.

1: It’s bigger

In 2007, there were 323 shows. (For comparison, that’s slightly under twice the present-day size of Buxton Fringe, a tiny fringe by today’s standards.) Now, it’s more like 1,000. Not that you need stats to tell you this – it’s an obvious difference to anyone who remembers back that far. But stats are immune from selective memory, and that confirms just what the extent of the change is.

I could end the list here. Pretty much everything else is a consequence of this unprecedented expansion. Some changes were easy to predict, some not so easy. But almost everything that is different about Brighton Fringe now can be traced back to this growth.

2: It opens with a firework display

The opening ceremony is a recent addition, coming to Brighton Fringe in 2016. In priciple, this makes little difference to the fringe itself – the plays, comedy and so on won’t be any better or worse because of some fireworks. But it was a huge statement of status that Brighton Fringe can now afford to do this, and a landmark to its expansion.

3: It no longer shares box office with the Festival

Unlike Edinburgh, where the International Festival has never really forgiven the Fringe for upstaging them back in 1947, Brighton Festival and Brighton Fringe have got on a lot better, and at one point they even shared box office facilities in the Brighton Dome. It wasn’t ideal, and the queues sometime got ridiculous, but it made sense when there wasn’t enough business to sustain a dedicated fringe-only box office.

That would be unthinkable now. Not only does the Fringe need a dedicated box office, it needs box offices at several different sites, on top of all the box offices managed by the venues. Lately there’s the been a question mark over whether it’s fair to charge booking fees for in-person purchases at their box offices, but the fact we are discussing a chain of box offices and not just a shared one with the Festival shows how much this has changed.

4: It is now a four-week festival

Possibly the biggest changed made as a conscious decision of the fringe committee was to extend the festival fringe from three weeks to four in 2013. The idea, at the time, was that this would make use of the May half term week, to add an extra week dominated by family shows. That bit of the idea didn’t go to plan. I was expecting the listings of the last week to be lots of family shows and little of anything else. Instead, the last week has turned out very much like the first three. The children and youth section was heavily loaded into the last week for a year or two, but that didn’t stick. Maybe it’s because working parents want to come along too, maybe it’s because too many families go on holiday that week, but most children’s shows now prefer to go for weekends rather than the half term week.

But, even if wasn’t the way it was meant to work, the four-week festival format has stuck. All the main venues go along with this, including the pop-up ones where the extra week incurs more expense. It might not have delivered the family week this envisaged, but is has brought along a bigger fringe. And with sales holding steady over the month, it looks like this format is here to stay.

5: Supervenues are now a thing

Barely a few years ago, venues like The Warren were unheard of. Instead, there were lots of stand-alone venues. Some were permanent all-year venues, some were pub theatres, and some were just ad-hoc buildings with plays in them. There was nothing comparable to Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly or Gilded Balloon over the border. The only venue that operated productions on anything near that scale was the Spiegeltent, but that is mostly cabaret and comedy and doesn’t register on the theatre radar much. For theatre, it was a disparate bunch of locations, with Upstairs at the Three and Ten one among many.

My my, how things change. Upstairs at Three and Ten took on a second space at Wagner Hall, calling it The Warren. Then both the Three and Ten and Wagner Hall want them out, and they end up creating a four-space pop-up venue. Meanwhile, the Dukebox over in Hove took on the church over the road, and then joined forces with Sweet Venues to create their own chain of four spaces. This is a simplified version of what happened and I’ve left out some intermediate steps, but the line-up of venues now is unrecognisable from that of ten years ago.

Whether this is a good thing, of course, is up for debate. Big chains of venues have a lot of power over what goes in their programmes. Artists who don’t get picked can still go to other venues, but do they stand a fair chance with these giants on their doorsteps? At one point, it looked like The Warren might dominate the entire fringe, which is why I think it’s important to have other big hitters to spread the balance of power. But it’s an open festival, and venue that wants to set up can. Supervenues are here to stay whether you like it or not,

6: Seven-day runs are now a thing

This is a recent development, and the jury’s still out on this. When Sweet set up in Brighton, they heavily encouraged all their acts to run for seven days. Still a long way to go before this equals the common practice in Edinburgh of running through the entire festival, but it’s a first step, because it adopts the practice of having a run long enough for reviews and word-of-mouth to build up audience if it’s good. In practice, this only partly works as planned. For all their best intentions, review publications end up working to sporadic schedules, and it’s pot luck whether a review comes out in time to help you with the weekend sales. But so far, this practice has stuck,

However, this has not yet set a trend. The Rialto’s runs tend to be around five performances. At The Warren, three is a more typical number. And does The Warren need to change? A lot of the acts there have already built up reputations at Edinburgh or elsewhere, and maybe don’t need seven days to build up an audience. Whatever the reason, it’s a stalemate, but an interesting stalemate. Who knows how long this lasts.

7: It is no longer so weekend centric

One side-effect of seven-day runs – combined with the effect of overall expansion – is that you can now do a viable mid-week fringe visit. With most of Brighton Fringe’s audience being local, and most locals having nine to five jobs on weekdays, it used to be common practice to pack the programme into the weekends. On a Monday or Tuesday, there would be just the odd thing in the evening here and there.

Not any more. The start of the fringe day is moving earlier into the afternoon, and the choice on those days is getting more extensive. Weekends are still the better choice if you want to go full-on fringe and see as much as you can in a day, but it’s not as big a difference as it used to be. Edinburgh still remains the place for hard-core fringe fans who want to see five or more shows per day, but Brighton is not that far behind now.

8: It’s more tightly managed

When I started going to Brighton, the absolute bane on my life was overrunning shows. It was not uncommon for plays in a venue to be delayed so badly that it knocked on to the next one, and the next one, and the one after that. The only good news was that with a relatively sparse programme, as a punter you probably has big gaps between shows anyway. Certainly not something a venue would get away with in Edinburgh, where delays of that scale would cause people to miss their next show.

However, as Brighton Fringe has got busier, the consequences for over-running have got steeper. Whatever the reason, venues now run much tighter operations. It’s not quite the frantic pace of Edinburgh with no slack in get-in/get-out times are harsh penalties for over-running, but Brighton performers and venue staff are a lot more disciplined now. Everyone knows that a delay of more than fifteen minutes has consequences, and everyone has adjusted to this. Good.

9: Community productions are no longer a stigma

Most of the changes I’ve listed are directly attributable – or at least very closely related – to the growth of the fringe. However, this change is, at the most, only indirectly related. With Brighton Fringe having a predominantly local audience, it was quite easy for a local group to put something on and be guaranteed an audience from friends and family. That was all very well if you were friends or doting family, but not so great if you were looking for good theatre. It was similar to the old “village hall panto” stigma – if friends and family say you’re great no matter what, there’s no incentive to try harder. (Not all “village hall” productions are guilty of this, but some are, and God, they’re an endurance test.)

But the thing that changed this is the rise of a lot of local groups who won’t settle for “Didn’t they try hard?” Whether professional, or working to professional standard, these groups have become big names to Brighton Fringe, drawing in audiences year after year. Not all of them are recent additions, but many of those who aren’t have been growing in status. Either way, there was a time when I was wary about Brighton-based groups – now I’m confident I’ll be in for something good.

10: You can’t miss it any more

This final one is very much a symbolic change only, but it’s testament to all the other changes in the last decade. For a long time, it’s been near-impossible to visit Edinburgh in August and not notice the Fringe is on – you’d have to go out of your way to avoid it if you didn’t want to see it. For Brighton and other fringes, it was the other way round. Visit Brighton in May, and you will probably not notice the fringe is on unless you specifically went looking for it. Fringe City of weekends, Spiegeltent in evenings, but elsewhere and elsewhen, nothing you’d really notice.

It’s different now. The emergence of the big pop-up Warren has done a lot to change this, but the other hubs at the Dukebox and Rialto are also giving the fringe feel over the city. It is a long way from complete dominance of the city the way that Edinburgh does – if Brighton Fringe ever gets in a position to do that, expect a big debate over whether it should – but it’s also a whole world different from the quiet fringe of a decade ago.

What happens next? There was rapid growth in 2016 and 2017, the same in 2018, but does this year mark a new peak, or a blip before more growth? If it grows again, how will performers and venues adjust to that? If it stays to same, how will they consolidate the fringe’s new size. And what about the fringe Brighton used to be? Will Buxton emerge as the fringe that does what Brighton used to do?

Few people, I believe, would dare make a prediction now. The only thing that looks certain is that it won’t be ten years of the same. Edinburgh Fringe has been growing in the last ten years, but it’s only evolved into a scaled-up version of the same thing. Brighton, however, has virtually changed beyond recognition as it’s grown. We’ve seen how much changed over the last decade. The next decade is anyone’s guess.

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