Odds and sods: June 2018

Later than usual (again). I’m quickly have a reminder that the month after a play finishes isn’t peace and quiet – it’s the month where I have to catch up on everything that I’ve had to postpone from the previous two months. But before we dive into the thick of Edinburgh Fringe, there’s a chance to catch up on things that have been happening between Edinburgh and Brighton.

Stuff that happened in June

The rise of Greater Manchester Fringe

The next major thing on my calendar is, of course, Buxton Fringe, the UK’s third biggest fringe after Edinburgh and Brighton. As long as this blog’s been going, these have always been considered the big three. Now, however, we may need to start thinking about a fourth. Greater Manchester Fringe barely existed when I started writing, but this year there are about 120 registrations. That’s not far behind Buxton, currently around 180.

Greater Manchester Fringe is supported by a recently-vibrant year-round fringe theatre scene, similar to the Vault festival being supported by the year-round fringe theatre scene in London. But there is an important difference: the Vault is a curated festival (and it would be impractical to be anything else), but the Greater Manchester Fringe is a proper fringe where anyone who wants to take part can. They make it clear that if you can’t get programmed into a listed fringe venue, you can find your own venue and register than way. And one small but important symbolic gesture is that they actively encourage people to see shows by groups you’ve never heard of in venues you’ve never been to. It could not be more different from the Great Yorkshire Fringe, where anyone who is not programmed into their official venues is given the cold shoulder.

The snag? It takes the same catchment area as the Buxton Fringe. In the long run, can one region* support two fringes? The nightmare scenario for Buxton would be that they are overtaken by Greater Manchester, and groups that used to do Buxton will do Greater Manchester instead. Alternatively, Buxton might benefit from a fringely neighbour as productions that weren’t viable in Buxton only become more viable with audiences in Manchester open to them too. My early guess is that Buxton’s niche is strong enough and they nothing to fear from Manchester – let’s face it, it’s just not the same without Buxton Pavillion Gardens – but we shall see. In the meantime, it looks like Lancashire is way ahead of Yorkshire in creating truly inclusive environments where everyone is given a chance. Where’s Henry Tudor when you need him?

*: Before you say anything: yes, I’m aware Manchester counts as North-West and Buxton counts as East Midlands, but they are so close together than, for practical purposes, they can be considered the same region.

The Theatre Helpline

So I think we’re currently on episode 643,285 of Weinsteingate. I’ve long since given up trying to do a blow-by-blow account of this, but a few issues got my attention. So far, I was of the feeling that UK theatre has handled this quite well, Hollywood has handled it quite badly, but a couple of things happened which restored my faith a little in one but lost my faith a little in another.

I was slightly encouraged by the news that Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski were expelled from the Academy. Cosby wasn’t a surprise, but Polanski was. Unlike Cosby, Polanski was treated as a hero long after child rape was proven, never mind alleged – even whilst the world reacted with revulsion to similar crimes from Cosby and Weinstein. Seems Hollywood (or at least some people in Hollywood) are capable of admitting they made a mistake and putting it right without being dragged kicking and screaming. Less encouraging over here is the fallout from the sacking of Max Stafford-Clark from Out of Joint. Until recently, it was widely assumed the allegations against him were investigated fairly and the company acted accordingly. Now half the board have quit in protest, claiming this was down the Arts Council leaning on the company, including freezing funding. Two possibilities: the resigning board members are right, and Stafford-Clark was forced out through trial by media instead of considering actual evidence; or the resigning board members are wrong, and they are protecting someone who’s proven guilty. Either way, it doesn’t give me much confidence in relying on theatre companies to police themselves.

Anyway, one thing has happened which doubtless is a step in the right direction – the emergence of a theatre helpline. Run jointly by UK Theatre and SOLT (Society of London Theatres), this has a remit far beyond sexual harassment, or even all kinds of harassment – it covers a broad remit of issues from mental health to finance to training. However, the mood is that this has come about because of (or at least been hastened by) the fallout of the aforementioned scandal last year. Whatever the reason, it’s long overdue – if you are unlucky enough to be working for a predatory employer (or indeed any kind of shitty employer) and need someone to turn to, you don’t want that someone to be answerable to that employer. One potential pitfall could be what you define as a “theatre professional” – you’re not necessarily safe just because theatre isn’t your main source of income – but I would hope they wouldn’t turn anyone away just because of quibbles over their status.

There is, however, a notable limitation: UK Theatre and SOLT say this is not a whistleblowing service. Supporting victims is easy compared to the far riskier practice of pointing the finger at perpetrators, and it’s understandable why the people behind the service don’t want to get involved in that. But then, who do whistleblowers turn to? That question still doesn’t seem to have any answers. However important it is to provide support to victims of the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the entertainment industry, this is still a poor substitute from stopping these people doing this in the first place. If this is to end, witnesses need help coming forward as well as victims, but who from? If UK Theatre and SOLT can’t provide this, someone else must. I don’t know who, I don’t know how it would work, I don’t know who it would be answerable to. All I know is that somehow this needs to be done.

Joe Douglas makes his mark

Now back to something more positive. It’s now six months since it was announced Joe Douglas would be the new artistic director of Live Theatre. But the important question isn’t so much who the new artistic director is, but what the new artistic director can bring. It can take a long time to find that out – the first programme that the new artistic director has a hand in producing can be over a year away. With the new one having a strong background in new writing, however, there were two likely ways forward – either he would bring in writers he already had links with, or he would inherit the writers that Live Theatre already had links with.

What appears to be happening instead, however, is something no-one predicted. Joe Douglas, so it seems, has reset Live Theatre. Already his year he has introduced open drop-in sessions on Fridays, firstly with him personally, and later as part of networking sessions. That’s unprecedented; Live Theatre, Northern Stage and even Alphabetti Theatre all have their “in” crowds, but I’m getting the impression that Joe Douglas does not want to rely on an existing in crowd. Of course, this does raise questions over whether this will come at the expense of anyone who’s already forged links with Live, but my early assessment is that there will probably be a balance between the two.

This isn’t the only thing going on. Joe Douglas also says he’s keen on political theatre, such as the Theatre Uncut event last month – I’ll write about that another time. But for the direction Live goes in now, the hot bet is that there is no hot bet. It will be interesting to see what effect these open sessions have, but it won’t be predictable.

Northern Stage takes a break from Edinburgh

I’ve been slow off the mark this one, with me somehow having missed the news when it broke last December, but the notable omission at the Edinburgh Fringe this year will be Northern Stage. Occupying several spaces over time, but settling down in Summerhall as a kind-of partner venue, it was notable for two reasons. Most fringe venues are major ventures in Edinburgh with, at most, a small venue as an offshoot the rest of the year; Northern Stage was the other way round, a large regional theatre with on offshoot at the Edinburgh Fringe. The most notable difference, however, is how it was programmed. Most venues work on a strongly commercial model, where anyone is welcome provided it makes money for the venue, at a big risk for the acts; Northern Stage worked on a subsidised model where the programmed acts got a lot of support, ran on much less risk – but only if you could make it through a heavily-contested application process. Nevertheless, the choice was there, and north-east acts made a name for themselves either through Northern Stage or elsewhere. Northern Stage certainly clocked a long list of impressive names under their watch; for me, The Letter Room was the best group they championed, with the Paper Birds a close second.

But it seems that, in spite of all the respect Northern Stage’s model gained, it’s not the most sustainable model. Last December, they announced they wouldn’t be coming this year. The press release calls it a one-year hiatus, so they’re not announcing a permanent departure, but neither are they committing to a return in 2019. Instead, it pledges to “review the current model and consult on potential alternatives”. One of the reasons given was the cost: according to Northern Stage, over 70% of the budget went on venue costs, staff and accommodation – money they rather be spending on supporting artists. Unofficially, I’ve heard that stamina also played a part in this: whilst most theatre management teams spent their summers resting an recuperating, Northern Stage was working flat-out on Edinburgh. If that’s the case, my guess is they’ll have a much better idea of whether they want to return after the summer. Either they’ll discover they miss being part of Edinburgh and look for ways to make it work, or they’ll discover how much they missed having a break.

The one thing I would advise, though, is not to treat the Edinburgh Fringe as the Holy Grail of festivals. Yes, it’s a great festival to take part in and it can do wonders for our career if you play your cards right, but it’s not the only festival that does this. Brighton is getting more like Edinburgh, that should be considered, as should the bigger curated festivals. Whatever they choose, September to November will certainly be an interesting three months to see what they do.

Edinburgh Fringe numbers up (and Brighton too?)

Turning attention to the wider Edinburgh Fringe, there’s always interest in the number of registrations. There was an unexpected dip in 2016, then a recovery in 2017. Keeping track of numbers for 2018 is a little confusing, as registrations keep coming on to the website in dribs and drabs, and some registrations can appear in the brochure or website twice, but the final figure is 3,548, up from 3,398 in 2017, which is a 4.5% increase.  Performances are 56,796, up from 53,232, and a 6.6%. So it looks like 2016 was a blip, and there’s no slowing in sight.

Meanwhile, we still don’t have exact figures from Brighton Fringe, but the figures mentioned so far look quite good. It originally looked like there was going to be a slight fall in registrations, but when you take into account late registrations it scrapes a slight rise: 1,010 up from 1008. Audience figures are “over 560,000”, up from 555,518, or 0.8%. But the important figure is ticket sales, down as “over 270,000” in a recent e-mail. With 2017 figures of 247,483, this would mean an increase of at least 8.3%. Assuming ticket sale growth continues to drive registration growth, this would suggest we should be in for a rise next year.

Of course, the usual question still applies: is growth a good thing? It certainly doesn’t help venues like Northern Stage where increase demand for accommodation drives up their costs. But fringe theatre, and especially fringe theatre in open-access festivals, continues to be on the rise, and these still no sign of this stopping.

Alison Chabloz

There one final thing I’ve decided to include. This actually happened in May rather than June, but I’m speaking out here and defending  the rights of an artist for an unusual reason: I hate her. Alison Chabloz is an utterly loathsome individual who last came to my attention in 2015 for performing the Quinelle salute at the Edinburgh Fringe (and, no, I do not accept the excuse that this was it was a gesture of solidarity for a comedian who’s a raging anti-Semite himself). I expressed my utter contempt of her at the time – I think I’ve mellowed somewhat in the last three years, but I stand by my description of her as a “hateful sad-act”. She hasn’t mellowed though, she’s continued to spout bile, and as a result has been convicted in court. At one point it looked like she might go to jail for it – in the end she got a suspended sentence and community service, but the things she said could easily have warranted jail. Certainly the material of hers that got her prosecuted looks alarmingly like deliberate incitement to racial hatred. Possibly even incitement to racial violence. I would have no qualms about send her to jail if she was convicted of that.

But Chabloz was not convicted of incitement to racial hatred or incitement to racial violence. She was convicted of sending an grossly offensive message over the internet, which is a crime under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. That is a dangerous arbitrary law that everyone in the arts should fear. Anyone can claim to be offended by something, and it’s up to the Police and Courts to decide whether it was sufficiently offensive to warrant a criminal record. No warnings, no safeguards – you don’t need to wear a tin-foil hat to see how easily this law can be misused. Perhaps supporters will argue that this law will only ever be used against people intent on hate speech – but then supporters of anti-terror laws argued that intrusive surveillance would only be used against terrorism suspects. We know how that turned out. Authorities cannot be trusted to have arbitrary powers solely on a reassurance they’ll only use it against people who deserve it.

I am picking Chabloz as my example because if you don’t stand up for the rights of your enemies, you undermine standing up for the rights of your friends. If she was guilty of incitement to racial hatred or worse, she should have been charged with that offence – and if convicted, she’d deserve everything she gets. But if there’s not enough evidence to prove her guilty of that, it is wrong to fall back on “offensive communications” as something you can convict her for. Legitimise that short-cut for one person you don’t like, and you legitimise it everyone else. We should not shrug our shoulders just because we think this law will only be used against bad people – accept that, and we may regret it sooner than we think.

Stuff I wrote since last time:

So that’s the catch-up of little things I wrote about. Now for a catch-up for big things I wrote about.

What I’ve learned from six years of theatre blogging: Yes, six years. And I’ve learnt a few things since I last wrote about this. Contentious, I hope.

Hard times and hard adaptations: Review of the latest Northern Broadsides production (of the McAndrew/Nelson flavour). Books, it turns out, are harder to adapt than existing plays, but still a lot of good things to say about this.

What’s worth watching: Brighton Fringe 2018: The first fringe article of 2018. As always, what catches my eye in advance of the fringe heavily shapes my later coverage.

My Romantic History: a tale of two halves: Review of Live Theatre’s mainstream production of spring 2018. A tough act to make one romcom stand out form all the other romcoms, but some superb directing from Max Roberts.

Brighton Fringe 2018 – as it happens: The biggie – my monster article over a whole month. See there for instant reviews of plays, but also some thoughts on various things that come up in May, such as the Brighton Fringe’s funding campaign and what it means for entry-level acts, Sweet’s new venues, the debate over cruel reviews, unpaid work at Edinburgh fringe, and some famous last words over the Northern Rail timetable change. Oops.

Stop treating Quentin Letts as a reviewer. Please.: A comment article I wrote urging people to ignore Quentin Letts and his attention-seeking antics. And in doing so giving him more attention. I know.

Interview with Jake Murray: on Jesus Hopped the A Train and Eylsium Theatre: New to the blog, a interview – near verbatim – of Theatre Elysium’s plans for theatre in Durham.

10 ways the Brighton Fringe has changed: A Brighton Fringe article written during my fringe coverage looking at how radically different it is compared to even ten years ago.

What’s worth watching: spring/summer 2018: Always a shorter list than winter/spring and autumn/winter, but my theatre highlights for the season outside of the fringe scene.

Brighton Rock: Pilot Theatre shines again: I saw Pilot Theatre adaptation just before going to the Brighton Fringe. As the title suggests, yet again it’s an innovative adaptation done to a great standard.

My questions for Manchester Art Gallery: A half-complete article at the moment. After spending months disparaging the gallery responsible for Nypphgate from backing from the debate they promised, they finally had one. Sort of. So to give them a fair chance, I wrote a list of questions to see if they answer them. As soon as I have time to watch the video of the debate, I will get back to this.

Roundup: Brighton Fringe 2018: Writing up reviews of all the Brighton Fringe plays I saw properly, including those previously embargoed for being with the same venue as me. Done pick of the fringe so far, another eight reviews are coming shortly. Bear with me.

What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2018: Okay, in July now, but me look ahead to Buxton fringe. Edinburgh preview next. Erk.

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