Odds and sods: March 2019

After all the build-up there was to an event at the end of this month that was promised to be Mad Max and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse all rolled into one, March has been a bit of an anticlimax. But here’s what’s been going on in the meantime.

Stuff that happened in March

C Venues loses another building

And the roundup of March begins with the latest chapter to something I’ve already written about in length. In February, the news broke that Edinburgh University had taken away C Venues’ base on Chambers Street. Whilst many people were celebrating C Venues getting their just desserts for their allegedly shitty treatment of venue staff – and I wasn’t particularly sympathetic myself – I thought this raised a number of serious questions. One of them was about Edinburgh University’s motives for handing the building to higher-budget Gilded Balloon. Another was about Fair Fringe, the campaign group who originally raised the issue of C Venues, seemingly take on a role of judge, jury and executioner.

Well, the second question just got more serious. A more moderate group might have been happy to leave things where – one would think C Venues had a big enough kick up the backside to clean up their act – but Fair Fringe wouldn’t settle for that. They turned fire on C’s next venue, Royal Society of Edinburgh (C Royale in Fringe language) – and got their way again. Only this time it was less subtle. Edinburgh University did at least have a semi-credible claim that they’d investigated all their Fringe tenants and agreed C Venues was the worst. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, on the other hand, hasn’t even attempted to verify the claims – by their own admission. This is also surely going to cause a lot of collateral damage to performers in the process of programming. I’m prepared to hear arguments on why the end justifies the means – instead, this hasn’t even been acknowledged.

C Venues is not going down without a fight – they’ve taken on a new space in the new town which will be “C Viva”. They are still being far too evasive with the responses to get my support from me – an acknowledgement they’ve done wrong and a plan for how to do better and I might have been more sympathetic. However the power of Fair Fringe is getting pretty scary now. This time, there’s been no pretence of scrutiny or due process, only a claim that C Venues is the worst venue that was acted on without question. The scope for abuse of power is huge here. So far, there is no evidence that Fair Fringe are abusing their position, but that’s not good enough – when you are in a position of that much power, the onus is on you to show you’re not. C Venues may well be the worst venue – but we badly need a better way of judging this than “because Fair Fringe says so”.

Buxton Fringe set for record year

Now let’s switch to something positive. With Buxton Fringe going the extra mile for its 40th anniversary year with a longer festival, there was a push for more participation. That drive seems to be paying off, as on the 11th March, Buxton Fringe reported 107 registrations, up 45 from the same time the year before. Before getting too excited, it’s not a straight like-for-like comparison – the early bird registration fee was discounted this time, so it’s not clear how many of the extra 45 were simply bringing forward a registration they would otherwise have made later on. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, I count 168 entries, 15 short of the all-time high of 183 in 2017.

Between now and the close of registration we still have the remainder of Underground Venues’ entries to be added. Assuming things work the same way as they had in previous years, the Arts Centre are still to come. Last year there were 18, so the same number this year (a conservative estimate given the longer fringe run this time) would already take us up to 184. Then there is the as-of-yet unknown effect of the Tap Room which UV intended to used as a second space in the Old Clubhouse the last time, plus however many last-minute entries come elsewhere.

One interesting shift away from the headline figures, though: there’s a substantial increase in some venues away from Underground. There’s currently 23 registrations for the Rotunda so far, against the final figure of 19 in 2018, although this appears to be driven in part by a more extensive in-house programme from Grist to the Mill who run the venue. A more substantial rise is at the Green Man Gallery, where we’re up to 25 (which is probably final as they’ve now closed applications), compared to final figure of 17 in 2018. Still a lot of catching up to to here, but Buxton Fringe is – slowly – moving towards a big three.

Bite Size goes large

Bite-Size-Breakfast-is-Moving

Some non-shenanigans news from Edinburgh now. It’s yet another chapter in the one of Edinburgh Fringe’s greatest success stories. Bite Size plays, who have packed out audiences at Pleasance Dome for the last few each every breakfast time with their sets of ten-minute plays, are finally making the move to Pleasance Forth, one of the biggest venues in the fringe. I was privileged to witness Bite Size’s rise and rise from the start – but this time, the news, great though it is, is tinged with a trace of nostaligic sadness.

This news can come as little surprise. Queen Dome was already one of the highest-capacity spaces with Pleasance, but for in the last few years they were selling out their entire runs – and not just on the day either. It was quite normal for them to be sold out days ahead. The journey from one of the fringe’s smallest venues to one of the biggest is also one of the best adverts for the fringe – people’s choice and people’s choice alone deciding who deserves the biggest platform. And it’s not just the concept of ten-minute plays that got them where they were – I have seen plenty of theatre companies showcase short plays, and so far, no-one has come anywhere close to what Bite-Size offers.

There is a down-side to this though. One of the biggest strengths of the earliest performances in Roman Eagle lodge was the intimacy. Great though the short plays were, the small audience close to the action added something a big theatre never could. To give credit where it’s due, Queen Dome was a good compromise – although it takes a large audience, the circular arrangement of the seats still allowed the audience to be kept close to the action. But all good things must come to an end. With the strongest possible evidence of demand for a bigger venue, coupled presumably with the awkwardness of turning away an increasing number of people on the door, the move was probably inevitable. So I’m delighted that Bite-Size have made it – but the original Bite-Size will be missed.

New plays from Cohen and Cooke

One thing I intended to use Odds and Sods for is early news of upcoming productions from performers I’ve previously rated highly, but lately I’ve not done this much. However, now is a good time to do this, because a couple of plays have come on the radar that I expect to talk about more in future.

So the first thing to grab my interest is Dog’s Chosen, from Robert Cohen. He has a string of solo plays under his belt, three of which I’ve seen. They were three very different plays, and I loved all of them. This next one, however, has a more personal connection. This is about Cohen’s own roots as an “Anglo-Welsh Jewish atheist”, where he explores questions over where he gets a job description for the International Zionist Conspiracy. As you may have worked out, this is his take on anti-Semitism. The current row going on in the Labour Party was the prompt for this, but his own observations that come into this play date back long before 2016. The background information on his web page is depressing reading, but sadly not unexpected. There was a performance in Brighton, but not at the Fringe (this time); if you want to see this, the next scheduled performance is in Barnstaple in June. There is, in my view, a suspicious level of disinterest from theatres on this subject, but that’s a debate for another day – in the meantime, this is definitely one to watch out for.

And the other thing that’s got my interest is Testament of Yootha from Caroline Burns Cooke. She is also known for solo plays, with a more serious slant than Cohen, but the thing that he stood out the most about her work is that whenever terrible things happen, she goes the extra mile to understand what makes people do this. This time, it’s about the 70s sitcom star Yootha Joyce, in this play having enough of the 70s sitcom-style typecasting. If this works the same way as the other two plays, though, we can expect something that looks beyond the easy message of typecasting women being bad and an intelligent look at the politics behind this. It was going to be premiered at Brighton Fringe, but this has had to be pulled from Brighton due to injury, so it now looks like Edinburgh will be the premiere.

On Seyi Omooba and The Colour Purple

I’m finishing this Odds and Sods with another contentious item that made national news: Seyi Omooba and the old tweets of hers that got dug up and cost her a prestigious role at Leicester Curve with The Colour Purple. As has frequently been the case, I don’t have much sympathy for the person at the centre of the storm, but the fallout from the story is more concerning than the original offence. To be clear, I find Seyi Omooba’s views dug up in tweets from 2014 (and presumably she still believes) utterly reprehensible. I have no time for anyone who thinks that who other adults choose to date is any of their business, but my deepest contempt is reserved for people who base this prejudice on their religion – I am sick people like that behaving like they deserve special protection to spout their preferred form of bigotry just because they think their favourite invisible man in the sky finds it icky. But when you detest someone’s views that badly, it is more important than every to make sure they are treated fairly. Due to the (justified) uproar over her views in in a play that preaches the opposite, I fear we have tolerated some questionable practices we would not normally tolerate. And by accepting this as legitimate for one person, you legitimise it for everyone.

For a start, we should not be giving any legitimacy to this “Gotcha” culture that plagues social media. If I knew about these tweets, I would probably have blown the whistle too, but the motives from trawling through an actor’s Twitter feed for career-destroying indiscretions are extremely questionable. For the benefit of anyone who was born yesterday, this practice has a track record that’s far from benign – it is quite common to make public pariahs out of nobodies, deliberately quote tweets out of context, pursue vendettas against pre-existing enemies, and try to get people fired from their jobs, and you are very naive if you think the scumbags who do that won’t use this to validate their malice. For this reason, I think Equity’s response (and I usually agree with what Equity says) was misguided. Yes, it is true that, such is the vindictive nature of the internet, you do need to be careful about what you say online; but by focusing on this instead of asking whether this practice is acceptable, it plays into the hands of the wrong people. There is enough self-censorship in the arts already – the last thing we want is an culture of fear where any digression from moral purity might end your career. Sure, few people will shed tears after that level of bigotry, but do you really think that’s where this will stop. I don’t.

Leicester Curve, I accept, probably had no choice but to let Seyi Omooba go once the offending tweets came to light. Whatever the motives were for digging them up, her position was untenable – it would have been impossible to produce a play that takes such a strong stand against different forms of bigotry with a member of cast openly advocating the opposite, not if the Curve wanted to keep any credibility. But that was surely punishment enough. Which brings me to the other concerning event: the decision oOdds and sods: February 2019f Global Artists to stop representing her . Effectively ending her career is, I believe, a punishment far in excess of her crime, I realise that one legitimate reason for not commenting is to avoid saying anything incriminating if it goes to court. But my strong suspicion is that Global Artists is more interested in tidiness than justice, and based their decision on how much bad publicity this was getting rather than what she’d actually done. As such, I’d urge anyone to think very carefully about being on Global Artists’ books – I would treat this as a warning sign that if you find yourself on the receiving end public outrage, justly or unjustly, they will throw you under a bus. Is that unfair on Global Artists? Perhaps, but I’d say the onus is on them to explain why we should trust them.

We do not want to go down the route of trial by social media. I fear that this sorry episode has sent us down a path we may soon regret.

Things I wrote in March

After a busy February, I’m afraid I’ve fallen behind a bit in March. But here’s what I’ve got for you:

Odds and sods: February 2019: Like Odds and sods: March 2019. But February.

Shy Manifesto and Bacon Knees: Two plays from the beginning of February about outsiders, going in two different directions.

Roundup: Vault Festival 2019: Eight plays I got to see at the Vault Festival, including the outstanding World War 2 repackaging of Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

See you next month. Possibly from the bunker.

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