Interview with Richard Stamp on fringe ethics

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I’ve been covering a lot of thorny issue on this blog recently, particularly regarding how fair festival fringes are. But I’ve been giving my own views quite enough. I’m keen to get other perspective on the issues I’ve been covering. So last weekend, I took the opportunity to get the views of the editor of FringeGuru.

This interview is a near-verbatim transcript of what we discussed. But I genuinely had no idea where this would go. And was an interesting discussion it was:

The expansion of Brighton Fringe is the most dramatic change to the fringe scene in the last few years. It’s now said by some that Brighton Fringe now is comparable to the Edinburgh Fringe thirty years ago. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, I wasn’t at the Edinburgh Fringe thirty years ago so it’s hard to draw a comparison, but I do think Brighton Fringe as it has expanded has lost a bit of its individual character. It used to be a place where local performances and local performers were very much at the fore, with some invited guests. Now the balance has shifted and it’s about shows visiting the city, with local companies forming just a small part of the programme.

I think that is a shame, but on the other hand, I do think there’s a need for a counterbalance to Edinburgh. It really makes very little sense for the Edinburgh Fringe to carry on growing any further – I think everybody recognises that – and Brighton has its own place on the festival circuit that it occupies well.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether I think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s going to happen, and the question we should be asking ourselves is how we try to nudge it gently in a more fair and ethical direction, rather than trying to stop an unstoppable force.

If we’re looking at Brighton as a counterbalance to Edinburgh, let’s look at one difference between how Edinburgh and Brighton operate. Edinburgh has very strict rules on impartiality. Obviously there’s questions over how accessible it really is because of the costs, but in principle they do not promote any acts.

The small fringes do promote well-known acts, and that’s understandable if you want to promote the festival as a whole. Brighton still heavily promotes some acts – should it carry on doing that?

I don’t think it should. I think it was something that made a sense and was fun maybe five years ago, when the fringe was much smaller. But in recent years it’s started to feel odd to me that in this open-access arts festival, there are some shows and some performers that get promoted fairly heavily. You start to wonder whether these are truly independent recommendations, or whether is’s because Brighton Fringe is filling a particular agenda to work with other festivals or producers or venues or whatever.

To be clear, I enjoy hearing from Julian Caddy, for example. I enjoy hearing from him on Twitter in a personal capacity, I’m not saying he shouldn’t be allowed to do that, but the fringe itself I think should step back and take a slightly more neutral view.

If we stay with the subject of Brighton Fringe’s growth, the thing that embodies this the most, which we both remember, is Upstairs at the Three and Ten. After several incarnations, it is now The Warren, which is comparable to an Edinburgh Fringe supervenue. The Warren is the only venue of this size in Brighton. Could The Warren get too powerful?

The Warren could get too powerful, but so could anybody. Sweet could get too powerful, Junkyard Dogs where it is now could get too powerful.

I actually like what’s happened to The Warren this year. I felt for the last couple of years that The Warren was pulling back from theatre a bit, because it didn’t have the right mix of spaces for the work that they used to be able to put on at Three and Ten, and briefly when they had it, The Basement. But this time, with the indoor bar and the spaces arranged around that, I quite like the vibe there again.

So there’s always swings and balances, and always ebbs and flows, and The Warren does seem to be in the ascendant this year – but who knows what’s going to happen in the next few years.

If we digress from ethics for a moment and go into practicalities, from what you’ve seen of The Warren this year, has the noise bleed issue got better or worse in the new site?

It’s got better, I’m sure it’s got better. I remember shows being completely ruined at the old Warren because there was a bustling outside bar right outside the door. I’m not sure why it is – perhaps it’s the geography of the space, perhaps they’ve got more space – but they’ve been able to arrange it a bit differently this time, having more delicate pieces in the Scrapyard spaces where it’s a bit quieter.

There is still noise bleed and there always will be as long as they’re on the site that they are, but that’s just that something Fringe performers have to deal with. They have moved in the right direction.

So as we’re talking about supervenues, let’s turn our attention to where there’s a lot of supervenues, which is Edinburgh. You’re not too concerned about The Warren getting too powerful, but one of the criticisms of the big four is that not only do they have a lot of power as individual venues, they are also doing quite a lot of co-ordinating. Do they have too much power between them?

It does, I suppose, irritate my slightly that they kind of put forward that they are “the fringe”. There was a time when they branded themselves the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, as though the Big Four is all that there is. And when you look at their combined programme, it would be easy for you to think that’s all the Edinburgh Fringe represents. That’s a shame, and the Big Four may all have their distinctive characters, but I don’t think it’s in their interests to monopolise and drive out the next tier of venues – because those of course are feeding in and producing the shows that will appear in the largest venues in the future.

I do think their dominance is sometimes overstated. Greenside is coming through very strongly over the last three or four years. I think I heard that Greenside has the largest theatre programme on the fringe, and it is very healthy, going from strength to strength. Similarly, Space has an enormous programme, and it’s fulfilling a need that the Big Four don’t, offering short runs for theatre companies that don’t want to come up for the whole festival.

I’ve been going to the Edinburgh Fringe for twenty years, and the whole time there’s been a conversation about whether a particular venue is too dominant. It used to be the Big Three, now it’s the Big Four, people brought up The Traverse. It’s a conversation that’s always gone on, and things have always corrected themselves and always worked out in the long run. I expect that’s what will happen now.

As an aside to this, I’ve heard complaints that some media outlets exclusively cover the Big Four plus Summerhall. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

I think that is a fair criticism, but it’s hard to know what is cause and what is effect. So, shows that are at those major venues – Big Four plus Summerhall, and also Traverse, let’s not forget that, it’s technically a fringe venue – shows that are there often have a backround, a pedigree, and expensive PRs. They are just set up to be more visible, quite separately from the fact they are performing at these major venues. So I think it’s too simplistic to look at where the reviewers go and say it’s the venues that are the problem, because it’s much more complicated than that.

You reminded me actually, by mentioning Summerhall; I honestly think Summerhall is more of a problem, if there is a problem, than the Big Four are. Summerhall’s programming, in so many ways, is really quite conservative. You can predict what’s going to appear there, and you can predict that the national media are going to flock there, and that is drawing coverage away from everywhere else. So if we’re going to throw stones at the Big Four, let’s throw the same stones at Summerhall – or alternatively let’s not throw any stones at all and let them do their own thing.

The next question was going to be a Big Four question, but I will ask it for Summerhall as well. Starting with the original question: if you had the power to change one thing about the Big Four to make it fairer, what would you do?

Well, that’s a really difficult question to answer.

Off the top of my head, I would ask them to reserve a portion of their slots for acts and companies that have not previously been to Edinburgh.

And if you could make one reform to Summerhall, what would that be?

I think I would ask Summerhall to embrace a wider political agenda. I think that they know what they want to do, and I think most of the people reading this interview will agree with what they’re trying to do. But at the same time, I think they sometimes diminish themselves by being too constrained in the voices that get expressed there.

Now let’s move on to another organisation which has been getting criticism for getting too big for its boots. This may be a can of worms with you being a competitor: The Scotsman. They came under a lot of criticism last year when Kate Copstick berated some comedians for not allowing her press tickets to previews. The year before we had a reviewer who allegedly gave female comedians bad reviews because they were female comedians. Has The Scotsman lost its way?

I’m not sure it’s lost its way. Look, all media organisations, including ours, have some issues that they need to deal with. The Scotsman’s are very visible because The Scotsman is a very visible publisher.

I think that a few years ago there was an aura around The Scotsman, that people believed they were a cut above the fray; and over the last few years that’s fallen away, and now we see they are people like everybody else, and they do get involved in these controversies like everybody else. Whether that’s losing the way, or whether that’s always been like that and it’s only now we’re talking about it, I don’t know the answer to that.

And now, a publication you have a love-hate relationship with: Fringepig. It looks like Fringepig is gone for good. If you were in charge of a publication that opened up reviewers and reviewing publications to public scrutiny, how would you do it?

I think that Fringepig’s satire was very successful, and that’s how I would do it, I would do it through satire too. Where I would differ from Fringepig is that Fringepig did attack individuals, and if you go down that route there are always going to be times when you’re very unfair. And the fundamental problem I had with Fringepig was that it did many of the things that is criticised the reviewers themselves for doing.

If I was going to do the same thing, then instead of naming individuals, I would look at tropes. Thoes reviewing tropes that we all know about, the things that really irritate performers. You could draw that out without pointing the finger at specific individuals like Fringepig did.

But … I wasn’t supposed to like Fringepig. Fringepig was set up to annoy people like me, and it was successful at that. I wished it well when it was at the fringe, and I’m sorry it’s gone.

Are there any circumstances where individual reviewers should be called out? In particular, did Paul Whitelaw warrant the treatment he got two years ago?

I think it’s always legitimate to comment on what a reviewer has written. That particular discussion did spiral out of control but it was at least around a specific thing. Where it gets more difficult is where it gets personal. Just like nobody wants to see a reviewer who hates a particular actor always reviewing that actor’s shows and always giving a bad review, similarly, when an performer has an issue with a specific reviewer, maybe they just need to step away after a while.

Before we move on from Edinburgh, let’s go to one last controversy, and this is the most talked about one, on how open Edinburgh really is. In principle, anyone can register to do Edinburgh; in practice, fewer people can afford to do Edinburgh. The Festival Fringe Society recognises this is a problem and wants to do something about it, but us there anything they can actually do?

Probably not. I don’t think anybody has the answer to this, and if they did, then it would already have happened. Again, I’m not sure that things have got worse, I think perhaps we’re more aware of how bad it’s always been, at least within the last 10-15 years.

The root of the problem, as everybody knows, is that Edinburgh is now so full there is so much competition for the resources: the accommodation, the performing space. So, we’re in Brighton now, this has to be part of the solution. It has to be that Brighton offers more space for less privileged artists as well. It has to be that space is opened up in other cities.

Should the Festival Fringe Society in Edinburgh embrace the solution you advocate?

Yes.

One alternative to expensive fringe festivals, of course, is to make a name for yourself elsewhere. There is the year-round fringe scene in London, which some people would consider a 12-month fringe festival. You cover the Vault Festival, which is the closest thing you’ll get to a festival fringe in winter, the crucial difference is it’s vetted. No-one is suggesting it shouldn’t be vetted, it is almost certainly impossible to be anything but vetted, but could the Vault Festival turn into the gatekeeper of London Fringe Theatre?

I don’t think so. It’s a long long fringe, but it’s only eight weeks out of fifty-two, and as you rightly say, there are performances across London every single day of the year.

I think what the Vault Festival has done is that it’s demonstrated the appetite for that kind of focused festival – both focused in location and focused in the time window – within London. There have been previous attempts to do that, but none have quite worked. They’ve either been overtly local, like the Wandsworth Fringe, or they’ve not taken off.

So I’d like to see the Vault continue to grow and expand, and I’d be really excited to see satellites pop up around the Vault. I know that area reasonably well, it feels like there’s space for another pop-up, another venue, to appear alongside. Then I guess the test for The Vault is how they react: I’d like to think they’d embrace it.

One snag with London, of course, is London is an expensive city to live in. There Manchester, with a year-round fringe scene. Manchester now also has its own fringe festival which seems to be doing well. Could you see Manchester emerging as an alternative to London?

I have to admit, I know very little about the fringe scene in Manchester; in fact, to my shame, I’ve never been to GM Fringe or 24/7 even though it’s close to Buxton. So I’m only going by hearsay, but from what I see, there’s obviously a locus there, there obviously are enough people producing work. It could take off, and geographically it’s a natural place for a new fringe to develop.

So lets wind this up. I’m going to ask two questions. The first one is going to be a very big encompassing one: what would you say to any theatre company who believe they’re not being given a fair look-in?

I would say that you might be right, but you might also be wrong. I would say to look at your work, and ask yourself how it fits into the artistic marketplace – because it is a marketplace of ideas – and whether you are doing something distinctive, whether you are doing something creative, whether you are doing something that’s not been done too many times before. Those are the things you can directly affect, and where nobody can stop you.

And the very last question: one is the one most useful thing the theatre scene as a whole could do to give everybody a fair chance to succeed?

I think it comes down to the lowest common denominator, I think it is all about money – so those who have succeeded have almost an obligation to help those who are still struggling to make it. We’ve seen some interesting initiatives come through to help bring on emerging companies, even from people who are often criticised, like the Underbelly in Edinburgh. I hope that trend continues, and we start to see an improvement over the next few years.

Richard Stamp, thank you very much.

Fine print: This was recorded, typed up, and a few minor edits were made to read better, but other than that it is near-verbatim. As with previous practice, the broad structure of the interview was agreed in advance, and the interviewee had the right to retract answers prior to publication (not that it was used here). In general, these interviews are meant as an opportunity for other people to give their perspectives rather than place anyone under scrutiny. Anyone who wants a proper Newsnight-style grilling on controversial topics are on their own here.

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