Interview with Stephen Walker: Buxton Fringe, now and beyond

It’s time for another interview. This was something I’d been planning to do for months: ask the new chair of Buxton Fringe about his plans for the future. But in those said months, more event happened than anyone could have thought possible. But that’s okay, because this made an interview all the more interesting.

It’s a much longer interview than usual, but we did have a lot to get through. I bring you an inside account of the most extraordinary year from the festival fringes.

I have with me Stephen Walker, the chair of Buxton Fringe. This is an interview in his capacity as chair, although we will be digressing into his past role as a reviewer.

Good to see you Chris.

If we can cast our minds back to a period in the dim and distant past called November 2019, when Buxton Fringe helds its AGM. What were your original plans back then?

When I took over as chair, I didn’t feel the need for massive changes. I’ve never been a fan of the management style that says “I’m new, I need to change everything” just for the sake of it. The fringe work pretty well, I felt it was more just getting my feet under the table.

We’ve a few new people on the committee, so I thought we’d have a steady year – we’ve had our 40th anniversary, so it would be really nice to make sure everything works and that I know what I’m doing. It’s keeping the show on the road, more like being a custodian of the Fringe. The fringe runs itself to a large extent; because we don’t select or censor, the fringe will be whatever it’s going to be.

The last couple of weeks in June there were just so many entries coming in … and other people were putting stuff together specifically for us, which was fantastic.

Well, unfortunately you were out of luck, because events have forced you to change a lot of things. I’ve heard all sorts of stories across the theatre world of people going into emergency meetings in mid-March. So tell me what it was like at Buxton Fringe, At Buxton, was it an easy decision to carry on with a mostly online fringe, or was there a lot more work behind the scenes?

I’ll give you a rough timeline. End of February Coronavirus, it starts to be something talked about on the news, so I put it on the agenda for our meeting at the start of March. We only meet once a month September-June on the Fringe, and it was last thing on the agenda. I said we need to keep our eyes open for this, just just be alert and everybody think about how it’ll affect their jobs on the fringe. And within a week, it was a live issue, and I went in to a meeting with Marketing people at Buxton International Festival, and it was their big focus, obviously, it was a massive issue for them, because they’d just launched ticket sales, they were recruiting a company to start rehearsing, and we thought “this is more serious”. And then a week after that, they’d cancelled, and we were into constant phone calls and emails discussing what we’d do.

I think what you’ll find it that most organisations will have made their decisions whenever their big financial commitments came up. When you reach a financial point of no return, you have to decide whether you’re going ahead or not. For us, our only massive financial commitment is the programme. So we said, let’s just find out if we can delay the programme, and we did that, and put out statements saying we were still looking at it.

And so, we were really busy through April planning stuff, and then it went a bit quiet because we sat and waited. We had a hundred entries in the bank, we thought it was getting more and more unlikely there would be a physical fringe, but because we’d delayed the programme, that evolved into just not printing it. If we cancelled the fringe we would have had to refund the everybody’s entry fees, but we’d have paid thousands and thousands for the programme.

So we were able to hold and hold and hold, until in May we went “Right, there’s not going to be a physical fringe”. At that point, we were sitting with a hundred events, only one of which was entirely Covid-free, which was our first ever online entry, which caused some consternation when it came it but proved to be a harbinger of what was to come. Then there was a huge amount of work, talking to the managed venues to see what they were doing, talking to all the acts, all the entries that weren’t with managed venues. We were having weekly meetings at that point going through all the entries going “They’re going to switch to online, they’re going to cancel, the managed venues have pulled out”, and just reshaping a fringe, and that made May/June hectic just doing that.

Then we had new entries coming in, and a new entries procedure, people saying “What do we do, how do we host things?”, so we were really amazingly busy. And usually in that time we’re sitting back thinking how to present the fringe, how to write our press releases, how to market it, but we were still building the programme, so we didn’t know what we were marketing. And the last couple of weeks in June there were just so many entries coming in, and it was amazing. Some people that had something went “Ooh, well I can share this”. There were no entry fees this year; we just refunded everybody and said no entry fees. And other people were putting stuff together specifically for us, which was fantastic.

But, yeah, it’s been really busy.

So, would you say that – apart from Edinburgh Fringe – festival fringes have been at an advantage for having low financial outlays?

To a degree. To be honest, I’ve been so stuck with what we’re doing that I haven’t really been aware of what anybody else has been doing outside the big fringes. I knew that Brighton Fringe had postponed, which made sense; they obviously couldn’t do anything right in the heart of the crisis, and I can understand that.

I think the low cost does give you an advantage. We’re very lucky, we’re a charity, we’re run entirely by volunteers. We pay desk managers during the fringe, that’s the only staff we pay for three weeks. We have very little costs, so we weren’t going to go bust, so we were very flexible.

You mentioned Brighton postponed. Why did you opt to go ahead in July no matter what rather than postpone as well? There was a rather tempting vacated August slot.

I don’t think we ever seriously considered moving. We’re geared up for a July fringe, our volunteers have commitments as well. People run the fringe then go on holiday! Maybe if we’d been thinking we need to be able to charge entrance to make money, because we’re having to make a living off it, we’d have maybe said, right, let’s slip to August, slip to September, and that would be possible. We didn’t have that, we just thought, we’re going to do this in July, we’re going to carry on regardless. And because we make art and culture accessible, it wasn’t really an issue for us, we never thoughts about doing it at any other time. The only conversation was to either cancel or go online. It was very much the feeling that if we can do something, let’s do something.

How close did you get to contemplating cancellation?

20200712174205_IMG_4771Well, we discussed it seriously in our early April meeting, whether to cancel or not, and there were certainly voices saying we should. I think, in general, at that time most people thought we don’t have to make that decision now, we can delay it and cancel later if we have to. So we waited until May, and by then the mood was that people need something to look forward to. Whether that’s an audience for theatre and music and comedy and whatever, they’ll be looking for something. And as much as that, if not more, creative people will be wanting to work on things, will want to have a project. You’ll have seen in Buxton the Covid snake of painted stones that runs virtually the whole length of the Broadwalk, which is 500-600 metres long, with thousands of stones in it. People want to be creative, people need to do things, so I don’t think cancellation was ever really on our agenda.

Could the advice and instructions from the Government have been better?

I don’t know, it’s difficult, it’s a very unprecedented situation. Nobody’s really done this before. Earlier clarity would have helped, but that might have been difficult as well, because the lockdowns were every 3-4 week, then you have heavily trailed information about what was going to change. We kept thinking “maybe”, and now looking at the fact that they’re still talking about no performances face-to-face indoors, it might have been nice if we’ve known that in May that was definitely not going to happen!

But I suspect that’s very hard. In the same way that we were keeping our options open, I suspect the Government weren’t wanting to commit to anything beyond a few weeks at a time. So I don’t think it would have made much difference to us.

So we’re at the end of week two and we’ve had all of these online entries. How do you think it’s gone?

I think it’s gone well. It’s very hard to judge because you’re not running into people talking about shows, but you’re picking things up on social media. Nothing’s going viral, we’re not seeing thousands of people suddenly watching fringe shows online. I suspect we never thought that would happen anyway, it’s a fairly niche audience. I think people in Buxton who support the fringe have really enjoyed catching up with stuff, and on social media i see people really enthusing about what they’re seeing.

I certainly know from the companies that I’m closer to that have put stuff online are pleased with the number of views that they’re getting, and just the fact that they’re able to do something and reach out. So I’m quite happy with it so far, I think. I don’t really measure in clicks on Youtube, but we’re providing an opportunity to share stuff, and our entrants seem happy with what they’re getting. And sure, it’s the same as anything, some people will not get an audience and be disappointed, but the same thing is true of a regular fringe, as you know. Sometimes it’s got nothing to do with the quality of the work, but that’s the way it is.

Would you say that pre-existing loyalty to Buxton Fringe helped this along?

Yes, I think so. People who come to our shows have gone and viewed stuff online and have taken to it. They’re supporting us in that way. It’s perhaps not for me to say, but I think people are grateful that we’ve done it.

I think there’s still big question marks for fringes next year, because until we see regular venues up and running and see how they’re managing it, it’s hard to work out how thrown-together fringe venues will manage.

I promised myself I would discuss things other than the latest lurgi, so let’s turn attention to your other career in the arts. You’ve previously reviewed for both FringeGuru and internally for Buxton Fringe, and at FringeGuru you’ve done both Buxton and Edinburgh.

That’s right, and even Vault occasionally.

One thing that is unusual for Buxton Fringe is doing in-house reviews. Could you talk us through the history of this?

20200712152232_IMG_4698To be honest, the history goes back way before my time. I don’t know who introduced it, I’ve been on the committee for twelve years and it was pre-existing when I came along, so I don’t know the history behind it. I think the rationale is two-fold. You’re providing a bit more independent information on what the show is about for punters; sometimes it can be hard to pick up from an entry in the programme what it’s about, and those extra words give a more depth. And also, it is for the benefit of the acts themselves; they get a bit of coverage, somebody looking at the show and telling them what they think, and that can be valuable. Even if it’s generally positive, you’re telling them what works and what you liked about it. And you know performers as well as I do, they’re all looking for the quote they can lift and put on their flyers for next time! And it’s some evidence that their show has happened, and people have seen it, we have people asking for information on our reviews to use for Arts Council applications. I think it’s a service that works well for both punter and entrant.

One advantage with Buxton is that if you need a review, it is certain you can have one. In recent years there’s been a problem with Edinburgh in that – in spite of all the review publications out there – you can end up with not a single review. Few people suggest Edinburgh Fringe should do in-house reviews like Buxton Fringe can do – is there anything else that could be done?

I don’t know really, Edinburgh is just such a massive thing. Thousand upon thousands of shows, it’s such a commitment for any organisation to touch more than a fraction of those. If the festival was to bring them in house? I can’t say don’t, because we do it, but it’s just another viewpoint. I don’t know what else could be done in Edinburgh, it’s a very different market, it’s much more competitive, and maybe that’s just the way it is. We have the advantage of a much smaller scale, so covering 100-200 shows is tough, but it’s not like Edinburgh.

You talked earlier about providing a service to both performers and prospective punters. Is one more important than the other?

I don’t think so, and I don’t think anyone writes reviews thinking that. They’re writing from their own personal perspective, and I know we have a house style that means nobody’s ever going to get slated, but there is room for constructive criticism. We encourage reviewers to pick shows they think they’re going to enjoy, so nobody goes to shows thinking “I’m going to hate this”. So i think it works both ways. I wouldn’t like to be seen as a service to our entrants, because we’re not writing to order, it is independent. Certainly when I’m writing reviews I tend not to make myself known, in a similar way to you do with you reviews, I won’t talk about it until after I’ve written it and it’s published. And I think it is of use to punters, you see people at our fringe desk looking through the reviews. And if you see something in the programme and you’re going “I’m really not sure”, you can get a feeling from a reviewer of whether it’s the kind of thing you might like. That might encourage you to go, it might not, it can work both ways.

Let’s stay with comparing Edinburgh and Buxton for another issue, which is volunteers. Very thorny issue in Edinburgh, most people know the fate that befell C Venues; Buxton is obviously a very different model. There are questions of where volunteering stops and exploitation starts. Could you give a case for what Buxton Fringe does right?

Well, I think we’re different in that the entire fringe is run by volunteers. We pay desk managers during the fringe, and that’s the only staff we have. So I’m not paid, none of my committee is paid, so I don’t think any of us feel exploited because we’re all giving our time voluntarily. We take on quite a lot of work experience people at the desk, from the local schools; that’s probably a service more than exploitation, the kids are getting out and having fun and meeting interesting people. We have quite a lot of volunteers that come and help on the desk, that really is the goodness of people’s hearts.

Edinburgh’s in a different boat because it required thousands of people to run it, and it tends to be young people who are free from university for the summer who have the time to go and do it. I have to profess ignorance to what happened to C Venues’ I don’t think it’s an issue for our fringe; I know some of our venues will use volunteers as well, but the same volunteers will go back to those venues year after year and love it. I don’t think we have an issue with exploitation; with Edinburgh, I can’t comment.

At any time, a venue could go or arrive, and the fringe will morph to reflect what’s available.

Obviously, at the moment, these discussions are hypothetical. Hopefully next year we should be getting back to some sort of normality. Do you dare make a prediction for what Edinburgh Fringe 2021 will be like?

I have no idea. I could think what it might be like round here, and I’m still nervous about that. The hope would be that Coronavirus will go away, the levels of transmission will be so low that we’ll be back to fairly normal by next summer. But if there’s another spike, if there’s still transmission in the community, will we have indoor shows, in small sweaty rooms above pubs? We can’t really impose social distancing without reducing the audience size to uneconomic levels.

I honestly don’t know, I think there’s still big question marks for fringes next year, because until we see regular venues up and running and see how they’re managing it, it’s hard to work out how thrown-together fringe venues will manage. They’ll need to learn lessons from the professionals, I suppose.

At some point, Coronavirus will be gone for good. The other issue is whether there will be any permanent effects. Do you dare speculate over what that will means?

Obviously we’re speaking a week after the Government have announced a massive aid package for the culture industry. I’m sure it’s not universal, but there’s quite a feeling that’s a generous package. I think that’s really important for the whole ecosystem. Not everybody works for the National Theatre, or the Royal Exchange where there’s 65% redundancies; but that’s the apex of a pyramid, beneath them there’s people working in smaller theatres and independent companies and freelancers finding their way. So if the top tier had fallen, then the whole industry really starts to collapse underneath that ladder. I’d been really worried about that.

Fringe is different, isn’t it? I really don’t know, because you could say from an area of economic strength we’ll have better audiences and more people coming to see shows, and more people wanting to put them on; but then also in times of economic crisis it could be that’s when culture flourishes, and most often it would flourish from the grass roots in that case. In which case you could find a really vibrant fringe scene, but maybe nobody being able to afford to see it!

I think everything’s up for grabs. Everybody tries to predict the future, it’s a fool’s errand, we need to wait and see.

Totally unfounded assumption, but let’s assume that when Coronavirus goes away, theatre carries on where it left off. Last year Buxton had its biggest ever fringe. Do you think this can be repeated?

We haven’t gained or lost any venues, so there’s no reason why we couldn’t have another fringe of that size. The fringe has defied our expectations probably for ten years, in that we’ve felt the town is pretty much full and there’s surely no more scope, and then we creep up again.

It’s great if it’s that size, but it’s not particularly a concern for me. I don’t really measure our success in terms of how many shows we can have and so on. When we lost Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room and we thought we might lose Underground completely – and they were our mainstay and for a long time our only managed venue – we thought “Well, what happens now?” They set up the Clubhouse, Rotunda turned up on the green, Green Man Gallery’s gone from strength to strength, so it’s hard to tell. At any time, a venue could go or arrive, and the fringe will morph to reflect what’s available.

There was a time not so long ago when Brighton Fringe was as big as Buxton Fringe is now. One important point is Brighton Fringe proactively pushed for a much bigger fringe. Could you see Buxton Fringe getting bigger, and if so, could there be a spot where you start saying “too big”?

We’re certainly never going to proactively push to make it bigger, it’s just going to be organic, and that’ll be driven by venues and entrants. If more people come and kind find spaces, and get audiences that means it’s worthwhile for them to come back, we’ll get bigger; if not, it doesn’t particularly bother me on way or the other. It will be as big as it will be.

To have a festival with 220 acts like last year is incredible in a small town like this, and also to a large extent driven by the fact that the International Festival is here and a lot of people coming in for the opera that come to see our shows as well. I don’t worry too much about size of the Fringe.

You mentioned the loss of Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room. It’s true that we’ve got venues coming in its place – where I did see a problem is that the Old Clubhouse and the Rotunda are bigger venues attracting bigger acts. Pauper’s Pit was how I got started, and I can’t think of anywhere else that does this. There is the Green Man Gallery but that’s heavily over-subscribed.

Yes, and it doesn’t have the same kind of equipment to put an a show as Underground has.

I think to a large extent upstairs at The Old Clubhouse does much the same job as Pauper’s Pit, but I know it’s not a theatre space in the same way, and it’s crossing both Barrel Room and Pauper’s Pit. It’s a bit bigger, they can cram in 90 if they want to, it doesn’t feel empty if there’s 20, which makes it a nice space. I think Pauper’s Pit was a wonderful thing to have, but I can’t see it being repeated. I’d love to know a bit more about the history of it; it was a spare space under the hotel and some people got some old seat from a theatre and stuffed them in, put in a sound desk and lighting board and Bob’s your Uncle, we had a fringe theatre.

I don’t know if there’s a space like that in existence, that isn’t needed for something else.

Which venues would you advise entry-level acts to look at now?

That’s very difficult for me, because I’m the chair and I shouldn’t be showing favouritism towards any particular venue.

I think it depends. If you want to put on your own show, and do it entirely yourself, there’s great venues around like the Methodist Church, the URC. You did you show there one year, didn’t you?

Yes, it was actually you who persuaded me to persist with my plans.

It’s a nice venue up there, probably not as many shown on there as there used to be, with the Rotunda and Green Man doing more.

I think each of the venue does something different, and has a slightly different clientele. Underground has dominated comedy for a long time, there’s not an awful lot of comedy that goes on outside of Underground. In terms of theatre, which I think is your area, you’ve got a nice range now. The Green Man have a couple of spaces, Underground have a couple of spaces, the Rotunda have a very big professional setup, and you can do simple things yourself outside those venues. I wouldn’t push anybody towards anything, because I’d get in trouble. But I think we have a nice range of options.

Near to Buxton is Greater Manchester Fringe. For people who aren’t familiar, I will explain: when they say Greater Manchester fringe, they mean all of Greater Manchester, from Stockport to Bolton, so it is quite a different setup. What are relations between Greater Manchester and Buxton like?

We don’t have an awful lot of contact. We’re cordial, in that sense, they’ll sometimes tweet about what we’re doing, and if we notice what they’re doing they’ll tweet about that. Certainly no sense of competition at all – we don’t look at them and think what are they up to.

You’re right: very very different experiences. Greater Manchester Fringe is spread out all over the place, and you’re not going to go running between shows like you are in Buxton or Edinburgh. It’s public transport or driving, it would be hard to see more than one show in a night. What I have really liked about it, what’s been really positive is that it’s given acts another place to go. If you’re travelling up from the south to do Buxton, you can do shows at the Greater Manchester Fringe as well, it’s worth your while doing it, and it also gives Manchester-based acts somewhere else to put on performances. If they’re going to be doing 3-4 nights there, it’s nice to come down and do another 2-3 nights here, and you’ve got more value out of the show you put together. You’ll know people like Rob Johnson who’s a real stalwart of the Manchester scene who always brings a show to Buxton. Other do too, and I think we complement each other nicely.

So if Greater Manchester did overtake Buxton, are you saying you wouldn’t be bothered at all?

No, not in the slightest. I don’t know how you measure size. Number of shows? Number of audience? Whatever, I don’t know. It wouldn’t bother me, and let’s face it, Greater Manchester has a bigger geographical scope than we have.

One thing that Buxton and Greater Manchester both have is that they are open festivals, as is, I believe, Carlisle Fringe, also this side of the Pennines. On my side of the Pennines, the idea of a festival where anyone can take part is pretty much alien. We had the great Yorkshire Fringe which was adamantly completely vetted. Is there anything you could say to persuade people in the north-east to embrace the open model?

RFJBuxton-park7 I suppose it just takes someone to take that leap of faith. If you’re setting up a festival, and you’re putting a big commitment of time and effort and perhaps money into it, it’s scary to say “Anyone can turn up and do anything and we’re just going to take an entry fee and market you,” because you don’t know what’s going to turn up. It could be terrible, it could be wonderful, and you can understand wanting to vet and select, because you feel in control of what you’re putting on.

As for us, it’s always been open access and I love it. John Wilson, our former chair, said “Buxton is always the same and always different”. I think it’s a great model, and it opens you up to a lot more acts. It makes it more exciting, it would be lovely if someone on the other side of the Pennines did that. I lived in Newcastle for ten years, it would be lovely to have something like that in the area.

We’re nearly at the end, so I’ll give you the last word. Why should people wanting to put on a show choose Buxton Fringe?

Do you know, I think about this a lot, I think we’re possibly the friendliest fringe. Entrants that come, especially from those outside Buxton, enjoy the atmosphere. There’s always a positive reception for everybody, nobody’s coming to carp and complain. The audience is there to enjoy what’s put in front of them and aren’t looking to pick holes. If you hang around a venue long enough, people will come and chat to you. If they’ve seen your show they’ll have a chat to you about it, if they haven’t there’s a fair chance they’ll come and see it.

I think that kind of friendliness and supportiveness. I was listening to a podcast on the fringe called “Requires Improvement”, and the people who do the podcast have loved coming to Buxton and doing the shows here. You get the sense from them that it’s a warm and supportive environment. And things like our reviews go towards that; people that are starting off and have never done a show before, they get good feedback, they get people talking to them, they’re made to feel welcome. That friendliness goes a long way, and I think that’s why people are encouraged to come here, and why they keep coming back.

And on the other side of the coin: people coming to see a fringe and know there’s more than one fringe on offer – why Buxton?

To be honest, I don’t think we’re in competition with any other fringes, go to them all and enjoy them! I think the other side of the coin works for the audience: it’s a lovely environment, the venues tend to be very friendly and open, and you’ll get a good reception with them. You get to chat to performers and other people. You probably know a good number of our committee because they’re always in and out of shows talking to people and encouraging people and showing an interest. That works well for an audience as well, it’s a nice experience coming to the fringe.

Stephen Walker, thank you very much.

Nathan Cassidy photo courtesy of Andy Hollingworth. All other photos taken by me, apart from the header which was taken by my mum.

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