A curated fringe won’t be a kinder fringe

COMMENT: An unwelcome part of open access is people spending too much money on Edinburgh Fringe who clearly aren’t ready – but it’s not open access you should be blaming for that.

With Edinburgh Fringe 2021 having pulled back from the brink, most are now expecting 2022 onwards to be the road to recovery. Few people, however, are enthusiastic about a return to 2019 levels. For years, Edinburgh Fringe has had a big problem of supply and demand. More and more people want to take part, but Edinburgh isn’t that big a city, and there’s only a finite amount of accommodation and finite number of buildings that can be made into theatre spaces. Consequently, the cost of these two things is going up and up and up; and no, the money isn’t being squirrelled away by greedy venue managers, but simply a product of landlords – in many cases Edinburgh University – simply renting out space for whatever people are prepared to pay.

As a result, there’s been a lot of talk of building back a “kinder” fringe. There are several things that might address the supply and demand problem without undermining open access (one of which I’m come on to later). Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably in the current climate of culture wars, a movement seems to be emerging that would rather undermine open access. I won’t link any particular story as this is a trend rather than specific people, but they do seem be edging towards the easy solution: let’s just not allow people who aren’t us to take part. At the moment the language used is that the principle of open access is “outdated” and maintains the “status quo” (whatever that means), but I think I can see where this is going.

Now, as most of you should be aware, I am a staunch supporter of open access. Not all arts festivals or venues need to be open access – indeed, it would be impossible for many of them to work that way – but it is vital that such festivals exist for those who wish to go that route. Why? Because there is way too much gatekeeping in theatre, and across the arts in general. Too many venues have exact ideas of what art people should be making and watching. That wouldn’t be so bad if every venue had their own tastes, but increasingly they’re all after the same thing, and if you’re not to the liking of one you’re not to the liking of any. Open festivals are a crucial check in the balance of power – if you’ve got something good to show an audience, and the audience likes it, no-one can stop you. I have to say, the loudest voices undermining open access seem to be the people who benefit the most from the current culture of gatekeeping. Perhaps they assume they’ll be amongst the approved line-up of a vetted fringe. I suspect it’s more likely they’ll get a nasty surprise, when the big venues pick big comedians and other commercially lucrative acts over them. But I have no intention of letting it get to that stage.

However, there is another argument emerging against open access, and this is not about more gatekeeping – and this has been coming from some people who I work with and respect. And it is only fair (not to mention desirable if I don’t want to be a stuck record) that I address this argument. This relates to being a “kinder” fringe. The argument boils down to protecting people from themselves – that sits uneasily with my liberal principles of allowing people to understand the risks but still make their own decisions – but it still deserves taking seriously.

It’s the scenario we’ve all heard of. It’s the group who goes to Edinburgh Fringe who so obviously shouldn’t have gone. Their work isn’t necessarily bad as such, but used to student drama or village halls they’ve vastly overestimated their own abilities, or the standard you need to be at, or both. They get a lukewarm review, or a bad review, or no reviews – or worst of all, a second-rate theatre blogger trying very hard to sound positive but you’re convinced he hated it really. It’s a dispiriting time if they’re lucky, a month-long meltdown if they’re not. But worst of all are the finances: thousands, maybe tens of thousands, down the drain for a gamble that had no chance of succeeding.

As well as doing themselves no favours, they do no-one else any favours. Even if the occasional clanger is priced into an Edinburgh Fringe audience experience, there are hundreds of no-hopers taking up venues and accommodation, pushing up prices for everyone and probably spreading audiences more thinly too. No-one is winning here. Surely it’s kinder to stop them from making this mistake?*

Well, it would be a fair argument if that’s how it really worked. Here are the two big reasons why it doesn’t work that way.

* Footnote: There are many variations of this idea, and not all of them are as I described. One variation I might consider another day is forcing beginning through a route of reading and works in progress before considering a full fringe performance. However, for the time being I’m considering the model used at many small fringes where if they say you’re out, you’re out.

Vetting a Fringe doesn’t solve the problem of no-hoper entries

The fundamental flaw with vetting based on quality is assumption that the people in charge of this know how to do this. Truth be told, however, they’re only slightly better at guessing whether something is any good (or sells tickets) than you or me.

I suspect the origin of the idea that quality-based vetting is kinder comes from The Space. Unlike most other venues, The Space operates on a First Come First Served basis, in effect opening the Fringe up to everyone. Inevitably, some of the shows are fucking atrocious, and would never make it into the programme of any curated venue (at least not after they’d seen it). The logic, in theory, is that if shows not good enough to get into a curated venue are excluded, the bad shows are protected from making a big loss – and with less demand on venue and accommodation availability, there’s less financial pressure of the remaining better shows and less difficulty to get an audience.

However, Buxton Fringe is a good example of how this doesn’t stand up to reality. There are three managed venues all with some degree of curation, with other venues open to whoever books first, with United Reformed Church currently being a sort-of equivalent to Edinburgh’s Space. Indeed, many acts who didn’t get the slot at the venue they wanted go to URC instead. Should the acts who didn’t get picked for the managed venues be written off before you’ve seen them? Absolutely not – some of the most acclaimed shows went that route. Conversely, I’ve seen some absolutely terrible plays at Underground Venues. I’ve seen some of the best plays there too, and the average Underground Venues show is probably better than the average URC show. But is this evidence that plays that don’t make it through a vetting process aren’t worth bothering with? Not in the slightest.

Even at Edinburgh, the difference between The Space and other venues doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. The average quality might be lower than the Big Four, but there’s still a good number of successful plays shown there. One important service The Space offers which the Big Four don’t is one-week runs – it seems kind enough to me to give beginners the option of a short run and expose yourself to less financial burden. And if you do get picked for the Big Four, I am hearing anecdotally the venue fees are substantially higher. Many people think the higher costs are worth the bigger audiences you’ll get if the play goes well – but you’ll be in even more debt if it doesn’t. There’s all sorts of different factors in play and it’s complicated, but it’s not exactly an encouraging sign that a curated festival would be kinder, either to the people who are picked or to people who aren’t.

The main point, though, is that vetting plays for quality is not reliable. You can’t shut out the people who are wasting everyone’s time without also shutting out people who have what it takes to succeed. And for many people, the open festival is their only route to be a success. If you think that depriving people of this chance is necessary in the name of some greater good, then by all means say so and state your case. But it certainly isn’t doing them a favour. And think that it’s kinder on them if they don’t take part is naive.

No-hoper entries are the wrong problem to be solving

To be honest, however, all the above is a red herring. Is it really fair to blame the expense of the Edinburgh Fringe on the groups not good enough to be there? Surely the reason so many groups go to Edinburgh, both no-hopers and more competent acts, is that they think there are aren’t any alternatives. That’s not true, there are plenty of alternatives, but you wouldn’t know that from the way most people talk of “the fringe”.

There is a long-standing culture or “Edinburgh or bust”. Edinburgh Fringe is not just the place to be discovered – it’s the only place to be discovered. All the cities in the UK other than Edinburgh, and all the months of the year other than August, are irrelevant. It’s plain to see that this is no longer sustainable. In a festival where all are welcome, more people are coming than one city can comfortably accommodate in one month. The talk is moving toward which people currently welcome should no longer be welcome. Why not instead talk about which cities in which months can share the load of Edinburgh in August? The thing is, the alternatives are already there, but most people behave like they don’t exist.

It is a fallacy to consider open access as synonymous with a single famous festival. The open access ecosystem has long since outgrown Edinburgh. There are now numerous alternatives to Edinburgh with their own “all welcome” policy, that for many people are the better option. Edinburgh Fringe is like a trade fair now, and it is your interests to only consider going when you have your best material at its absolute best. If you want feedback, or practice in developing your writing, or simply a chance to get your work on stage, a small fringe is your best bet. A play that’s not good enough to be competitive at Edinburgh may still have a decent run at a fringe such as Buxton. If it’s good and it goes down well, you can always do Edinburgh next year (with many performers using Buxton as the opportunity to make their best stuff better). Or you can forget about Edinburgh completely and just come back to your own region with some vital experience under your belt. And if your play bombs … well, it’s easier to pick yourself up from a £500 loss than a £5,000 loss.

The biggest missed opportunity is Brighton Fringe. Brighton is now at the point where it shares many of the same reviewers at Edinburgh, and a play that is good enough for multiple four- and five-star reviews in Brighton is probably good enough for the same had it been reviewed in Edinburgh. And yet, just like most of the arts industry and arts media treats this fringe like it doesn’t exist, they also treat the work created there like it don’t exist. Whether they realise or not, they are firmly entrenching the culture of “Edinburgh or bust”: the only place you’ll get a look in is the most financially risky one. Your achievements are worthless unless you were in the big festival where people routinely gamble on a second mortgage. Where is the kindness in that?

The solution doesn’t have to be entirely open festivals. Any kind of festival that offers alternatives to Edinburgh takes the pressure off one city in one month. “Watch out,” say some people, “The Vault Festival is going to take acts away from you.” Well, good. Let’s spread things around a bit. (In fact, the Vault Festival appears to tick all the boxes of what these open access critics want from a festival, so I wonder they don’t simply rally around the festival they like.) Most of the time, however, the solutions offered are Edinburgh, Edinburgh and more Edinburgh. I remember back in 2019 Venues North’s new highly-trumpeted initiative to give opportunities to northern artists – a big award for who took the best show to the Edinburgh Fringe. But you have to already been taking a show there. And if Venues North aren’t interested, they won’t even come and see it and you’ve still got to pay to perform. It beggars belief that no-one appears seems to realise artists will be deprived of opportunities as long as Northern venues insist on making a name for yourself at Edinburgh.

The current set-up benefits nobody. Many people are misled into believing the Edinburgh Fringe is the only way to get your work out there when there’s numerous safer and cheaper options. People who look after themselves and don’t take stupid financial gambles are penalised and treated as an irrelevance. The result is that more and more and more people pile into Edinburgh, it gets more and more expensive. As I’ve said before, the thing Edinburgh Fringe could do for itself is actively encourage would-be entrants to consider other fringes that might serve them better. But 90% of the blame for “Edinburgh or bust” lies with the arts media and arts industry. They don’t take work from other festivals seriously, they don’t send their talent scouts elsewhere, and yet they are the first to complain how unfair the status quo is – something they could easily change if they wanted to.

So don’t blame third-rate acts taking up space from better and more deserving performers – instead blame the single-minded Edinburgh mindset that drives so many acts to Edinburgh in the first place. There’s no chance of changing for the better until this comes to an end.

Closing

As I said, the people I’ve heard expressing concerns about low quality are people who I respect. They are not secretly trying to bring in gatekeeping, and their worries about the bad effects a fringe can have are genuine. If we were to sit down and exchange our concerns, I’m confident we would agree on 90% of issues and find a compromise for the other 10%.

No, my real concern are the people making noises over “outdated” open access entrenching the “status quo”. This is uncomfortably close to testing the water to see how much you can get away with calling for your preferred brand of gatekeeping. I could be wrong. It might instead be concerns over big-name comedians over-running Edinburgh and making it difficult for everyone else. For reasons I’ve given elsewhere, I believe clamping down on big names is futile, but I’d be more receptive to the principle. Whatever the motives, they have to come clean over what it is they really want.

But the previous time people got ideas of who should and shouldn’t be allowed in, the experience wasn’t a good one. It was a hybrid of targetting artists for their ethnicity and McCarthyite demands to conform to mandated views. If some people think that is okay, the idea that some people want to undermine open access to exclude people who fail to express the right views or pose too much competition with themselves doesn’t feel that paranoid. Come clean before I drop that idea.

Yes, I am biased, having gone through this route myself, but the open access festival is the last refuge from the gatekeepers. It is the only environment where you do not need the permission of someone in authority to connect with an audience and be taken seriously enough to hold your own against those more favoured by the handful at the top. I can’t help feeling this is what some people really have a problem with. For all the talk of overturning “status quo”, the real status quo is the vetting that exists everywhere else in the arts, and maybe, just maybe, some people want this status quo extended to the festivals it hasn’t yet reached.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this: if your problem with the Edinburgh Fringe is having to share it with people you don’t want there, or competing with artists offering something different to you, the Edinburgh Fringe is not the festival for you. There are plenty of other festivals on offer more to your liking. If your concern if the ultra-competive high-risk environment it’s become, I’m open to other suggestions on how to reverse this. But in the wrong hands, the ideal of a kinder fringe is a pretext for more censorship, more gatekeeping and more exclusion.

Whether you use them or not, open festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe are the most important safeguard on your artistic freedom. Work with the people who want to make it truly open to all but beware of the people who want to take this openness away. And beware especially of the latter masquerading as the former.

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