The strange death of The Warren

With Brighton Fringe now in full flow, now is good time to catch up on a big topic I’ve been meaning to go to in detail. This year, the big addition to Brighton Fringe has been Caravanseria, which I now understand is being heavily promoted as focal point of the whole fringe. But the appearance of this venue comes against a very ugly backdrop. Two years ago, there was a very similar venue known as The Warren, which for the best part of the decade was the de facto focus of the entire festival. Now, the venue is gone for good, and – based on the feedback I’ve heard from numerous participants and venue staff – not missed in the slightest.

And for those who’ve followed the story of The Warren from the start, there is only one question: how could this success story possibly go so wrong?

One reason I have been slow to write this up is that I have had difficulty getting conclusive information on the record. There were some very serious allegations levelled against The Warren, and I was reluctant to repeat some of the more serious allegations – even in the context of just allegations – in a way that could be damaging to the venue or the people in charge. However, The Warren is now in liquidation, and nothing I say now is going to make much difference. I am, nonetheless, taking care to distinguish between what is only alleged and what is verified. Should anybody with to state anything on the record – either in defence of The Warren or against it – I will revise this account accordingly.

After much thought, I’ve decided the best way to report this is to go through the saga in chronological order. And in order to appreciate the true magnitude of this saga, we must start by going back to the start. And I hope, by going through a blow by blow account, how sorry I am that it came to this.

2005 – 2014: From humble beginnings

Say what you like about what Otherplace Productions and The Warren had become, but their origin story was a phenomenal success. Whatever venue managers might say now about their ambitions, few wouldn’t snap up the chance to go on the trajectory The Warren did in the early days.

First al all, a fringe history lesson. The Brighton Fringe you see today is a very different fringe from the one that existed at the start of the last decade. For all but the most seasoned veterans, there hasn’t been an Edinburgh Fringe in history where you could turn up to the Scottish Capital without noticing there’s a fringe on. And yet in the early 2010s you could visit Brighton in May and completely fail to notice Brighton Fringe was on. In those days, it was little more than an offshoot of Brighton Festival, with the two festivals sharing a box office. The only place that looks remotely similar to an Edinburgh Fringe experience was Spiegeltent. Other than that, it was a collection of ad-hoc spaces, almost all a single performance space.

Amongst them was the Marlborough (today The Actors). For one year, Otherplace ran the upstairs theatre and programmed the space during fringe season. In 2008, they moved to what was then known as The Three and Ten. In spite of this being a tiny venue by today’s standards, this quickly became a go-to space for the whole fringe. Some of the most successful acts chose Upstairs at the Three and Ten as their preferred location.

With so much demand and such a tiny space, it was surely only a matter of time before they thought bigger, and indeed they did. From 2012, Otherplace ran a new venue in Wagner Hall. This was the first appearance of The Warren brand – and in the early days the garden outside was heavily made up to have a rabbit theme. Now they could take on bigger acts whose productions were neither practical on the small stage of the Three or Ten nor viable with the tiny audience capacity and therefore tiny ticket revenue.

It’s not fair to entirely credit Otherplace Productions as the architect of today’s Brighton Fringe venues – Spiegeltent pre-dates all incarnations of The Warren operating broadly the same as it does now. But there’s one thing Otherplace did that Spiegeltent didn’t – Spiegeltent’s programme was almost entirely cabaret, whilst The Warren encompassed all genres. If you were in Brighton Fringe for the theatre, you could go the whole fringe without ever needing to visit Spiegeltent, but it was near-impossible to not come across a must-see play in The Warren.

However, the thing we’ve learned about Brighton Fringe is how vulnerable venues are to landlords. They can turn on you without warning. Some venues have drastically downscaled their operations because of this; others have ceased operating completely. But not The Warren. By now, they were big enough to make an opportunity out of a setback.

2015 – 2019: The rise and rise The Warren

As countless venues inside and outside of the fringe circuit have found out the hard way, the most dangerous thing that can happen to a pub theatre is a change of management – especially one that changes the name of the pub. If they rebrand the pub in a way that causes the branding of the pub theatre to cease to make sense, that’s never a good sign. It might seem petty, but I’ve never known a name change for a pub hosting a pub theatre that hasn’t been followed by something worse. And so, when the Three at Ten changed management and changed their name, without regard for how it would affect Upstairs at the Three and Ten, it was only a matter of time before a parting of ways.

And, for one reason or another, Otherplace Productions also parted ways with Wagner Hall. I don’t know the reason behind that. But it didn’t matter. The Warren had long since outgrown both these spaces and didn’t need them any more. From 2015, The Warren set up as a stand-alone pop-up venue north of St. Peter’s Church, with two spaces to start with. Upstairs at the Three and Ten was also replaced by a new “Otherplace” venue, offering two spaces, both bigger than the upstairs room it replaced.

In 2016, Otherplace was ditched and everything merged into one centralised venue. From this point onwards, The Warren effectively took over as the brand and Otherplace Productions became synonymous with the name we all came to know today. 2016 was also the first year that registrations topped 900. For the first time, Brighton Fringe was becoming a serious competitor to Edinburgh Fringe. And for Edinburgh’s part, acts that had a successful run there always chose The Warren as its Brighton Fringe destination.

Well, not always. More like usually. One small footnote at the time was the slow rise of Laughing Horse, best known as one of the two free fringe venues in Edinburgh. Some comedians – even well-known ones – quite happily stuck to the pubs under the Laughing Horse brand. From Theatre’s point of view, one thing that started becoming a problem was noise bleed. If your play was dependent of quiet or silence at any point, it was pretty much guaranteed to be spoiled but drunken revellers any time after 6 p.m. (When Mankind commissioned by in 2018, I talked them out of approaching The Warred for specifically this reason.) To be fair, not all the noise problems could be put down to drinkers – it didn’t help that the venue was sandwiched between both carriageways of the A23. But it did raise a few questions over whether their priority really was the arts.

But none of this was standing in the way of expansion. In 2019, when they had to leave their site due to refurbishment, they moved to Victoria Gardens, displacing The Lady Boys of Bangkok to Hove. As far as I know that was no great loss to the latter venue – they were a very successful stand-alone act and they’ve have been a success in any location. But the fact that a venue that used to run in a pub upstairs room could be a better offer than the fringe’s biggest act showed how much the tables had been turned.

One detail that raised a few eyebrows though: the new Warren location has gone up from four spaces to seven. I did – and still do – think that it’s good to have a Brighton Fringe big enough to act as a counterbalance to Edinburgh. But Brighton Fringe’s numbers weren’t increasing that much – instead, it looks like Brighton Fringe was increasingly being concentrated into The Warren. I was nervous about this myself; an open festival where you don’t stand a realistic chance of being noticed outside of the dominant venue isn’t really open. And – although I didn’t know this at the time – there was a mood amongst some performers that you couldn’t afford to get on the wrong side of The Warren. Also something I didn’t know: there were isolated complaints coming to light of performers not being paid on time. But for a venue of this size, it wasn’t enough to register any interest.

However, consensus remained that the The Warren wasn’t – yet – big enough to be considered too powerful. Other venues might become too powerful. Some people even thought the new configuration of The Warren meant they’d got a grip on the noise bleed problem. I honestly have no idea how The Warren’s story would have gone had there not been an intervening event in 2020. But there was.

2020 – 2021: The Warren Outdoors

I don’t need to have to tell you what happened in 2020. Coronavirus. From mid-March, most theatres came to a halt for a year or more. Brighton Fringe 2020 did manage to go ahead in October, but only just. It was a fraction of the normal size, with only the most determined of people taking part or coming to see it.

Before going into The Warren’s events, it is worth reiterating the context. It didn’t become clear until later, but in summer and autumn 2020 the situation was absolutely desperate. Had it not been for a massive bailout by The Pebble Trust, it is likely neither the 2020 nor 2021 Brighton Fringes would have happened. The reason for this recap is because a lot of short cuts were taken where there are now a lot of reasons to be angry. But, at the time, these details paled into insignificance against the possibility of the end of Brighton Fringe.

The Warren did not take part in the postponed 2020 Brighton Fringe – instead, they ran their own festival over August and September called “The Warren Outdoors”. I thought at the time – and I’m sticking to my guns now – this was 100% the correct decision for The Warren. Apart from the uncertainty over whether Brighton Fringe 2020 would be happening at all (we now know during summer 2020 it was still up in the air), it was simply not for a venue whose speciality was outdoor pop-up venues to run in a cold month. One side-effect was that the festival wasn’t open – if fact, entry was basically restricted to acts who were phoned up and asked if they wanted to take part. But it was either that or no festival – nobody could complain about that.

I am not backtracking from what I said in 2020 – I have a massive amount of respect for what they achieved. The outdoor space they created was on of the first to work with social distancing – and surely must have worked as a blueprint for the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe. Acts went to extraordinary lengths to take part. Shit-Faced Shakespeare lived in a house with each other to count as a household. And the sight of acts taking place against a sunset on the beach was lovely.

The Warren shouldn’t take all of the credit. Sweet Venues deserved the credit for leading the way in October with indoor socially distanced performances. But between them they can share the credit for a very successful 2021 fringe: Warren showing how to do it outdoors, Sweet showing how to do it indoors. Every time I visited the venue, business was absolutely heaving. And, okay, maybe it was the drinking making the money rather than the arts, but who was complaining? When the survival of Brighton Fringe was at stake, who cares where the money is coming from?

Such was the success of The Warren Outdoors, they did it again with Warren on the Beach. There was a two-week gap between the end of the (slightly postponed) Brighton Fringe and the start of the beach season. Brighton Fringe accommodated and extended by two weeks, Spiegeltent joined in. The Warren called the shots, and no-one was complaining.

Except that wasn’t quite true. I did hear grumblings. The Pebble Trust’s bailout wasn’t just for Brighton Fringe central; it also encompassed the venues. The Warren got a lot of money; other venues got none. When the Cultural Recovery fund came along, again, lots of money for The Warren, none for dome others. Most controversially, no money for the Rialto, then the number 3 destination for theatre. But the Rialto was back in business in 2021 and it was assumed they’d weathered the storm.

On top of all this, The Electric Arcade was coming on to the scene. Otherplace had planned to join Sweet, Rialto and many other venues with a year-round presence. In 2020 and 2021, the Electric Arcade suddenly had an alternate use of a bar and dressing rooms for a performance venue on the beach, but with the pandemic being left in the rear-view mirror, this now looked to play a part. It might even solve the noise bleed problem once and for all.

And, okay, there was still the odd complaint surfacing about not being paid, but this was being drowned out by the celebration. Brighton Fringe was back in business, and The Warren had paid a major part in saving England’s largest arts festival.

Unfortunately, all was not well.

Autumn 2021 – winter 2022: the bubble bursts

I’m not going to lie, it was a horrible decision to make when I got wind of this. Nor did it make that much sense. After all, The Warren had just had the best possible outcome it could have hoped for in the 2021 fringe. Surely they couldn’t have any cash flow problems? But somehow, complaints were emerging from acts who performed at The Warren – both for the Fringe and their subsequent Warren on the Beach – that they still hadn’t been paid.

But I had no option. I have previously berated arts media and arts organisations for shrugging their shoulders and ignoring serious allegations when arts organisations who they’d been praising were implicated in wrongdoing. Even though I’m only a theatre blogger with no responsibility for investigative journalism, I couldn’t justify inaction to myself. The allegations of non-payment were difficult to verify, mostly complaints on Facebook that I didn’t have access to. After discussions I decided that I would urge The Warren to come clean. Either deny the allegations, or admit there’s a problem and explain how they intended to put things right. They did neither.

Nor did it help that the registration launch for the 2022 fringe came and went without representatives from The Warren present. That isn’t a smoking gun in itself – other venues have not bothered with registration launch because they thought it wasn’t worth the trip – but the biggest venue missing it was unusual, and to miss it as the allegations were coming to light was fishy.

However, I’d been asking around at the time, and the feedback I was getting was that this sort of thing tends to be down to nothing more than a crap finance manager. It was, so I understood, quite normal for an organisation to be perfectly solvent, and perfectly capable of paying performers and staff, with only poor organisation standing in the way. 2021 rolled over to 2022, nothing else was heard, and for a while I assumed that The Warren was settling up quietly. And besides, we were almost at registration deadline. Surely if something was going this badly wrong they wouldn’t be leaving the news this late?

But they had. With less than a month to go before the close of registrations, the bombshell dropped. Brighton Fringe announced The Warren would not be taking part in Brighton Fringe 2022 until it sorted out its finances. This was also the first time we heard an admission of responsibility from The Warren themselves, with Brighton Fringe reporting they were apologising for their shortcomings. (They later released their own statement.) Officially, this was a joint statement; however, it is my understanding that it was Brighton Fringe’s decision, and The Warren merely had a choice to jump or be pushed.

The other factor I’ve not been able to pin down is Brighton and Hove City Council. The Warren would undoubtedly have needed the permission of the Council and landowner of Victoria Gardens (and indeed got permission at short notice for The Warren Outdoors in 2020). Rumour has it they were refusing to play ball this time, for precisely the same reason Brighton Fringe were refusing. I have not been able to confirm this directly, though I do have an indirect account suggesting this was the case. It would, however, go some way to explaining subsequent events.

There is one final allegation I want to address, which is a lot more serious than the others. Some people are suggesting that The Warren was paying people late on purpose, so that upfront expenditure for future activities could be made earlier. It’s not an entirely reckless claim – I have anecdotally heard a lot of horror stories from freelancers who find out their clients pay on the latest possible date and budget accordingly. But this is unproven speculation. It’s possible, but without having access to the accounts it would be impossible to know whether this is the case.

What I will say is that if The Warren had been doing that, it was a reckless and stupid ting to do. You might get away with spending money you owe somebody else if that returns the money you expect it to (and you can get away with stalling payment long enough). But it doesn’t make the money you want, you are in trouble. You’ll have to stall payment to other people before your original creditors lose patience. Eventually, you’ll be endless robbing Peter to pay Paul, and you’ll be one minor financial setback away from the whole thing crashing down.

Perhaps it was that, perhaps it was something else. Whatever the reason, by this point The Warren was probably doomed. I don’t see what they could have done to survive. But they struggled on – and sadly dug themselves into a deeper hole.

Spring 2022: An undignified exit

I must say, the thing that struck me the most about Brighton Fringe 2022 was the reaction to The Warren’s problems. It was maybe a bit much to expect sympathy, but I was half-expecting some restraint – the Warren had paid the price, got burned, and why kick a venue when they’re down. But it soon became clear they’d made a lot of enemies over the years, and now all the resentment was coming out unto the open.

And The Warren certainly didn’t do themselves any favours in the months after being ejected from Brighton Fringe 2022.

After the announcement of the cancellation, there was a big scramble from acts booked at The Warren to find new venues. Who knows, had they conceded earlier, maybe more ex-Warren acts would have had time to find alternative venues. But the thing that set alarm bells ringing was the account from some venues that they knew The Warren wasn’t happening for weeks. Were the Warren taking bookings for a festival they’d already decided they were going to cancel? That would be a huge scandal?

Having pried a bit further, I don’t think it what quite as bad as that. My understanding is that when other venues said “We already knew the Warren was cancelling”, what the really meant was they they were expecting The Warren would cancel. It is never okay to promise something you can’t deliver, but there is a difference between promising something you don’t have a realistic chance of delivering and promising something you’ve already decided you’re not delivering.

What was less defensible was The Warren’s response to the venues left in the lurch. One would have expected the correct course of action would be an unreserved apology to all the venues, and a full refund. Instead, The Warren wanted to move acts to their Electric Arcade venue, still running a “fringe style event”. A lot of acts weren’t happy with this, and for good reason. The Electric Arcade spaces were different from most of the Warren spaces and not necessarily suitable for the acts booked. More to the point, if you’re doing Brighton Fringe the expectation is surely that you’ll build an audience through the Brighton Fringe programme and website?

As I understand it, The Warren were resistant to giving refunds because money on marketing and publicity had already been spent. I have a bit of sympathy with the situation they were in. When you’re up shit creek because of financial problems, the last thing you want is to give full refunds when you’ve already spent part of the money. (There were also complications over acts and registration fees being postponed from 2020.) Unfortunately, the Law is not sympathetic to this situation. If you spent 80% of the money but delivered 0% of the product, you will be expected to give 100% of the refund. And if the loss puts in in dire financial straits, you should have thought of that before you took the money.

Where there was the most anger, however, was Otherplace’s alternative “Fringe style event”. They branded their shows taking place over Brighton Fringe period as “The EA in May”. Now, it is important to remember that Brighton Fringe does not have, and must not ever be allowed to have, the veto on who does performing arts in Brighton during the fringe. Edinbrugh Fringe only exists because Edinburgh International Festival couldn’t veto eight acts turning up uninvited in 1947. Much of the Free Fringe operates outside of Edinburgh Fringe’s remit. There was for some time a “Five Pound Fringe” in Brighton. Nobody objected to any of this.

However the difference with all of those is that none of them were implicated in financial mismanagement. It’s one thing to forge ahead on you own because you weren’t invited to be part of a festival, or to opt out if you thing it’s too expensive. But if you’ve pulled out of a fringe to get your financial affairs in order, and you’ve said sorry for said financial affairs, trying to imitate the fringe you’ve pulled out of makes it sound like you’re not as sorry as you claimed.

It also didn’t help that publicity for “The EA in May” kept ending up in Brighton Fringe publicity; however, most people think that wasn’t deliberate – it was more likely individual leaflet deliverers not understanding where they could and couldn’t leave brochures. The kindest explanation I can offer for a festival imitating Brighton Fringe was that Otherplace had to make money somehow, without which there was no chance of settling up the money owed. But unfortunately for Otherplace, it seems most people’s patience for kind explanations was exhausted.

It’s hard to see how The Warren could have rebuilt bridges in 2022, but what they did only achieved the opposite

2022-2023: The final nails in the coffin

The worst thing that happened to The Warren in May 2022, however, was the one thing they had no control over any more. Quite simply: the rest of the Brighton Fringe discovered it was managing perfectly well without The Warren.

It turned out that the spirit of the pre-2010s Brighton Fringe never went away. Although Brighton Fringe had become increasingly concentrated in big well-known venues, you could still put on successful shows anywhere. Brighton has plenty of year-round theatres – suddenly places that previously only got a handful of bookings now took an extensive programme. Even rooms that weren’t conventional theatre spaces were getting good shows in.

Meanwhile, the other big venues quickly moved in on The Warren’s turf. The Rotunda had a phenomenally successful first year; and meanwhile Laughing Horse, now boasting five spaces over four venues, re-established itself as the number one place for comedy. I’m not sure either venue directly took business off The Warren, mind. The Rotunda’s two spaces were filling up long before word was getting round about The Warren’s woes. In theory, Laughing Horse might have taken comedians tired of dealing with The Warren, but based on conversations I’ve had, it does seem that Laughing Horse was picked out of affinity to Laughing Horse, rather than getting away from any other venue. However, this was little consolation to Otherplace, with venues big and small showing The Warren isn’t needed.

As an aside, one thing The Warren’s implosion has taught us how important it is for a fringe to be more than one organisation. Brighton Fringe is a community of performers, venues, reviewers, organisers and audience all sharing a common goal of a festival open to all. We now know you can lose a key player – in fact, the biggest player of all – and the rest will adjust, regroup, and move on. Some festivals, however, are run by a single organisation, and they are vulnerable. If one organisation runs all the venues and programme an entire festival, a Warren-scale disaster would wipe out everything. A decentralised festival is a resilient festival.

Anyway, back to Brighton, and there was one other reason to be resentful towards The Warren, which was the large amount of bailout money that went its way – something that now feels like money down the drain. Who knows, if The Warren hadn’t existed, The Rialto might have got some money instead, and might still exist today. Rather than get angry with The Warren, however, serious questions need asking over how so much money went to an organisation that either was already financially unsound, or went financially unsound during the rescue period. Were any checks made? If so, how did they fail to pick up the true situation? Nothing’s going to recover good money thrown after bad, but we can learn lessons and try not to let it happen again.

It is my understanding that Brighton Fringe’s official position was that they would consider allowing The Warren to be part of Fringe 2023 if and when The Warren approached Brighton Fringe. However, with still no word from The Warren on whether they’d be running after Brighton Fringe registrations opened, it looks increasingly doubtful whether they’d be back in 2023, or ever. I strongly suspect Brighton Fringe’s real position was an expectation that The Warren were in no position to return.

There was, however, one thing about The Warren that was missed. You could love or hate the venue, but it was the best publicity the fringe could hope to have. Without The Warren in 2022, it lost a feeling that Brighton Fringe was on, possibly other venues suffered as a result. Unfortunately for Otherplace, Brighton Fringe went for the solution of something as striking as The Warren, as much of a hub as The Warren – but not The Warren. Caravanserai didn’t happen because they came along wanting to be a venue; it was Brighton Fringe pushing for it. And in doing do, the final part of The Warren was made obsolete.

But by this point, it didn’t matter any more. Electric Arcade struggled on to November then stopped. Then around the same time the news broke of Caravanserai, news also broke Otherplace was going into liquidation. From the list of creditors seen by the local news, there was a long list of creditors from the 2021 fringe with 600k debts, with HMRC and NatWest being the big two. There were also debts to performers going back to 2019, undermining the idea that it was entirely down to Covid problems.

There are, I suppose a couple of honourable things to note. Two of the directors put in £50,000 of their own money, which suggests they were trying their hardest to save the venue. Less scrupulous directors would have cut and run long before then. And Otherplace did at least put itself into insolvency properly by appointing liquidators. Unfortunately, it is frequently possible for failed company directors to just walk away and let their company get struck off the register – with the side-effect of making it much harder for staff out of pocket to get paid. Maybe this is a pitifully low expectation, but I’ve seen worse.

But it’s such a sorry end to what seemed like such a success story only two years ago. The Warren did so much to define the Brighton Fringe was know today, and did so much to show how theatre can be done at times it was considered impossible. Somewhere along the line The Warren lost its way. We may never know when that was. Or the truth may come out one day. And who knows, when it does, perhaps we’ll all agree Otherplace got just desserts. But when The Warren was at its best, it was such an asset to Brighton Fringe.

There is no way back for The Warren now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pay tribute to what it once was. For that reason, I will miss The Warren.


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