Will Coronavirus clobber the fringe season?

Update 29/03/20: As you are probably aware, pretty much every prediction I have made so far with a resolution one way or the other turned out to be wrong. I will write an update once we have a better idea what’s happening – in the meantime, here’s the original for you to laugh and point at.

It’s not often I do stand-alone news articles. Normally I wait until the end of the month and put it in odds and sods. However, this is a fast-moving situation and what was idle speculation a few days ago is already a serious possibility. So, it turns out that, unlike Sars, Swine Flue, Bird Flu and pretty much every other lurgi where the panic was way out of proportion, with Coronavirus there actually is something to worry about. There’s been lockdowns of various degrees going on all over Europe, and this morning the Scottish Government has announced what appears to be a ban on events with more than 500 people. It’s not clear exactly how that’s going to work, and one important detail is that the reason for the ban is to free up emergency services to deal with Coronavirus cases, rather than preventing the spread. Even as I write this, the English football leagues have announced a one-month delay of their matches.

So amongst all of the fallout are questions over what happens to the upcoming festival fringes. Conventional theatres stand to be affected too. However, the difference is that if the worst comes to the worst at theatres such as Live Theatre or Northern Stage, they can convecialy push their affected projects back a few months. But for an event of the complexity of Edinburgh or Brighton Fringes – not just the performances themselves but the surrounding logistics of policing, accommodation, temporary employment and so on – it is inconceivable you could delay it. Either it goes ahead in 2020 or it doesn’t.

Before anything else happens, here’s a run-down where we’re at with festivals.

Vault festival:

Barring a disaster in the next ten days, the Vault Festival is probably okay. The news yesterday was they’d been advised it was fine to go ahead until further notice, and we’re already in the second last week.

Had the outbreak happened a month earlier, or the festival had run a month later, this could have been a disaster – an underground venue with hundreds of people inside a peak demand in a confined space would surely have been near the top of the list of events to suspend. Looks like the Vault Festival may have had a narrow escape.

Brighton Fringe:

Brighton Fringe has also announced its plans for the fringe remain in place as things stand. However, it’s in a precarious situation. The current mood is that the virus is likely to peak in a few months’ time, round about when Brighton Fringe is on. As far as time goes, it seems that Brighton has drawn the short straw.

On the plus side, Brighton Fringe is, as far as I can tell, less vulnerable to impromptu lockdowns than other festivals. Nothing that happens at Brighton is as tight and crowded as anything at the Vault Festival or Edinburgh Fringe. Venues such as Sweet and Junkyard dogs might be prominent venues of the fringe circuit but come nowhere near a mass gathering. The only thing that might be big enough to get some attention is The Warren, which has hundreds of people in at one time if you add together all the spaces and all the bars in their giant pop-up venue. As far as emergency services resources go, Brighton Fringe is negligible compared to all the hispters and trustafarians that descend on Brighton  every Friday night.

My guess is that no-one will be forced to cancel anything at Brighton, but there’s a chance The Warren will be made to break up its supervenue into smaller sites. We could live with that, and who knows, we might even decide we prefer it that way. But unless things get unexpectedly worse, my money’s on the fringe going ahead.

Buxton Fringe:

Buxton Fringe is possibly the safest of all. Most people expect the peak to have come and gone long before July. Even if it hasn’t, Buxon Fringe is tiny compared to everything else listed here. Unless we go into full lockdown like Italy, Buxton has little to worry about.

Edinburgh Fringe:

Edinburgh Fringe faces a different problem. Although the possibility of cancelling the Edinburgh Fringe has been floated – indeed, the size of the biggest supervenues and the amount of policing required in festival season means this has to be considered – the worst will almost certainly be over by August. So I’d say that the chance of any kind of lockdown is low.

But the problem here is how prospective participants react to this risk. A low chance of cancellation is still a chance. It’s risky enough taking part in the Edinburgh Fringe as it is, with huge upfront costs, no guarantee of an audience or good reviews, and even higher bills if things go wrong. The last thing you want adding to your list of things that go wrong is discovering after sinking all your money into this that the festival’s not going ahead. Now, it might be that there is insurance you can get to cover this, but by far the easiest thing to do is decide it’s not worth it. And this is where timing is unkind. With the registration deadlines looming, now is when lots of would-be performers will be ponder over whether to take the plunge. If there’s any time this would put people off, it’s now.

Of course, would a scaled-down Edinburgh Fringe, even an involuntary one, be entirely a bad thing? The grumblings over the size of the Fringe have grown louder in the last few years, and who knows, maybe people will decide they prefer it that way. Maybe lazy London journalists will be forced to acknowledge the existence of culture in cities other than Edinburgh in months other than August. Maybe, just maybe, this would be the push needed to re-arrange the fringe scene to something more sustainable.

But … we’ve been here before. Every time something happens that causes people to say surely the Fringe bubble is going to burst, it keeps on growing. This could be another one of those times. Coronavirus could change the fringe theatre scene for good – but it could just as easily carry off exactly as it was before.

Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2019

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Green Knight, Old Bones, Desert Bloom, An Audience with Yasmine Day, The Grandmothers Grimm, Author, Composer, Soldier of Sorts, We Apologise for the Inconvenience, Tangletree, Impostors, Fern Hill and other Dylan Thomas, 11 Reasons

Apologies for the lateness of the Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe roundups – I am currently in the thick of a house move that has taken up most of my time and energy. But these reviews aren’t going to write themselves and the backlog is getting bigger, so let’s get to it.

So Buxton has had its 40th anniversary fringe this year, and with it an extra three days were added to the festival – officially a one-off, but in practice it’s surely testing the water. As a result, Buxton ended up with its biggest fringe to date, with a record breaking 213 events, up from the PB of 183 in 2017. (The increase in performances was even more dramatic, at 750 up from previous record of 500, although this figure is artificially inflated by an unusually high number of fine art and site-specific performances – see my Buxton Fringe preview if you want more number-crunching.) So the next question was whether the fringe could sustain these extra three days – after all, this could decide whether the longer fringe becomes permanent.

Based on my observations, the answer appears to be “yes”. I am not aware of any official figures that would give us clues one way or the other (as Buxton has no central booking office there’s not really any way of keeping track of sales), but the mood amongst everyone I asked was that ticket sales were going well. I suppose on thing I didn’t get an answer to was what sales were like in the extra three days at the end of the fringe – if they tailed off that would dampen expectations. Whatever the truth, we will find out Buxton Fringe’s reaction by December, when registrations for 2020 open.

But that’s enough speculation for later. Let’s get on with the reviews.

Pick of the Fringe:

I managed to pack quite a lot in to Buxton this time round. But in the end, however, there were three obvious front-runners out of all I saw. Normally, as the biggest venue, Underground Venues dominates the listings, but this time another venue is a suprise winner, thanks to a joint colloboration from two groups that this venue chose to champion.

The three picks of the fringe are:

Green Knight

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Debbie Cannon’s writing and performance is sometimes billed as storytelling and sometimes billed as theatre, but Green Knight fits very comfortably into both. An impoverished woman is handing herself over to the convent, but before she does, she tells a story she knows about King Arthur. It is, of course, the tale of Sir Gawain, but in this story she is the woman who tempted Gawain into dishonour. But, as with many of the best retellings, something new is brought to this. None of the events of Gawain and the Green Knight are changed, but the nameless wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert takes on a very different role. In the original, her sole role is a temptress; in this, she’s still still a temptress – but not entirely by choice. She’s in love with this perfect chivalrous man who’s come into her life. Added to this, she only married to escape her own father, and her husband is, to be honest, a bit of a cock; so Gawain is, for all his restraint and honour, inadvertently leading her into temptation as much as she’s leading him.

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What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2019

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Skip to: Call Mr. Robeson, Old Bones, Jordan, Updownsizing, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, An Audience with Yasmine Day, Moby Dick, Impostors, Tomorrow I’ll the Happy, The Grandmothers Grimm, Brain Rinse, Under Milk Wood

Buxton Fringe is back, and it’s another interesting one. Two years ago there was a very unpredictable fringe when the building housing the key venue was closed for redevelopment – and yet, against all expectations, the fringe grew. This year, however, there was a change which everyone expected would push the numbers up, and it did: 213 events this year, up from 180; and about 750 performances, up from 500.

The change in question is extending the festival by three days from 18 to 21. At it stands, this is a temporary extension for just the fringe’s 40th anniversary year – but the organisers must surely be looking at registrations and ticket sales closely to see if this can be made permanent. Where there is a bit more of a surprise is where the growth has occurred. Doing the same number-crunching as I did in 2017, there are some interesting stats:

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Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2018

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REVIEWS: Skip to: Gated Community, Extremism, Crossing the Line, Old Bones, Antigone na h’Éireann, Maria Callas, The Ladder, Brain Rinse, Earthling, An Audience with Yasmine Day

After the unpredictable fringe of 2017, when two key performance spaces were lost to a building development but a new pop-up venue came along, 2018 looked a lot more like a “no change” fringe. Underground Venues was still in its new home of the new clubhouse, Rotunda returned to the Pavilion Gardens, and the Green Man Gallery and United Reformed Church also carried out quite much as before. And the numbers for the fringe, and each of the venues, also held generally steady.

However, the steady figures are a little deceptive, because there’s been quite a bit of change within these figures. The most notable change was the Rotunda: last year, the programme was dominated by seven shows produced by Grist to the Mill; this year, with application to the Rotunda open much earlier, they had a considerably more diverse programme. Also – and there must a been a few sighs of relief – the Rotunda avoided a repeat of the spate of cancellations that marred an otherwise successful inaugural year. Meanwhile, if my unscientific assessment of their programme is correct, Underground Venues had a wider range of entry-level acts this year, possibly as a result of some fringe-wide rebalancing between the two big venues. They also seemed to have fixed last year’s problem of the fringe club bar never being open, with a drinks for tickets promotion seeming to have worked well. (Also, the Arts Centre has now managed to get the bar opened rather than have people queuing on the street.)

On the whole, however, 2018 has broadly consolidated the changes of 2017, with the unexpected rise in 2017 now looking to be permanent rather than an outlying year. But Buxton may not be settling down just yet – the last I heard, Underground Venues is still seeking another space to compensate for the net loss of one last year, and that could potentially increase the numbers further. Meanwhile, there’s talk of the Green Man Gallery taking on paid staff – at the moment, capacity there is seemingly constrained by volunteer time rather than availability of rooms, but if you’re paying someone who effectively becomes a full-time venue manager in July and and anything is possible. Continue reading

12 questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking of doing the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe has barely been put to bed, but already people are thinking about what to do on the fringe circuit next year. And amongst these will be a lot of people who have never done this before. If you’re new to this, there are a lot of guides out there that will cover the practicalities of doing the fringe – I’ve indulged a little in this myself, but there are other more comprehensive guides out there. But this isn’t about how to do a fringe show. This is about a question I don’t think gets asked enough: should you do the fringe at all?

Performing on the fringe circuit is a great experience: it can bring you opportunities you can’t get anywhere else, and best of all, there’s no gatekeepers telling us who is and isn’t allowed to be given a chance. But even so – and I say this as one of the strongest advocates of open fringes – that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone. Far too often, the opportunities are over-sold, and the risks are downplayed. Even if you’re lucky enough to have no worries about money, a fringe venture that backfires is a huge setback, far worse than a local venture that flops.

The biggest danger of the Fringe, though, is how much people want to do it. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone to say that there’s nothing like the buzz of being part of it. It’s dangerous, because when you want to do something this badly, it’s very easy to make an optimistic assumption here and overlook a problem there, until you’re convinced it’s a good idea long after alarm bells should be ringing. So, in my effort to avert disasters in the making, I am putting together a list of questions you should ask yourself first. These should always precede a decision to take part at all. Only then should you proceed with deciding how to actually do it. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Buxton Fringe 2018

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SKIP TO: The Unknown Soldier, Gated Community, Behind the Agony, A Curse of Saints, Extremism, Antigone Na H’Éireann, Sea Wall / The Shape of Things, Trapped, Earthling, I let a six-year-old write my show, Disgusting songs for revolting children

All right, Sam Slide, you can stop pestering me. I’ve allowed a bit of a backlog to build up again as a result of doing two plays at once, but I haven’t forgotten Buxton Fringe. As always, my list of what I recommend seeing. As the smallest of the three fringes I cover, this is a more comprehensive list than usual – at Brighton or Edinburgh, I’ve only heard of a fraction of the acts, but in Buxton I at least recognise the names of many of the groups, even if I haven’t seen them before. But even so, the usual disclaimer applies – this list should be seen as a cross-section of what’s worth seeing, not a complete list. As always, anyone who wants to see the full rules governing what goes in can come this way.

Last year’s Buxton Fringe was a very significant one for two reasons: Underground Venues relocated from the Old Hall to the Old Clubhouse, and the brand-new Rotunda set up in the Pavillion gardens. This year, however, there’s not much change in the headline figures. Fringe-wide numbers are about the same, numbers at Underground Venues and Rotunda are slightly up. However, it’s not quite a “no change” fringe and within these static numbers there’s a fair bit of difference. Last year, the Rotunda’s programme was dominated by shows produced, or at least backed, by Grist To The Mill themselves; but this time, it’s a far more diverse programme – a result, presumably, of the Rotunda advertising for applications much further in advance. Underground Venues, meanwhile, appear to have more entry-level acts this year – again, this might be down to the early addition of the Rotunda balancing up supply and demand on the managed venues. Whatever the reason, I am now less concerned over losing Buxton as a suitable starting fringe than I was last year. Continue reading

Roundup: Buxton Fringe 2017

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REVIEWS: Skip to And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet, Call Mr. Robeson, Bouncers, We Lost Elijah, The Empress and Me, Vincent River, Persuasion Transposed, Labels.

Ah well, better late than never. At least I can get this out before the registrations open for Buxton Fringe 2018. Apologies for everyone waiting for a review. Usual excuse applies over my ridiculously busy summer. I have learnt my lesson.

So, I’ll leap into reviews in a moment, but before that, a few thoughts on how the fringe went as a whole. This was the most unpredictable fringe for years, firstly due to the delayed but expected loss of Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room, and the second unexpected twisted: the arrival of the 110-seat Rotunda. In my preview of Buxton Fringe, I had a look at the changing face of the fringe, looking at who was going to which venues. The headline is that in spite of the loss of a major performing space, the fringe has grown, through a mixture of the arrival of the Rotunda, smaller non-managed venues being stretched to the limit, and the shrinkage at Underground Venues mitigated with some very tight programming. I won’t repeat the details, all that remains is a postscript of how the two major venues fared. Continue reading