15 ways Coronavirus might change theatre for good

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As you might have noticed, my last article on Coronavirus didn’t age well. I won’t go over the embarrassing details just yet, but pretty much everything I could have got wrong I did get wrong. The latest I’ve heard is that consensus is most theatres are provisionally planning things to get back to normal in September, with a few having plans on standby for started sooner at short notice.

Do you think I’m making any more predictions after that fiasco? Of course not. So what I’m doing instead in, instead a single vision of the future, I’m going to give fifteen. I will stress straight off that none of these are predictions – indeed, most of them are mutually contradictory. But all of these are, in my opinion, plausible outcomes. There’s still a multitude of things that could happen in the short term, but this is my speculation for how things might turn out in the long term.

So, imagine it’s 2025. Coronavirus is long consigned to the history books, as is the great shutdown, but it’s legacy lives on. But what is that legacy? It might be any of these:

1: Edinburgh Fringe reinvents itself for the better

[This is the scenario a lot of commentators are hopeful for. I am sceptical about this one myself, but let’s see how it might work anyway.]

It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe has a record-breaking 4,452 acts. Any observer from the now-infamous 2019 fringe, where the 3,841 acts seemingly pushed the it to the limits, might call that a disaster waiting to happen. But the pessimists are confounded and the Fringe has sorted out its problems.

In hindsight, the problem was time. For all the Festival Fringe Society’s efforts, they could only achieve token victories single-handedly. What they really needed was the co-operation of the major venues, but the moment the fringe finished the venues had their hands full planning next year. Suddenly, the shock cancellation of the 2020 fringe gave all the venues time on their hands. With the PR disaster for Hogmanay 2019 still reverberating, Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon were all eager to show they’d learnt the lessons Underbelly hadn’t – Underbelly was forced to go with the flow. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government got on board, and an unprecedented level of co-operation arose. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

REVIEWS: Skip to: The Red, Testament of Yootha, Great Grimm Tales, The Red Hourglass, The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show, Will, or Eight lost years in Shakespeare’s Life, The Rebirth of Meadow Rain, Rich Bitch, Moby Dick, Princess Party, Myra, Showstopper, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, Stanley

Oh shit, it’s nearly 2020. I really ought to start my Edinburgh Fringe coverage in the same year. Seriously though, apologies for everyone waiting to see their name in lights in the roundup – I won’t repeat the circumstances that caused me to fall behind so much, but I’ve touched on it in the last two articles. But that’s hopefully behind me now. So let’s make a start on this.

Last year’s big theme of Edinburgh Fringe was the cost of taking part in this fringe. This year, the debate has moved on to the size. Size and cost have always been linked, but this time round the debate has widened to the effect on the city of Edinburgh as a whole. Does the fringe make the city unusable for the people who live there? Some people say breaking point is being reached. The most notable thing, however, is now what’s being said, but what’s not being said. Only a few year ago, announcements that the fringe was its biggest ever were shouted from the rooftops by the Festival Fringe Society – this year, they barely mentioned this.

One stat that is watched very closely is whether ticket sales growth is keeping up with growth of the fringe. The simplified theory has always been that if the fringe grows by x%, ticket sales must grow by x% to keep it sustainable, but is this too simplistic? This year the growth was very uneven over different venues. But there’s no easy way to control the numbers at an open festival, and we will just have to wait and see next year what becomes of this. Continue reading

Sorry Scotsman, but “pop-up” reviewers are legitimate competition

COMMENT: There are valid reasons to criticise independent reviewers – but writing “entertaining” reviews at the expense of saying anything helpful is worse than anything so-called pop-up reviewers are accused of doing.

I apologise for burdening you with yet another anti-Scotsman article. I was planning to let this go after my original article on why you should think twice before letting The Scotsman review you, but then came Kate Copstick’s bizarre passive-aggressive column for Broadway Baby, seemingly unable to let go of her outburst the year before over comedians exercising their right not to give out press tickets for previews. So I wrote about that hoping it would be the last time. But now I’ve come across this article in the Edinburgh Evening News: ‘It’s these pop-up reviewers who haunt festivals such as Edinburgh Fringe that have done much to devalue the review as an art form’. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, this is bad. It’s not entirely clear what is meant by “pop-up” reviewers – most of the time it seems to be independent bloggers such as myself, but it’s vague and possibly extends to pop-up review sites. The only people cited as valid reviewers are – yes, that’s right – the reviewers at The Scotsman, co-incidentally the sister publication of the Edinburgh Evening News.

Even though this piece is a blanket attack on people like me, I’m going to refrain from making personal attacks back. Unlike Kate Copstick and Paul Whitelaw, who both squandered all my respect a long time ago, Liam Rudden, by all accounts, is highly thought of as both a theatre maker and an arts journalist. And yet the way this article is written, it reads like a hit piece sanctioned by the fringe editors of The Scotsman with Liam Rudden acting as a proxy. So let’s respond. Continue reading

Guest post: Flavia D’Avila on Edinburgh Fringe – a Love/Hate Relationship

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Alfredo Jaar’s installation for the Edinburgh Art Festival

The endless growth of Edinburgh Fringe has provoked a debate on two big issues: the affordability of the Edinburgh Fringe, and the conditions for workers at the venues. But there is a third issue that also needs attention, which is what effect Edinburgh has on the locals of the city. Is it a chance to enjoy the greatest cultural festival in the world on your doorstep and take an annual windfall? Or does it make your own city inhospitable for a month every year? I haven’t commented much on this as I don’t live in Edinburgh and don’t know much about this issue.

So let’s get the perspective of someone who does. Flavia D’Avila lives in Edinburgh. Coincidentally, she is directing a play that is coming to Edinburgh this year (which I happened to see at Buxton and loved), but she is more importantly someone who I’ve seen commentate on contentious issues at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere in a fair and thoughtful manner. So here is the perspective of an Edinburgh Fringe local …

I first moved to Edinburgh in 2006. I arrived the day before the Fireworks Concert that year, so I had just missed the Fringe but that was one of the reasons I decided to move here from Brazil. I had never been to Scotland and had no personal connections here but I had my mind set in Edinburgh as a good place to develop my theatre career after the suggestion of an English friend living in Brazil and reading a short article in a local newspaper about the Edinburgh Festivals.

I skipped 2015 because of issues with the Home Office (that’s another story that you can read on my personal blog here), so 2019 is my 12th Edinburgh Festival Fringe and although I am sadly still not entitled to a Scottish passport, I feel very much like a local here. That said, during the Fringe, I’m not just a local. I’m part of it. So when Chris kindly invited me to write this guest post reflecting on the Fringe impact on the Edinburgh locals, I gladly accepted but I feel the need to warn readers that my experience is that of a local theatremaker who is very much embedded in it all. That part of me absolutely loves the Fringe. Part of me also hates it.

I can’t tell you much about the experience of the other locals, those who just want to be able to get to work in an office or need to pay a bill or go the library and get annoyed because the Fringe keeps getting in the way. I got little insights here and there, like when I was speaking to a bouncer who sometimes works at the venue where I work year-round. He rarely goes to shows that he’s not working at and doesn’t really care much for it. He enjoys some music gigs and has done some private security for Kylie Minogue in the past so he was delighted to see her at Edinburgh Castle last month. He isn’t super keen on how busy the city gets but he also acknowledges that August is his best month for business so he works his ass off and then he takes his family away for a 4-week holiday in some remote beach resort in January. Although he doesn’t engage with the Fringe, it allows him to have some quality family time a few months later. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2019

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Skip to: Bite-Size, From Judy to Bette, Great Grimm Tales, Green Knight, Mustard, Police Cops in Space, Sary, Testament of Yootha, All of Me, An Audience with Yasmine Day, The Grandmothers Grimm, Moby Dick, Myra, Police Cops: badass be thy name, Taboo, Trainspotting Live

Apologies for the late arrival this year – a lot of things have been happening with inconvenient timing this year. But Edinburgh Fringe is already in its first weekend and I’d better get a move on.

So, welcome to Edinburgh Fringe 2019, the biggest Edinburgh Fringe ever by a long way. There was a time when this news prompted all-round celebrations – not any more. Questions are being asked everywhere of the affordability of Edinburgh, both to performers and punters, and last year the issue of working conditions has also joined the debate. But these issues were all the rage last year, and none of this is stopping the growth. This issue must surely come to a head eventually, but it looks like it won’t be this year.

Instead it’s business as usual. I’ve looked through the programme and picked out a selection of plays I think are worth seeing. As always, I must remind you that this should be considered a cross-section of what’s on offer rather than a comprehensive list – most of the listings are plays and acts I’ve never heard of, some of whom will be as brilliant as anything I list here. However, I have set a new rule for Edinburgh: performers get a maximum of one recommendation per category. Some groups are bringing several plays to Edinburgh and I have confidence in all of them, but in order to stop smaller artists getting swamped by all these entries I have to do something to keep the list down to something manageable. Where a group has other plays of note, I will list those against their entry.

Unless otherwise noted, all plays listed here run the entire fringe.

Safe choice:

So we start, as always, with the top tier. Most safe choices are plays I have seen before performed by a group I’ve seen before; occasionally, however, a performer has had such an impressive record I’ve put a new play straight to safe choice.

In all cases, this is a surefire recommendation if – and this is the big if – you think this play appeal to you. Few plays appeal to everyone of every taste, and if you don’t like the sound of the play, all the five-stars in the world won’t change this. However, all of these plays are considered to have wide appeal, if you like the sound of this I’m confident you’ll like it for real, and even if it’s a bit different from what you usually see it may be worth giving any of these a go. They are:

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show

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One of the greatest pleasures of going to fringe after fringe is the rare occasion when obscure newcomers go on to great things. Bite Size’s sets of ten-minute plays was something I saw in 2016 in the smaller soom of Roman Eagle Lodge, then the bigger room, then a bigger space in Gilded Balloon, and for the last few years they’ve been a headline performance at Queen Dome, one of the Pleasance’s biggest spaces. But there are bigger ones, and this year they’re in Pleasance Forth, one of the biggest of all. That’s about as big as you can get, and the full journey has been done. There is one touch of sadness attached to this: the earliest runs worked very well with the intimate setting of a small audience. But it would be impossible to go back to this now – in recent years the tickets have been selling out solidly, so there really was no option but to go large. (And even then, I am hearing that the Monday and Tuesday in week one, always in high demand because of two-for-one deals, have sold out already.) Continue reading

Edinburgh Fringe 2019 – as it happens

Wednesday 28th August: So here it is: my pick of the fringe and honourable mentions.

This time round, it was fairly easy to come up with a pick of the fringe, but the borderline between honourable mention and the rest. All the plays I’ve reviewed here had things about them I really liked, even if work needed to be done on the play as a whole. In a less competitive fringe, I would have been happy to rate any of these plays an an honourable mention. In the end, I had to decide based on the state of the play at the moment. Normally I allow the potential of the play to carry more weight, but with all plays having potential I’m using the state now as a tie-breaker.

There’s one title I’m excluding from this list, and that’s From Judy to Bette which I didn’t count as theatre in the end – that, as i said earlier, is more of a musical celebration. But amongst the others, here’s the moment of truth:

Pick of the fringe

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show
Great Grimm Tales
Green Knight*
The Rebirth of Meadow Rain
The Red
The Red Hourglass
Sary*
Testament of Yootha
Trainspotting Live*
Will, or Eight Lost years in Shakespeare’s Life

Honourable mention

An Audience with Yasmine Day*
Bad Girls Upset by the Truth
The Grandmothers Grimm*
Ladybones*
Moby Dick
Myra
Princess Party
Ritch Bitch
Showstopper
Stanley
Taboo*

Both categories are listed in alphabetical order, * indicates a production I saw this year prior to the Edinburgh Fringe that was performing in Edinburgh.

So that’s it, the end of my live coverage. Thank you for following this over the course of a month. The roundup will come in due course. Before then, a rest. We all need a rest.

Tuesday 27th August: I know I said I was going to choose pick of the fringe today, but it turns out I need to update yesterday’s info. Turns out you can’t assume a calculation is correct just because it’s in Chortle. The Stage is reporting an 8% increase, and All Edinburgh Theatre is reporting 6%. I’m minded to go with 6%, because this is roughly in line with my own calculation (note to self: yesterday’s “Chortle says 12% and I can’t be bothered to check if they’re right” wasn’t such a good idea after all),  and also that is a number that came from someone from the Festival Fringe Society itself.

The changes for Pleasance and Underbelly of +1% and -1% are still correct as far as I’m aware, but a new figure that’s emerged is a whopping 30% reported by Assembly. I wonder if the New Town is making a comeback, which may or may not be linked to the increased patronage from locals (if they choose to avoid the busiest areas) – even so, it’s difficult to see how that alone could account for a rise that dramatic. But with the Big Four offering similar kins of programmes, what else can explain such a difference in fortunes? That rise accounts for about three-quarters of the fringe-wide increase in sales (although you can expect a lot of ups and downs with other venues, so that’s a simplistic figure).

One possibility this rules out is the suspicion that the rise is is entirely down to more tickets sales for the biggest acts. Had that been the case, you would expect – since most of the biggest names are with the Big Four in the biggest spaces – the Big Four’s sales to be growing across the board. It’s still possible this could be happening in conjunction with other factors that are making these figures so confusing, but if big names are succeeding at the expense of the small names, it will be part of a complicated pattern rather than a simple one.

There is one other notable observation All Edinburgh Theatre has picked up on, which is that the Festival Fringe Society hasn’t actually made a big thing of this; their own story leads with the record number of Edinburgh locals, and you have to read to the final paragraph to see anything about sales. A similar thing happened with the unexpected growth, with prominence given to the number of international performers with the actual growth buried at the bottom of the press release. Previously the Edinburgh Fringe has shouted figures like this from the rooftops, so this year it’s conspicuous by its absence. It seems that whilst the Festival Fringe Society is not discouraging further growth on the fringe, it has stopped encouraging it. And that is interesting

And what does this all mean for the future of Edinburgh Fringe – do you think I’m going to stick my neck out with a prediction for this? Continue reading

There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman

COMMENT: The Scotsman is a highly-regarded arbiter of high-profile fringe theatre, but the service they offer groups on their first fringe venture is a different matter.

Edinburgh Fringe is about to begin. And where there’s an Edinburgh Fringe, there’s Edinburgh Fringe shenanigans. This year, the first shenanigan to hit the headlines is The Mumble, who charge people for reviews. I am in agreement with, well basically everyone, that you should have nothing to do with them, especially if you are starting off on the fringe circuit. The good news is that few people appear to have signed up to their schemes – most people, it seems, know better to put their trust in someone with such a dodgy reputation.

However, I am coming to the view that there is another publication you should be wary about, and unlike The Mumble, they are very highly regarded; and plenty of performers, beginners and veterans alike, invite their reviewers along. And that publication is The Scotsman.

It’s not got to the point where I’m telling everyone to have nothing to do with them. Their Fringe First awards are something to take seriously, and if you’re already a big name and you’re in with a shot of awards of that prestige, The Scotsman is as good an option as any. But if, like the majority of performers who read this blog, you are trying to make a name for yourself, it’s a different story. Any review request is a gamble, heavily swayed by a reviewer’s personal tastes that you have no control over. But this particular gamble is one where the odds are not in your favour. There is a high chance a Scotsman review will be useless, or worse than useless.

Continue reading

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2018

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credit: byronv2, flickr

Okay, here we go. Let’s round up the big one. After a busy spring and summer with Brighton and Buxton Fringes, Edinburgh does become a bit of an endurance test, but I can think of few better ways of pushing your stamina to the limit. This year, I managed 27 shows over six days, with thoughts on most of them dotted over my live coverage with what I thought at the time. Now it’s time to get this into some sort of order.

REVIEWS: Skip to: Vivian’s Music 1969, Proxy, Build a Rocket, The Fetch Wilson, Bite-Size, Maz and Bricks, House of Edgar, Eight, Neverwant, Hunch, My Brother’s Drug, Por Favor, This is Just Who I Am, Year Without Summer, Kin, All Out of Time, The Narcissist in the Mirror, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Match, Notflix, Dark Room / Sexy Sweaty Party Party

Edinburgh Fringe as a whole was dominated with talk of “peak fringe”. The flatline in 2016 turned out to be a blip, and now the 2018 fringe is bigger than ever – and not everybody’s happy about that. Top of the list of complaints was the over-subscribed demand on venues and especially the accommodation rendering the fringe unaffordable for many, and indeed there was a event to discuss this very issue. A secondary issue was the way that fringe workers were treated, with some serious allegations made about the behaviour of some venues that – so far, apparently – the venues in question have not denied. (Index at all the these issues as and when they were raised in the article at the bottom of this article.)

At some point, I will write my thoughts on what I think should be done about employment rights at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve already said the reform I would make to bring down costs: stop obsessing over Edinburgh to the exclusion of all the other fringes. That is unlikely to be the solution favoured by the Festival Fringe Society – but they have to say something, having already backed the cause. At the moment, the ball is in their court. It will be very interesting when they finally say what they propose to do.

But enough of that. We’ve got a lot of reviews to get through, so let’s get started.

Pick of the Fringe:

As always, in recent Edinburgh Fringes – as I’ve got better at finding the good stuff – I’ve had to get pickier over what goes in this top tier. Things that might have made it into pick of the fringe in other festivals or previous years might not make it now. At some point, it looked like I might raise the bar even higher, after an exceptional start over my first 24 hours. But in the end, there were eight that I could pick out as a cut above the rest. 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