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: 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