Fringe Benefits

After a brief hiatus I’m back!

The reason for the hiatus is that I’ve been on a job hunt – no, not applying for the Artistic Director role at the NT but an actual, proper, day job. For the past two years I’ve been working part time for a marketing agency doing various office roles and building up my non director CV. It was a lovely little job, great people, fun agency and also gave me a regular income.  Unfortunately this company went into liquidation a few weeks ago so I’ve been manically (calmly?) on the hunt for something else.

However this new blog post isn’t about my personal job hunt, but rather my job hunt has prompted me to consider the gigantic job opportunity going on in Edinburgh at the moment…The Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

There really is nothing else on the same scale as the Edinburgh Fringe for up and coming theatre makers. Having ‘done’ the Fringe myself twice with Spearshaker Theatre I know the highs and lows you can experience whilst trying to get a show off the ground in bonny Scotland, all the while competing with hundreds of other companies trying to do exactly the same. But what makes doing Edinburgh worth it? For most companies the ultimate aim is to secure a transfer and perform a longer run elsewhere in the UK or abroad.  But practically, in order for that to happen you do need to have had an awful lot of publicity both prior to and during the festival ,along with a few five star reviews and a general ‘buzz’ about your show. Which for your average theatre company is often really difficult to achieve on limited time and budgets. So if realistically you’re not going to be getting the five star Guardian review and the West End transfer (not the be all and end all it must be said), what really is in it for those thousands of theatre makers who descend on Edinburgh every August?

There used to be an idea that the Edinburgh Fringe was a baptism of fire that any up and coming theatre maker should experience at least once. This is what I did when I took a show there at the age of 18. I’d never even been to The Fringe as an audience member let alone as part of a theatre company and it was indeed a baptism of fire. More than once there were more actors on stage than in the audience, flyering day and night exhausted us all, we got a scathing review from someone and our money went totally down the drain. However, it was also amazing. Really truly amazing and it definitely solidified in my mind that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up taking another show up there a year later and also whilst doing my English degree I visited a couple of times as an audience member and always enjoyed myself.

Fast forward eight years later and I took another trip up to the Fringe, this time as a jobbing director (or should that be ‘freelance’ director – oh lol!). I intended to just go and enjoy the whole thing as a punter again, catch up with some theatre friends, support shows, and really just soak up the fun atmosphere. But something had changed this time and I felt like I was seeing The Fringe in a whole different light. I was now so much more aware of how much is at stake for a company trying to get their show off the ground there, the spiralling costs of venue hire, publicity overheads, tired performers and fundamentally trying to stay motivated and positive whilst your money runs out and the West End transfer becomes less and less likely.

I was also much more aware of the larger acts that demand so much publicity, acts like famous comedians from the TV who travel up there and perform in the biggest venues to sold out audiences. They don’t need to flyer on the mile, they have an audience ready to drop £20 on a ticket without even skimming the pages of the brochure.

So where does that leave the smaller companies? No doubt it is still fun to a point, a holiday up in Edinburgh for three weeks with a group of theatricals certainly does have its plus points, but in terms of career progression it seems like a road to nowhere these days. And that in itself is a bitter pill to swallow. I know as a director I get tired of seeing adverts offering me ‘experience’ but no money, a chance to ‘build up my CV’ but no serious career progression, and it feels like the Edinburgh Fringe is just becoming an extension of this.

I still believe that for an actor, director, stage manager etc. At the very start of their career, the Edinburgh Fringe is still a very valuable baptism of fire. If anything it teaches you that you’ve really got to fight to succeed in this business and definitely not take anything personally. It also gives you a glimpse at the kind of people you might be working with in the future, and also what your competition looks like.

But for the more seasoned professional, even if they’ve only been in the game for a couple of years, I do wonder what the long term and even the short term career benefits are of being up in Edinburgh for the month of August . I say this particularly for those that are putting their own money at stake because it’s hard enough to break even, let alone make a profit.

I’m hoping to pop up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year to check it all out and give it another chance, perhaps things are improving but I will have to wait and see…watch this space, I promise to report back!

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