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Edinburgh Fringe remains the Holy Grail

             by David Weir

No-one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, said Dr Samuel Johnson. The good doctor also believed ‘the finest sight a Scotchman ever sees is the High Road leading to England’.

Well, every year several thousand writers, actors and performers prove the great polymath wrong on both counts by hitching their wagons and heading north to the world’s biggest arts festival, braving a Scottish August’s cold and rain and more than likely to be sent home again lighter of heart but considerably lighter of bank balance

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival featured just shy of 55,000 performances in just over three weeks this August. That’s nearly 3,500 separate shows in 300 venues ranging from 400-seaters in the main spaces to a dozen chairs in the back of a café down Leith Walk.  And all those shows in search of an audience.  If getting them in off the streets for a London pub run is tough, finding punters willing to part with their cash in a city of near infinite choice and variety can feel like crossing the Atlantic in a rowing boat.

 For many, though, Edinburgh is a highlight in a touring schedule that will have passed through London pubs or be on their way to them. For some, it’s a one-off experience, for others its now an event in the diary every year. The Canal Café’s four-nights-a-week News Revue in London, for example, is not just the longest-running live comedy show, but now a hardy annual at Edinburgh, getting five-star reviews with its ‘popular songs everyone knows, adapted with razor sharp lyrics that cut through the political bollocks of 2018’.

Caroline Burns-Cooke, whose one-woman show premiered in Edinburgh this August, is another actor who’s performed in Edinburgh shows for many of the past 40 years. Two years ago, she first produced her own solo show there. This year, she did it again with Proxy, due on at the Hen and Chickens in Islington in November. “Edinburgh still remains a Holy Grail,” she says, “and there is still something special about it.” Holy Grail or not, it can be hard to always look on the bright side of life when weeks of rehearsal, an overdraft and five hours solidly handing out flyers to festival-goers with near infinite choice result in walking out on stage to three people, and two of them on a two-for-one deal.

Lucy Roslyn who took her own play Showmanship to the C Venue this year captures both the pain and the reward: “It is a hard slog doing the festival,” she says. “On your low days you may question what the hell you’re doing, but in this exhausting month you discover companies you find inspiring. You meet performers you would love to work with. You make friends.”

The Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947, with the aim of showcasing high art and culture, and the ‘official’ Festival still exists with a mixture of serious plays and orchestral music that safely sell their tickets. To little notice that first year, though, were just eight theatre companies who turned up uninvited to put on their own more varied shows in unofficial ‘fringe’ venues (one of them 30 miles outside the city across the river Forth). From that small beginning, the Fringe grew spectacularly and now dwarves its slightly po-faced parent, with more than 3,500 companies, performers and, frankly, chancers filling around 300 separate venues, schools, church halls, cafes, and, from time to time, a travelling caravan.

“It’s the Edinburgh Fringe,” says Caroline Burns-Cooke “It’s one of the few places people have heard of and are impressed by.”

One of the most valuable things for a performer or writer is that the Fringe is open access – the official Festival is invitation only, but there is no restriction on taking a show to the Fringe if you can pay for a venue and are willing to take the risk. “Of course this makes it democratic,” says Burns-Cooke. “and it is so vast these days.” Lucy Roslyn agrees that the Fringe is enormous, but says that “everyone is in the same boat – the same doubts, the same struggle to find an audience, the same strained feelings about reviews, the same horror stories. These things make you feel overwhelming alone, but you only have to turn around to someone and realise you have all these things in common.” All of which makes it not primarily about the money, more about the camaraderie and connections, the work itself, and what Lucy Roslyn calls a personal sense of worth.

As Burns-Cooke says, “You could come for self-promotion but this obviously works only for a tiny minority and is unlikely if you don’t have good PR or a gimmick behind you. But it can happen and that remains the dream.” And dreams really do come true.  In 1966, perhaps most famously, rave Fringe reviews for an absurdist comedy called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead made one Tom Stoppard an overnight sensation. Always wondered what happened to him!

Says Lucy Roslyn, though, with feet firmly ground-planted: “The festival is a trade show – you present something you are proud to stand beside, and if you are served any blows, have the courage to take them as an opportunity to lead you into making better work.  I would say it is not a competition, because another show’s success is not your failure. Granted, the festival is enormous now, and it sucks if your audience is thin on the ground, but often an audience of four can be just as incredible as a full house.”

The Fringe itself now has a sort-of Fringe of its own.  The Free Fringe was set up 15 years ago to counter a feeling that the Fringe was becoming a bit too, well, ‘official’.   While it hasn’t yet achieved the cachet of the Fringe, it is growing annually and attractive to financially strapped writers and performers, this year, hosting 9,237 performances (its most yet) of 402 shows at 25 venues.

After all, for all its democracy, the Fringe is an expensive business. You need to hire a venue, pay for transport, accommodation and food, and pay actors, writers, technicians and more. There’s publicity – all those flyers don’t pay for themselves. And there’s a registration fee.  In its guide for performers, the Fringe advises that most companies should expect to make a loss.  “If you’re going to Edinburgh in the hope of making a profit,” says Lucy Roslyn, “Godspeed, my friend. Over the cost of the venue hire and a place to stay, we’ve only ever made enough profit to buy one round in the bar, I reckon”.  

Venues cost anywhere from nothing to £10,000, depending on the size and fame of the space. It’s hardly surprising that solo shows and two-handers predominate – the fewer bodies to house and mouths to feed, the better.  Lucy Roslyn explains: “Every show we’ve taken has been simple: simply staged, small to solo performers, and many favours called on in order to make it happen. We have created the pieces with the demands of a festival and minimum funding in mind.” But the limits are frustrating: “The downside of having done this is that it can become difficult to imagine creating larger, more demanding work.”

Caroline Burns-Cooke argues for the value of the slightly more expensive, better-known venues – even though her show this year is likely to leave her several thousand pounds out of pocket.“My two shows have been at the Gilded Balloon and I think it’s worth paying to be in the “top four” venues – the Balloon, the Assembly, the Pleasance or the Underbelly.  I paid around £1,300 for the lovely Turret space in the Gilded Teviot, which is quite reasonable, and I’ll get a little back.” It was nearly £2,000 last time (for her show And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet in 2016).  “With accommodation, posters, the two brochures, Fringe and Gilded charges, flyers, and lighting/sound operator I’d estimate it cost £4,000 to £5,000, not including paying the director and living. And mine’s a cheap show!”

Lucy Roslyn went outside the big four, to the C Royale at Greenside, and found strength there: “I would hope that good work in any venue will attract, and from what I have seen, it does. A good atmosphere and kind staff do not go unnoticed. There was the most brilliant family atmosphere coming, for example, from the Greenside Venue this year. I know it feels like you must desperately make it into one of the better known venues or else perish by the wayside, but I think good work and the recommendations for it will take you all over the city.”

The rewards are not immediately pecuniary, then, and Lucy Roslyn warns that returns might not come through until around late October from some venues. On the other hand, Burns-Cooke’s 2016 show has, on the back of strong reviews at Edinburgh, gone on to tour the UK and parts of Europe, eventually winning Outstanding Performance at the Prague Fringe earlier this year. Similarly, Roslyn’s play The State Vs John Hayes (King’s Head theatre 2015) won the 2015 Argus Angel for Artistic Excellence, and Goody (Greenwich Theatre 2017), won the 2017 Les Enfant Terribles “Greenwich Partnership” Award. Both received multiple 4/5 star reviews during their runs and have led on to multiple collaborations for future work.

The current state of play for Burns-Cooke is wait and see. “… I did get one London booking [for Proxy], but financially you really can’t expect a return.”

Some venues offer smaller rental and a box-office split.  Straight rental with you taking the box office is more standard. The Fringe, in its advice to performers, suggests calculating likely income at 25 to 33 per cent of audience capacity – which means a max of 16 seats in a 50-seat venue, or about £224 a show at £14 a ticket. Trains for two from London to Edinburgh in August eat one show’s revenues at that rate.

Why do it, then?

“You do it for the show,” says Caroline Burns-Cooke, “the wonderful audience response, and reviews in order to sell it on don’t hurt. But financially and emotionally it can be gruelling”.Lucy Roslyn agrees: “Above all you learn about your own art. Regardless how many people come to your show, and what the reviews say – there is a sense of accomplishment from being a part of such a creative environment – and neither the audience numbers or the critics should come before that personal sense of worth. You did it.” And there’s friendship and professional admiration in the mix, too. “One of the greatest rewards of doing the Edinburgh Fringe is the connections you can make to other companies and performers. People whose work you are proud to champion over the years,” says Lucy Roslyn. “If you support one another and make a genuine connection, you never know who you’re going to meet or what future collaborations you will make.”

If the secret of comedy is timing, it’s much the same with Fringe show. Burns-Cooke again: “My 2016 show was 12.15 pm which was fine. This year, 11 am proved a wake-up too far, and I suffered with very small – if perfectly formed – audiences.”Notoriously, the early slots are hard to sell – the plethora of Shakespeare for Breakfast and Bite-Size-type shows offering coffee, croissants and, in the latter case, a strawberry, highlight the inventiveness needed.  One church hall this year hosting Oliver Twist offered bowls of soup.

Financially speaking, the Fringe can be a pretty cold house for writers, actors and performers, but the other rewards are huge.  The thrill of performing a whole month. The excitement when an audience comes. The even greater excitement when that audience laughs or gasps. And the bigger thrill still when you overhear someone in a café or pub telling someone your show was great.

Mixing with other performers, meeting the great and the good, impressing producers and promoters. Above all, impressing yourself.  No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, performed or produced except for money?  Dream on, Samuel. Dream on. 

Proxy by Caroline Burns-Cooke is at the Hen and Chickens, Islington, on 18 and 19 November

News Revue runs four nights a week at the Canal Café

Showmanship by Lucy Roslyn is at Theatre 503 on 25 and 26 November

 @November 2018 London Pub theatres Magazine

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