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The Green Room: Has the Edinburgh Festival Fringe had its day?

The National Theatre of Scotland’s multi-award-winning hit Black Watch started life at the fringe The National Theatre of Scotland’s multi-award-winning hit Black Watch started life at the fringe. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​​

Eoghan Barry is 30. He has worked professionally as an actor on fringe projects and work for young people and more recently as a writer

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National and West End

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with forays into TV, film and playsBeryl I haven’t been for 10 years, so feel slightly under-qualified for this one.

I haven’t ever been. All I’ve heard about it is that: 1. It’s busy as hell; 2. There are people flyering everywhere; 3. It’s really expensive and 4. It’s amazing.

Peter I haven’t been to the festival since I was a student in the 1960s – when the fringe was still the fringe – so I’m unqualified too.

Jon Well, I think they would hope to have a wider cultural impact than just the people attending. I’ve never been to Glastonbury, but it has its fair share of nationwide cultural ‘moments’.

Eoghan Having presented work at Vault Festival in London recently, I certainly think that the organisers of that have hit a much more sustainable model for artists than Edinburgh.

Albert How so?

Jon It’s interesting that you should mention Vault. I’ve definitely heard a lot of (London-based, admittedly) theatremakers say that they’ll be developing a show there rather than taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Peter There’s been a lot of publicity about the expense of accommodation, both for performers and audience. Something the city council and university should address.

Beryl My experience was of lots of people being skint and bitter about people not attending their shows. I was paid and had nice accommodation, but lots of others seemed to be struggling.

Eoghan Edinburgh is an absolute money pit – Vault’s agreement is a 70/30% box office split in favour of the artists, with no fees up front. Looking at taking the same piece to Edinburgh, we worked out a budget to pay people – not brilliantly, but decently – meant we would have lost £5,000 even if we’d sold 100% of tickets.

Albert I was last there eight years ago to direct and loved the atmosphere. I did a show there in 1990, but mercifully just for the last week. I loved it, and as long as you can afford it, it’s a great atmosphere.

The atmosphere is something else and it does offer a full month’s work, a guaranteed slot and a strong industry showcase

Eoghan The atmosphere in Edinburgh is something else and it does offer a full month’s work, a pretty much guaranteed slot and a strong industry showcase. Those seem to be the main selling points.

Albert I suspect the problem lies in that Edinburgh sees it as a big tourist draw and it isn’t really a place to think about earning any money. It’s a loss leader and because there is so much going on, the chance of anything coming out of it is very small.

Eoghan I agree, Albert. It’s not an arts venue hosting artists, it’s a city hosting them.

Beryl The festival audiences can be a bit: “Right, what’s next?” With a cramming attitude, you don’t always get the best of them.

Peter I understand stand-up has grown at the expense of plays?

Jon I was saying 20 years ago that it was essentially a comedy festival (and I wasn’t a seer, or the only one) so I think that’s been the case for a long time.

Eoghan If you can get a buzz in Edinburgh, that’s great, but the sheer scale of it now means even good shows will get overlooked and the good shows are still there working at a loss.

Albert Stand-ups or one-person shows are the only ones who have a chance of covering costs.

Eoghan You say that Albert, but I have stand-up mates who have lost £10,000 doing shows. There are so many demands; venue costs, accommodation, travel, flyers, PR and so on… before you sell a single ticket.

Peter I see Stephen Fry is doing a one-man show. I wonder what he charges?

Jon Fry is also doing his show at the Palladium as part of a UK tour, so it’s not precisely an ‘Edinburgh show’.

Albert We did a four-hander with names, and sold out every day in a 130-seater venue, but I think the guy who wrote, produced and starred in it didn’t make any money.

Jon I’m struggling to think of a big theatre show that can trace its genesis to the festival. Black Watch. But that was 15 years ago.

Peter Some comics have certainly made their names there.


Beryl Thought Fleabag came out of Soho?

Albert It did, didn’t it?

Jon Fleabag is a good call. It was a bit of both I think. Edinburgh in August, then Soho in September, already scheduled.

Jenny Didn’t The Play That Goes Wrong start there? And Six, when it was a fledgling university project.

Jon Of course, Six. Edinburgh to Broadway in two years. That’s definitely a feather in their cap.

Beryl So many shows seem to get Fringe Firsts now. Does that devalue the award? You may remember I am no fan of awards.

Jenny There are a lot of awards for everything across the theatre spectrum now. Too many.

Jon On the subject of awards, the comedy award seems to be much more of a ‘you will now play bigger rooms’ than the ‘here’s a six-part TV series’ it used to be.

Jenny It definitely feels like the head honchos at TV studios are trying to avoid making comedians famous now – keeping them on panel shows and Live at the Apollo type shows instead of investing in series.

Eoghan I’d say I can see why the Free Fringe has sprung up, but even with that, you’re still fighting massive accommodation hikes and all the accompanying PR and promo stuff that goes with the festival. It’s a real strain and people see it as the be-all and end-all. As an industry, we could be a bit more imaginative than saying: “Well this single month and festival is where we’ll find our programme for the next year.”

Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

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