How can new voices make themselves heard at Edinburgh Festival Fringe?
It’s the ultimate Edinburgh Fringe fairytale: in 1966 a student company called the Oxford Theatre Group mounted a one-act play by a 29-year old writer. Legendary critic Harold Hobson called it “a literary and theatrical curiosity”, while The Stage’s critic balked at the “large amount of verbal padding and repetition” that this oblique retelling of Hamlet contained. Others received the play more favourably, and it transferred to the West End, to Broadway and to Kenneth Tynan’s nascent National Theatre. The play was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the playwright Tom Stoppard.
Half a century ago there were fewer than 500 productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; this year there are 3,269. The odds of success – financial, critical, reputational – are stacked against new writers. Can new voices be heard amid the noise?
Playwright Anthony Neilson, whose career was effectively launched at Edinburgh, thinks so “if the work is bold and original and timely in some way”. He adds: “Outside London, it’s still the best gateway to the industry.”
In 1991, his second play Normal “pretty much kick-started” his career. “We got some TV coverage and we were nominated for some award or other,” he explains. It transferred to the Finborough and gave Neilson his first London production.
As ever, 2016 offers a new batch of writers, many of whom have never been to the fringe before, hoping for the same kind of recognition. For Katie Brennan, trained in musical theatre, taking her show Quarter-Life Crisis to the festival, it is partly about control. “Quite soon after graduating I wasn’t getting very much work and feeling a bit glum about that, so I decided to start putting on my own stuff.”
Being immersed in an artistic community is one of the draws of Edinburgh for Brennan, too. “This year is my 10th year at the fringe. I guess there’s something magic. People are very willing to talk about what their experiences are, to share their love for what they’re doing. It’s a great place to network, meet people and be inspired.”
One of the most common forms of new writing at the fringe is the monologue. They’re small-scale and cheap, and they can also do very well: last year, James Fritz’s monologue Ross and Rachel was in the Brits Off Broadway programme and had a run at Battersea Arts Centre. But playwright Howard Coase, whose time-hopping play Callisto: A Queer Epic is at Pleasance this year, is deliberately kicking against the monologue trend. Callisto tells four interconnected queer stories, beginning with the first recorded UK lesbian marriage in 1670, and ending in a research lab on the moon in 2223.
“It started as a bunch of disparate monologues,” he says. “I thought that’s a fringey thing, a good way to respond to being in a tiny little black box with 20 people. Talk to them. But I’m glad we’ve avoided that.” Instead, by weaving four plays into one, Coase is pushing at the limitations of putting on a fringe show. “The challenge is doing it in 70 minutes. We have so little time and so much to get through. It’ll be a breakneck, rollercoaster thing.” Inevitably, huge amounts had to be cut: one of the storylines was 80 pages on its own.
With venues tending to offer 60-minute slots, and only a few minutes for get in and get out, a lot of new work is written specifically for these specifications. Another fringe first-timer refusing to acquiesce, however, is Andy Platt. Almost 20 years in the making, his musical No Horizon tells the story of historical figure Nicholas Saunderson, a blind 18th-century mathematician. “He was a blunt, forthright Yorkshireman who ended up consorting with kings and queens.”
Platt, like Coase, had trouble squeezing the show into a fringe-ready length.
“We’ve had to massively modify it to make it shorter, to make the cast size manageable.” By fringe standards, though, it’s still a huge team: 17 cast members, several crew, and a running time of 90 minutes. “We knew it was not possible to condense it to an hour,” he says. “It would be too potted, but when it came time to trying to get a venue, that was really difficult. There were a lot of stressful, sleepless nights.”
But there are ways around these limitations. Just ask James Grieve, one of the artistic directors of new writing company Paines Plough. It takes its own venue to the fringe. Paines Plough first set up the pop-up Roundabout in Summerhall’s courtyard in 2014. It’s a portable in-the-round space that was designed to be taken all over the country. But the company quickly realised the benefit of taking its flat-pack venue to Edinburgh: not having to worry about running times (“we’re much less militant about overrunning”) and being in complete control of programming. “It feels different from other venues which are often black box and end-on,” he says.
Although the company exists year round, Grieve says that “Edinburgh is a big focus, because we tend to premiere work there before going out on tour.” This year it has three premieres, which provide a running jump for the year ahead. “We find that premiering stuff in Edinburgh can really benefit the tour. It’s a really theatre-literate audience. Industry-wise and press-wise, everyone’s in town.”
The big difference, of course, between Paines Plough’s operation in Edinburgh and the new writing offered by Coase, Platt or Brennan is that Paines Plough is a huge company. Grieve and his team use the festival not only to showcase their work, but to scout for talent, too. One of the shows playing in the Roundabout this year, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, was spotted by Paines Plough last year and the writer, Sam Steiner, was recently awarded the company’s playwright fellowship.
In the 15 years he’s been going to the fringe, Grieve hasn’t lost the thrill of seeing new work. “It’s the place where I see most people first. Every year you go and see a new play, you don’t know the writer, and you come out and go, ‘Wow, I think I’ve just seen somebody who could be really special’.”
But it brings extra pressure for Paines Plough as a company: “Edinburgh is the one time of year when we’re technically operating commercially, in that Edinburgh has to wash its face. We don’t use any of our public subsidy for Edinburgh because we don’t get it for that, we get it for touring. We’re not there to make a commercial profit, but we do need it to cover itself.”
Writing the play is only the beginning of taking new work to Edinburgh. Next, you’ve got to sell tickets. Neilson’s advice is that “it’s not the time to be tasteful or understated; you have to be a bit of a huckster”.
Brennan is even hoping to make a profit: “We’ve all got to pay our bills and, as much as we love what we do, we deserve to be paid. It is hard to take pride in that and say that what we’re doing is worth people paying for.”
While smaller teams are financially more expedient Brennan makes the point that having a smaller team means doing more work to promote the show. “I’ve always been part of a company, so there’s been a lot of bodies to flyer and get the word out,” he says. “This time it’s just me and Joe [Atkins, the show’s composer].” He is looking at getting small slots in variety shows and ‘pick of the fringe’ revues.
Brennan insists the effort is worth it. “You always have to start with ‘why are you doing it’, rather than ‘I just want to do a show’. You have to do it to make a point.”
New writing at the fringe
Katie Brennan’s Quarter-Life Crisis
August 3-29, 10.50pm
Callisto: A Queer Epic
August 3-29, 11.50am
No Horizon – The Musical
August 3-27, 5pm
The Roundabout Theatre is in the Summerhall Courtyard throughout the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
That’s certainly true of Platt, a primary school headteacher by day. “I’ve seen in schools how you can influence children through the power of the arts, and I’m a huge believer that it can change lives. I passionately believe in this story.
“As a primary school teacher you come across iconic stories that you share with the children, whether it’s Florence Nightingale or Mary Seacole. Then here’s a fellow who overcame remarkable hurdles and he’s been forgotten about. History’s been very cruel to him. It’s about sharing this story with the world.” For Platt, Edinburgh is an end in itself: many more people will hear the story of Saunderson.
The work doesn’t stop once the play’s been written. Without “the right venue and good (and early) coverage,” according to Neilson, without somewhere to sleep and, crucially, without a substantial pot of money (Platt estimates No Horizon cost £30,000-£40,000) a show will go unnoticed and unwatched.
“It’s kind of impossible,” says Coase. “It’s hard to stand out without loads of groundwork going into making sure the right people are coming along, making sure you’re at a great venue. Sometimes the whole thing can be like white noise.”
And being just one of 3,269 shows means that the Stoppard legend is now just that – a legend. Until, of course, the next one comes along.
Tim Bano is an arts journalist and critic. Listen to his Edinburgh podcasts for The Stage throughout August.
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