Non-UK artists at Edinburgh: ‘It’s the world’s biggest arts festival. Nothing can match it’
If you could sell it like something out of Silicon Valley it would make billions, but of course the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has no backers or stockholders, no founder-owner, not even a patent. Indeed, as an open-source, open-access platform, it can be hard for foreign performers and companies to get their heads around the benefit of coming all the way over for a costly and probably rainy 25 days in Scotland.
But come over they do from overseas, and in increasing numbers, cementing Edinburgh as the top showcase for the performing arts worldwide, all the more significant since few countries have a long-standing fringe tradition. Quintessentially a product of Anglo-world culture, the fringe is a phenomenon that even the US is still catching up on, while France doesn’t even have a word for it.
Much is to be gained from the exposure that Edinburgh offers. It’s an optimum place, for example, for foreign companies to meet not only UK but also foreign bookers. That exposure can be critical now as the axe falls on culture funding across the world – the Netherlands and France being two recent, high-profile casualties. Access to markets is paramount therefore as theatre touring and festivals become growth industries worldwide – and it’s the Edinburgh model that sets the standard.
Non-UK countries represented at Edinburgh Fringe, 2011-2016
No. of international shows:
No. of non-UK countries:
Although the festival is clearly in good health, 2016 finally sees the long-expected dip in its relentless expansion – 3,269 shows in 294 venues compared with 3,314 in 313 venues for 2015. While the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, for all its much-vaunted IT investment, cannot provide detailed breakdowns for the foreign presence at Edinburgh, what stats we can glean (and figures may change as the festival gets underway) indicate that non-UK participating countries are down to 43 from 45, but individual productions are up to 585 from 571.
While there is an almost full complement of European countries, the rest of the world is under par – most likely due to the uncertain global economy. Hitherto strong contender Brazil has only one show – indeed, officially there are no other shows from South America – while the Caribbean has a music act from Cuba. South Africa still has nine shows in the running, but the rest of Africa is represented by a single show from Ghana.
India brings a mere four shows to the fringe, contrasting with China’s 30 and Hong Kong’s three. South Korea fields 14, Japan 10, Taiwan five, Singapore two, while closer to home Russia and Turkey offer three and one respectively, but we do get three Palestinian shows. Sadly there is no offering from Iran, despite the promising re-establishment of visa and cultural ties with the UK in 2015.
Unsurprisingly, it is the Anglo world that hogs the limelight, with Ireland alone bringing 51 shows plus the Culture Ireland at Edinburgh Festivals showcase. Canada has 33, New Zealand 18, while the 192 shows from the US include regulars such as the American High School Theatre Festival programme. Australia’s 114 shows appear alongside Made in Adelaide, a showcase for South Australian talent and opportunities.
Representing the US, cabaret performance poet Dandy Darkly is in town with Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth!, a free show at CC Blooms. He has no regrets about making his fourth foray to Edinburgh: “The fringe is exhausting and expensive, but there’s no other festival that inspires the way this one does. As an international performer, it’s an invaluable step outside your comfort zone and into this alternate universe where art literally happens on every street corner, every hour of every day.
“Access to so many incredible performers of such diverse backgrounds affords a clarity of one’s own work you simply cannot find when at home. It’s worth every penny.”
That access is a crucial selling point for Edinburgh, says Australian performance artist Jessica McKerlie, at Sweet with Gender Spanner: “I’m bringing my first solo show to Edinburgh because I want to tour all over the world. I’ve just done a tour of the Australian fringe circuit before tackling overseas, and I also want to try Canada, New Zealand and US fringes. But I’m still learning a lot about the industry and am weighing up my options for independent regional touring. If I can make a name on the fringe circuit, more opportunities will open up.”
So is Edinburgh worth the investment? “Not necessarily if you’re in it for the money,” says McKerlie. “I know people with successful fringe careers, but I have also seen how it can just eat away your dollars. For me, it’s still early days and only time will tell, but I’m encouraged by the progress I’ve made in a year to keep pushing.”
Five international seasons to catch at edinburgh
Big in Belgium Celebrating its fourth edition with six productions from Flanders and the Netherlands, the programme has made Summerhall its home under organisers Ontroerend Goed (Belgium) and producer Richard Jordan (UK).
Tip: catch legendary children’s theatre Bronks with Us/Them. bit.ly/biginbelgium
From Start to Finnish Finland’s theatre is celebrating its sixth consecutive year at Edinburgh with a trio of theatre, dance and circus-comedy shows, respectively The Chicken Trial (Pleasance Courtyard), Red (Dance Base), and The Pianist (Assembly Roxy). starttofinnish.fi
Italian Institute Edinburgh’s Istituto Italiano di Cultura offers an umbrella programme that operates out of its own premises in Nicolson Street and venues across town. Each year there’s a wide range of productions with lots of surprises. Tip: video/commedia dell’arte mash-up Machina at Zoo. bit.ly/italian-institute
Korean Season Organised by producers AtoBIZ, the second Korean Season with Assembly offers five shows straight from South Korea. There’s less of the avant-garde this time around, with the emphasis on general entertainment. Tip: Chef: Come Dine with Us! at Assembly George Square Theatre, from the creators of hits Cookin’ and Jump. atobiz.co.kr
Taiwan Season Taiwan has a more focused programme this year, with five dance, physical and children’s shows running across Zoo, Dance Base, Assembly and Summerhall. Tip: NuShu at Dance Base, Water Reflection Dance Ensemble’s celebration of an ancient secret language for women. bit.ly/taiwanseason-fb
And see spotlight on the Institut Francais’ Vive Le Fringe! programme (scroll to the end of this article). vivelefringe.org
Robyn Paterson, whose crowdfunded solo show The South Afreakins is at Spotlites, is from New Zealand. “I’ve come to Edinburgh because of the platform it provides to be seen by the best national and international casting directors, agents and festival presenters,” she says. “Whether it’ll be worth the investment remains to be seen but I don’t see myself regretting the time, money or effort I’ve put into doing this. Taking chances like this always pays off in some respect.
“Compared with New Zealand, the opportunities in the UK seem endless. Just in London, there are smaller theatre festivals with reputable venues that can offer a similar type of exposure, but Edinburgh is the biggest arts festival in the world and I’m not sure if anything can match the type of platform it provides.”
Each year there’s usually a play from Georgia, and in 2016 Tumanishvili Film Actors Theatre perform A Streetcar Named Desire at Assembly Roxy. The company won one of The Stage Edinburgh Awards in 2014 for Animal Farm, a large ensemble piece directed by Guy Masterson. But now, as then, physically getting to Edinburgh is a major job in itself.
As director Keti Dolidze explains: “We are committed to introducing and promoting Georgian culture abroad, but this year we again experienced stumbling blocks while fund-raising. We therefore made the critical decision to secure funding from the budget of Tbilisi’s Georgian International Festival of Arts to ensure we raised enough money to return with a large ensemble piece to Edinburgh.
Start planning your international fringe calendar
Edmonton International Fringe Festival (August, founded 1982)
New York International Fringe Festival (August, founded 1997)
Amsterdam Fringe Festival (September, founded 2006)
Melbourne Fringe (September-October, founded 1982)
Stockholm Fringe (October, founded 2010)
Adelaide Fringe (February-March, founded 1960)
Roma Fringe Festival (March, founded 2012)
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown (June-July, founded 1973)
“We have also faced challenges securing our visas. [At the time of going to print] we are still waiting for approval on some of our cast’s visa applications. All of our passports have been sent to the UK consulate in Istanbul, and they are now in the process of the final decision-making. We are hoping that everyone will have their visas in time.”
In terms of visas, the Edinburgh Fringe has a special agreement with the UK to allow international artists to perform. But it is not always straightforward, since UK visas are increasingly processed by French private contractor service TLScontact, and passports often need to be sent to a totally different country for approval, Turkey in Georgia’s case.
Having an easier time of it, though still bringing over seven performers, a tour manager and director from the other side of the world, is Vou Fiji Dance with Are We Stronger Than Winston? at Greenside @ Nicolson Square.
“The show has been funded by online fundraising initiatives,” says the company’s marketing and arts coordinator Vanessa Eden. “We think the world needs to know through dance about the personal devastation and impact that climate change is having on individuals in Fiji and how they feel about it, which is why we have come to Edinburgh.
“It’s part of a tour where we have already played Glastonbury, then Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania, Plymouth University, UK and next France. Previously we have performed in China, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Guam, Canada and the USA.
“Every place is different with diverse audiences and expectations. Edinburgh will be a whole new experience, with a different audience again and very diverse participants, which Vou will be able to learn from.”
And of course, in these post-EU referendum days, you don’t have to be based overseas to be counted as foreign. Now living in the UK, Luca Cupani evokes his homeland of Italy by weaving stand-up with a theatrical flourish with Luca Cupani: The Admin of Death and Other Confessions, which is playing at Heroes of Fringe’s the Blundabus.
The festival is a perfect laboratory, says Cupani: “Edinburgh is a unique chance to accelerate my career. It quickly gives me answers to the main questions: Am I good? What is the state of our art now? How will the audience react to my material? Moreover, for an Italian performer, having played on an international stage like Edinburgh is a big achievement that helps to promote yourself (and hopefully your show) in your native country.
“No matter where you’re from, Edinburgh is a great place for any performer to feel at home.”
Vive la difference: the Gallic venue adding a Euro flavour
Under the suitably Anglo-Gallic title of Vive le Fringe!, the revival five years ago of Edinburgh’s Institut Francais d’Ecosse as a fringe venue has created a welcome platform for productions from the French theatre world that traditionally has only rarely ventured to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Previously, the institute had hired out its premises to an American producer, Nia Schooler, who ran it successfully as the Randolph Studio, but there followed a fallow period when no shows were put on. Eventually, the institute decided that it would set itself up as a venue with a curated programme of French theatre.
As the institute’s director Emmanuel Cocher explains: “The simple idea behind the reboot was to keep the Institut Francais as a year-round venue that is deeply involved in the cultural life of the city. So in 2012, Vive le Fringe! was born. We build our fringe budget on the annual subvention we receive from the French government, and we do relatively big with very little.
“We always insist on finding companies where adapting their act for an international audience is the next step of their professional development. Also each year we’re trying to present a current image of the state of performing arts in France in all its variety and diversity.”
For the first time, the institute put out an open call this year, inviting companies and artists from around the world to apply. As a result, it now has a mix not only from France but also Turkey, Germany and even the UK. “This is our most European Vive le Fringe! to date, which coincidently is very appropriate and topical,” says Cocher.
As with Germany and its cultural arm the Goethe-Institut (itself not a regular presence at Edinburgh), the French-speaking nations are strongly committed to promoting their arts internationally, and the institute in Edinburgh works in close collaboration with agencies such as Belgium’s Wallonie-Bruxelles International and Canada’s Quebec to bring work to the programme.
With eight permanent staff, the Randolph Crescent building grows to up to 14 during the fringe, including technical staff and volunteers, and features a spacious cafe/library in addition to its two spaces – two years ago it added a circus yurt.
“We’re continuing to try out new things,” says Cocher. “For example, accommodating six performers of the Turkish company Theatre Hayal Perdesi on our small theatre stage. This is a first for us, being more used to solo shows or very small productions. We’re also excited to have them presenting The Empire Builders, a play by Boris Vian, a French writer best remembered for his jazzy novels.”
The institute has built up a close relationship with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society to raise awareness of the festival over in France, including organising regular visits to the country’s own main gathering for theatre, the Avignon Festival, which takes place in July and features the ‘Off’ fringe section.
As part of its commitment to being a platform for French and francophone artists to explore and thrive at the fringe, Vive le Fringe! provides its performance spaces for free, supports the companies logistically and technically, and offers a 60/40 box-office deal in the act’s favour.
As Cocher says: “For most of the companies we welcome, this is usually their first incursion into UK territory, and it’s a chance for them to leave their comfort zone and confront themselves with an international audience and adapt their work for that audience.
“With the great amount of professional and media attention the fringe receives, this is also a fantastic opportunity for companies to get international reviews and noticed by professionals from all around the world, which will help towards their international development.”