Pleasance director Anthony Alderson: ‘The secret is to make chaos look as natural as possible’
From humble beginnings, the Pleasance has risen to become one of the biggest venues at the world’s biggest arts event – the Edinburgh Fringe. The man at the helm talks to Tim Bano about an organisation that strives to provide a platform for theatremakers to develop their skills and that continues to embody the spirit of the fringe
There’s barely been a year when Anthony Alderson hasn’t spent August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Whether working as a travelling salesman in Nairobi or a carpenter in London, every summer he would head back to his hometown for a month of mucking in. In 1985, his design and technology teacher Christopher Richardson had just taken over two small spaces on a road called Pleasance in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. It has since become one of the biggest venues at the biggest arts festival in the world. It’s responsible for almost a quarter of all tickets sold at the fringe every year, with an annual turnover of more than £6 million. And these days Alderson is in charge of it all.
“My role,” he explains, “is to pick up the slack when the rest of the team are just getting on with their day-to-day jobs.”
He’s sitting at a picnic table in Pleasance Courtyard a few days after the festival has kicked off. It’s still early morning and there aren’t many people around. Just a few parents bracing themselves for a children’s show.
Alderson has a coffee and he looks like he needs it. His soft blue eyes are disarming, his blond-and-grey beard scruffy – “My wife hates it” – and he seems more frazzled than he did a week before. There’s definitely the look of someone carrying the weight of 250 staff, two major sites and half a million ticket sales.
“Our job is an interesting one because we are the jam in the middle of the sandwich. On one side are the performing companies, on the other is the public, and we are trying to marry those two things together in the most perfect way, in an environment that is entirely temporary and you have to build in two weeks.
“And then what you do is you give it to a whole bunch of young people who haven’t got a bloody clue what they’re doing, but you know damn well they’re bright enough and clever enough they can fucking well work it out.”
Young people drive the organisation, in Alderson’s view. “This is one of the greatest academies for people who want to get into this industry,” he says.
“I don’t run the Pleasance,” Alderson insists. “I steer it and help them make decisions, but I don’t run it.”
The organisation has grown colossally in three decades, but Alderson keeps bringing up the idea of a Pleasance family. Of people being nurtured by the organisation, growing through it, and then giving back to it when they have become established in the industry. In retaining the family feel the venue, despite its size, has never really lost its fringe spirit.
Companies that sink their savings into taking work there, or artists frustrated at the abstruse process of getting a slot in the programme, or punters having to pay more than a fiver for a pint may disagree – and Alderson concedes that the fringe as a whole has become too over-commercialised.
But spending time around the venue, it’s hard not to get a strong sense of its fringe-y scrappiness. “The secret of the Pleasance was always to make chaos look as natural as you possibly could,” he says.
The ethos runs through the place, even if Alderson’s staff sometimes wish he were a little more hands-off. There was a moment a couple of years back when he was high up a scaffold in the middle of a storm, and the production manager made it clear that the boss was no longer allowed to pick up any more tools. “I am a carpenter. I love the process of building something. I am not the person to be there once it’s opened, which is why the festival suits me down to the ground – it’s a year of planning for a month of performance,” Alderson says.
He started building things at Uppingham School, where Pleasance’s founder Richardson was Alderson’s design and technology teacher – “In fact, he hasn’t ever stopped being a teacher for me.” After church on a Sunday, Richardson worked with his students to put on school productions, all extra-curricular.
A stage management degree at Guildhall followed, where Alderson realised he didn’t want to be a stage manager. He joined a scenery-building company as a carpenter, making sets for West End shows and the National Theatre.
Highlights at the company included crashing a van into Trevor Nunn’s gold Rolls-Royce – “It was a tiny, tiny dent, and I don’t think he knows it was me” – and almost throwing Arthur Miller out of a theatre.
“I thought he was a tramp,” Alderson exclaims. “It was two o’clock in the morning, and he had come in to have a look at the set. The master carpenter said: ‘Please tell that guy to clear off, he’s clearly come in off the street.’ So I went down and said: ‘Look, I’m really sorry but you have to go.’ And he said: ‘I hope you don’t mind but I wrote the play.’ We sat in the auditorium for two hours and had a cup of tea. It was amazing.”
Then things took a bit of a swerve. In the early 1990s, a yen for travel took Alderson to Nairobi, where he had intended to help out at the country’s national theatre. It turned out to be a “tiny little thing” that didn’t need much help, so instead he built church pews for a cathedral that was being constructed, then became a travelling salesman selling spark plugs across Africa.
A man approaches the picnic table while Alderson is detailing his career. Would he like to see a satirical sketch comedy show just about to start in Pleasance Courtyard? Alderson politely declines. Even the head of Pleasance gets flyered.
A week earlier, when we first met in Pleasance’s London venue – which exists year-round, unlike the temporary Edinburgh spaces – Alderson had seemed remarkably relaxed. Near the entrance of the London building, a man was painting a huge panel of plywood. The signature panama hat gave him away: it was Richardson, 13 years after he ‘retired’, building the set for the Pleasance’s latest co-production.
As Richardson sat down to take a break, mentor and mentee spoke to each other with a conciseness that made their closeness and their long history clear. Indeed, they’ve often been mistaken for father and son.
The days before the festival are Alderson’s favourite, he explains. “There’s a moment at the beginning of June. It’s a bit like you get the charabanc to the top of the mountain and then you let the handbrake off. You hope to God you get to the beginning of September and it’s all still intact.”
Everything he’s done throughout the year – all the processes and programmes – should all be in motion. And, so far, they are. But Alderson’s first year in charge of Pleasance in 2005 was the complete opposite.
“Christopher rang me up and said: ‘You’ve got to come in early and programme the Grand.’” A 700-seat space slap bang in the middle of Pleasance Courtyard had just been made available, and a load of other venues had bid for it.
“It was crazy that anyone else should occupy that space, but in the end we got it.” The Grand was a game-changer for Pleasance, and now makes up 20% of the venue’s income. But three weeks before the deadline, Alderson found himself prematurely in a new job, with a vast new space, and a lot of seats to fill.
He put on a ‘pick of the fest’ comedy showcase, “which started a comedians’ revolt because everyone thought that it was five shows for the price of one”, and called on his friend the comedian Ennio Marchetto to perform. “But I priced everything badly. I’d made it too expensive. That was a pretty steep learning curve.”
When Alderson took over, the company was in debt and bouncing against an overdraft. “Christopher did everything on the back of an envelope. We’d lost a lot of money and I really did think I might send the company on to the rocks in one year. I sat and tore the budget apart.”
He’d had plenty of experience dealing with detailed numbers. In the years before taking over the Pleasance, Alderson had been production manager for various world tours.
After his adventures across Africa, and despite protestations from Alderson’s father, he set off travelling again in the mid-1990s with his future wife Candida Toller. They ended up in Sydney working on an open-air and “semi-pornographic” production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
“I used to have to make this speech about how if you used binoculars you had to use your discretion, because Mellors got his kit off and there were sex scenes in trees. There were two Croatian stage managers who were in charge of the chickens. It was brilliant.”
Alderson and Toller then toured Australia with the ventriloquist David Strassman, on the same circuit as a group of strippers called Bad Girls Australia, blagging their way through every airport with 250kg of puppets and set. Toller would ring up every day and find out who the flight crew would be, making sure they came to see the show. “They’d also each get a teddy bear. It was bribery, essentially.”
Eventually Alderson returned to the UK and met the producer Glynis Henderson. He became production coordinator for the international productions of Stomp, which meant sorting all the logistics of 10 touring companies. It also meant a monumental screw-up – what he calls the biggest mistake of his entire career. An Italian TV station was planning to get several Stomp companies from around the world together for a huge press event to launch the Italian tour. But Alderson got his timings wrong, and all of them missed their flights.
“I genuinely thought that was it. I’d just cost the company tens of thousands of pounds. But Glynis brought me into her office and said: ‘It is all about the numbers. It is all about the detail of the numbers. Your entire profession is about numbers’.”
So when, in 2005, he inherited an organisation at the bottom of its coffers, Alderson set about righting its numbers pretty quickly. Except when it comes to making fringe theatre, he is up front about the fact that the numbers often just don’t add up. In 1986, Richardson made £200 out of Pleasance. Last year, the charity’s surplus was less than £2,000. “I think there is this total misconception that we’re all as rich as Croesus. It’s not true. It’s a fairly modest salary I get paid by the trust. When I started it was a very modest salary, but it’s not much bigger now.”
Q&A: Anthony Alderson
What was your first non-theatre job?
Selling spark plugs in East Africa.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Scottish Ballet, 1980 – singing in The Nutcracker.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I wish someone had told me never to turn down a job, because there is always someone available to call if you don’t know what you’re doing. Basically, be brave.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Singin’ in the Rain, London Palladium, 1978. It was the first time I’d ever been in a theatre and I absolutely fell in love with the idea of it.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
If you hadn’t been a carpenter/production manager/director of Pleasance, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
At a disadvantage
Pleasance makes its money almost entirely from ticket sales – £2.5 million worth of them – and a lot of it is reinvested in infrastructure. One big gripe of Alderson’s is that, unlike its main rival Underbelly, Pleasance doesn’t run its bars. Around 7% of bar revenue goes to Pleasance, the rest is kept by the Edinburgh University Students’ Association. “If you’re Underbelly the profits are large, and the playing field is no longer even.”
And yet Alderson isn’t desperate for that situation to change. He’s extremely wary of “becoming a beer festival”, stating: “The moment we go down that route, we’re fucked.”
But losing out on all that income means the charity relies on a lot of volunteers, and Alderson admits there’s huge pressure to pay more people. But when volunteering is done properly, he argues, when people are looked after, mentored, and given opportunities off the back of it, it can be a very positive thing.
“I think actually when you open the hood of the Pleasance and look underneath, you’ll find that inside it is a pretty genuinely honest organisation that puts its money where its mouth is.”
Alderson stresses the point: no one is getting rich from fringe theatre. And yet. Not getting rich isn’t the same as losing vast amounts of money – which is what most companies do when they take a show to the fringe. “The deal is a simple one: we’ll build all of this, you bring the show. We’ll take a proportion of the box office to cover our costs, and you keep the rest.”
When a company has a show programmed at Pleasance, it agrees to a box office split – around 60/40 in favour of the company. Shows are expected to budget based on the assumption they’ll sell 40% of their tickets. If they don’t, they have to pay a guarantee of 40% anyway. “You’ve really got to have a bad festival to be in the position where you’ll have to pay the guarantee.”
But if the company pays for accommodation, transport, set, materials, rehearsal space, pays the actors properly for rehearsal time, for performances, pays the technical team, the design team, if it wants good PR, marketing, flyers…well, it very quickly runs into tens of thousands. Pleasance’s own co-production this year, Nichola McAuliffe’s play Revenants, cost £70,000 to take up.
With tickets hovering around the £10 mark, and capacities somewhere between 50 and 100 on average, it’s pretty obvious that even if a show completely sells out, the cost of putting it on vastly exceeds the maximum it can ever make back.
Anthony Alderson on…
… taking risks as a young company
We’ve got to find a way of generating risk again. We’re really in danger unless we as an industry can really grasp the nettle and say, actually, theatre is worth protecting. Otherwise what’s our theatrical legacy? Small theatre companies have to be able to hit the rural touring circuit in order to earn money that gets them to the small touring circuit, then go to the medium, and then the big circuit. Then international festivals can come along and go: “We like that artist, we’ll programme them.” Because they’ve been able to take a risk on the bottom rung. And my job in terms of the Pleasance is to maintain the bottom rung.
“So what do we do? Do we finally put the top price up to 25 quid? The programme will halve in size overnight. Half the shows won’t have any audience, because people would choose to see half the number of shows because they can’t afford to do it all.
“But what we’re trying to do is to make it an investment for the future. Partnerships are the route, for me.”
So Pleasance has teamed up with seven other major venues to put on a “genuinely useful” industry showcase.
“We’re going to get a group of accredited programmers and producers, put them in the same room, and hopefully those significant pieces of theatre are being seen by the right people and then leaving with a tour. So that those tens of thousands of pounds aren’t such a huge risk.”
In 2006, a journalist asked, bluntly, when Alderson and the venue were going to take theatre seriously again. “There’s a bit missing from the Pleasance at the moment, which is that showcase venue in London. It needs more support than the comedy programme does in many ways,” Alderson explains. “It’s more expensive, the people in it are not doing panel shows on the telly every day. Trying to sell a theatre ticket is harder than ever.”
Earlier this year, he appointed Nic Connaughton in the position of head of theatre to help build the year-round theatre programme in London, as well as foster partnerships with other venues around the country. It takes some of the pressure off Alderson too, who is the only Pleasance staff member to live in Edinburgh rather than London.
It’s been 13 years since Alderson took over Pleasance, and he has no intention of moving anywhere else. He’s been offered jobs over the years, he says, but when he’s looked at the job description, “it’s my job but you’ve taken all the fun out of it”. For him, like his mentor Richardson, running Pleasance is a vocation.
And, he points out a bit sadly, soon it’ll be the end of the fringe. “There’s a moment on the Monday, at three o’clock in the morning, when the audience goes out the door. And the following day no one turns up. And it’s all over.”
Until next year, that is, when it all starts over again.
CV: Anthony Alderson
Born: 1971, Hexham
Training: Guildhall, stage management
• International Theatre Institute – Excellence in Theatre (2016)
• Cheek by Jowl’s Much Ado About Nothing
• Doug Anthony All Stars: Near Death Experience
For more information, visit: pleasance.co.uk