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Lyn Gardner: Edinburgh Fringe is brutal, but offers artists opportunities hard to find elsewhere

The Pleasance bar in Edinburgh
The Pleasance bar in Edinburgh
Lyn Gardner
Lyn Gardner is a theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage
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We all know that the Edinburgh Fringe can be a brutal place. We all know that it’s not a level playing field for companies. Some will be performing in curated, subsided programmes so are relieved of risk, and others who, even if their shows sell out, will go home having lost money.

Some artists will be paid throughout the run, many will not just be working for free, but sharing rooms and beds. On some shows, the performers and crew will be paid, but those running the company itself will not.

Despite this, there are good reasons why companies still pitch up to Edinburgh, and most of them are obvious. Writers and performers find agents, companies find producers or start a conversation with venues and shows get booked for tours.

The fringe is a bit like childbirth. During the later stages, you vow never to do it again, and then a year or so later you are back having completely forgotten the agony you went through last time.

But I think there are other, far less tangible reasons why theatremakers return even though they know that it makes no economic sense and past experience tells them that they are more likely to win the lottery than bag a well-paid international tour as a result of their Edinburgh run. In a way, it is about rethinking what we actually mean by success in the theatre and what we really value.

One of the things worth valuing is the experience of playing a three-week run, something that most independent companies no longer get a chance to do. For the rest of the year they might, if they are lucky, get booked for three or four consecutive nights, but mostly it will be a night here and a night there.

For every individual gig, they have to get the show up on its feet again. And because they are constantly playing different audiences in different places, it is hard to judge whether the response reflects quirks of that particular crowd on that particular night in that particular place, or indicates something more intrinsic about the show itself.

The turnarounds and conditions in which they play Edinburgh may be nowhere near ideal, but putting on a show over three weeks really gives companies a chance to find out what works and what doesn’t.

One of the things that is often said about Edinburgh in August is that, although the city is filled to the brim with creative people, very little is actually being made because everybody is too busy showcasing their work. They are, but they are also constantly tinkering and reworking it, and that’s invaluable because they learn a great deal in the process.

Then there is an opportunity to meet and show your work to a new audience who, outside of Edinburgh, would almost certainly never encounter it. Fringe audiences are adventurous like no other. For three heady weeks in August, people who consider themselves new-writing junkies suddenly find themselves heading to a circus show, or those who reckon they hate live art give it a go.

For the rest of the year, audiences retreat back into their genre boxes, but in Edinburgh they are up for anything. For artists, the fringe is also a brilliant opportunity to see a wide range of work from across the globe without setting foot outside the UK. The smartest theatremakers take full advantage.

The fringe is a place where it is possible to have a proper dialogue about the work you are making, both with audiences, other artists and also with producers and critics. That doesn’t mean fringe theatremakers are not in thrall to the four and five-star review. Of course they are, probably more than in any other place on earth.

During most of the year, audiences often evaporate after a performance and critics scurry away to write up their reviews, but in Edinburgh artists and audience find themselves shoulder to shoulder in the bar. The artist reviewed by a critic one day may find themselves sitting next to that same critic at an entirely different show the next. It means that there is an opportunity for real dialogues to develop.

That can only be a good thing, but the very best thing to come out of three weeks in Edinburgh are the peer-to-peer conversations and relationships that begin over a chance encounter in the Pleasance or Summerhall courtyards or in a queue for a show.

One of the unsung benefits of the fringe is not in the formal relationships that are made between a company and a venue, but in the informal creative friendships that are forged when large numbers of artists are gathered together in one place, punch drunk on consuming so much theatre, tipsy on a glass or two of wine, and with absolutely no need to rush for the last train.

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