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Lyn Gardner: Are indie companies losing out in Edinburgh’s two-tiered theatre programme?

Josh Roche believes Edinburgh has shifted towards a two-tiered theatre programme in recent years. Photo: Shutterstock
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Director Josh Roche thinks that the winners in Edinburgh are decided long before a single show has opened on the fringe. Roche has two shows on the fringe this year: Lucy Roslyn’s bold and intricate Orlando at Pleasance Courtyard, which I saw in the Vault Festival earlier this year, and Resurrecting Bobby Awl at Summerhall.

But he reckons that one of the things that has shifted in Edinburgh over the past few years, creating a two-tiered theatre programme, is the way that a great swathe of theatre here has become increasingly producer-led.

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He puts it as the difference between the shows that come to Edinburgh in the back of a van (often shared) and those that require an articulated truck. Between those that get here on a wing and a prayer and those that come with full press and marketing campaigns.

The latter kick off long before the festival starts with sophisticated press and advertising campaigns ensuring that they stand out in the brochure and make all the journalists’ Edinburgh picks, crowding out the smaller shows.

Those shows then get a lot of the review coverage, particularly the early reviews in major publications, which can be the difference between losing a little money and losing your shirt.

Roche may well be right. Every year there are hits in Edinburgh, but it does feel increasingly hard for unknown indie companies to really make a big breakthrough.

Breach bringing its show Beanfield in 2015 was probably the last, and of course there are others like Sh!t Theatre, Lung, Barrel Organ and Barely Methodical Troupe (back this year with its show Bromance) which have had a slower but nonetheless crucial exposure on the fringe over several years.

The fringe can still work for companies. When email requests to see work during the rest of the year go ignored, for many it remains the only arena in which they feel they have a chance of getting noticed by programmers. But the increasingly urgent question is whether the value that it offers is worth the costs and the risks.

Which is why The Cost of Edinburgh project, created by Claire Stone in partnership with Edinburgh Napier University and the Fringe Society, is important. It is holding a free workshop today, as part of a series taking place this month, to ensure that artists and creatives feel that the right questions are being asked for a significant study. This study will be conducted during next year’s fringe, examining the cost and value of the festival and making evidence-based recommendations for change that can make it a more positive experience.

It is excellent to see the Fringe Society involved, because change needs to happen. Even before the fringe began this year it faced a backlash and in more than 30 years of going I have never experienced the levels of bubbling discontent felt in 2019. In part that is because many of the smaller companies are having to fight for every ticket sale.

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Perhaps that is because there are fewer people around (near the beginning of August the Tattoo was reporting lower advance ticket sales) or maybe people nervous about Brexit and talk of recession are spending less on tickets and being more selective in what they book in advance. If they are, it tends to be the higher-profile shows that benefit. Not the unknown graduate company.

Year on year it seems that the fringe gets bigger and for six successive years the Fringe Society has seen increased ticket sales. I will be interested if there has been sales growth this year. Maybe, it’s just the weather but there feels as if there are fewer people around, and fewer people out and about in venues mean fewer spur of the moment ticket sales.

But more importantly the question is whether that growth over recent years has been in any way beneficial to smaller theatre companies taking part.

Theatre companies often find themselves squeezed into a small window in the afternoon, and therefore competing against each other, for what is inevitably a smaller chunk of audience. This is because most of Edinburgh’s residents – who account for one fifth of ticket sales – are at work.

I suspect that the upward trajectory of ticket sales has not benefitted indie theatre companies, but the big shows in George Square, Pleasance Grand and at Underbelly Circus hub, which still seem packed to the gills this year. The boom years for variety and burlesque were during the Great Depression so perhaps it’s no surprise in a time of uncertainty that those shows are doing well.

But unless the fringe can find ways to ensure that the balance between cost and value is a reasonable one for theatre companies – and not just those already with producers and budgets behind them – then I suspect the discontent of this year will increase and that indie theatre will have a dwindling presence on the fringe.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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