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Lyn Gardner: Arts Council England should grasp the nettle and help fund Edinburgh Fringe shows

Demi Nandhra took out a payday loan to fund her show Life Is No Laughing Matter at Edinburgh this year. Photo: Tom Kennedy
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There is undeniably something odd about the fact that those bringing a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from New Zealand or Korea are likely to have had substantial financial help and may be taking little or no personal risk.

It is perhaps even odder that this year some of the companies here from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are similarly supported through schemes to showcase work. But an English-based company cannot directly apply for public funding to bring a show to Edinburgh.

Contrary to received wisdom, there is not even funding for those who are part of the British Council showcase, which starts this week and includes work from all parts of the UK. It is up to those selected to get their show here under their own steam. I think it was Birmingham-based theatre company Stan’s Café, after its selection one year, that discovered there was a government-sponsored fund available for small businesses that needed help attending expos to get overseas orders for their products and successfully made an application.

But whether in the British Council showcase or not, all of those who are unfunded, including English companies and artists, have to find the money to get here by whatever means they can. Many do the whole thing on a credit card and pay it off slowly and with interest. This year, Demi Nandhra took out a payday loan. It is a sign of the desperation and invisibility that so many young artists feel that they will go to such lengths believing it is their only chance to be seen by programmers and promoters and progress their careers. As one artist and producer told me: “I pay in Edinburgh in the hope I will get paid further down the line.”

That means the artist is assuming all the risk so the venue can try before it buys. One of last year’s smash hits, made by a young company with a small but growing track record, couldn’t get a single venue to commit to take the show before the fringe. They all wanted to sit back and wait to see how it did in Edinburgh. Only when it was a proven success did they all pile in. The company took all the risk, the venues profited.

Of course, there are sneaky ways English-based companies do wangle ways of cross-financing at least some of their Edinburgh costs – often by touring and then diverting over the border for three weeks. Way back in the mists of time, many a company managed to lose a substantial amount of their Edinburgh costs in an Arts Council England budget. But today you couldn’t lose a £6,000 flat in the budget, not even under contingency.

But it is an open secret that some English companies find back-door means of easing fringe costs by rearranging the budget. Who can blame them? Others will pay everyone for a tour before or after Edinburgh but the three weeks in Edinburgh will be unpaid or lower-paid. This sometimes even happens on shows developed with Art Council England’s national portfolio organisations that have the NPO’s logos on the poster. I think that’s a bit more dodgy. Those NPOs should put their money where their mouth is, particularly when they go around Edinburgh talking about it being “their” show.

So, if we all know that people are taking out payday loans and playing the system, why doesn’t ACE grasp the nettle about funding Edinburgh shows? It has held a couple of meeting with artists, producers and the Fringe Society. But at a time when project funding is already overwhelmed it seems unlikely that it would suddenly announce that it is funding Edinburgh shows. Imagine the pile-on. Its application portal Grantium would finally give up the ghost – probably not a bad thing, as we might then get something fit for purpose.

But I do reckon that there may be ways of ACE coming on board in some form. That could be through NPOs themselves, part of whose funding remit might be to support local companies to come to Edinburgh. Northern Stage ran a version of this for several years and one interesting thing about that initiative was the way it spurred professional development in the North East and played a part in bringing new companies into the NPO portfolio in the last round.

Another way might be to view the Edinburgh Fringe as a tool for professional development and funding some artists to come here that way. That could be a means of increasing the diversity on the fringe and therefore the diversity of what gets programmed around the country afterwards. But what about ACE trialling interest-free loans for some companies to come to the fringe? The details would have to be worked out, but it has the potential to open up the fringe to those for whom a payday loan seems like the only option.

Lyn Gardner: Those seeing Edinburgh Fringe shows for free need reminding who pays in the end

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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