Lyn Gardner: Putting on a fringe show is more than just tough – it takes a miracle
Last week, The Stage published a piece I had written that followed a production on the London fringe – The Amber Trap at Theatre503, produced by all-female company Damsel Productions – from its genesis as a twinkle in the eye of writer Tabitha Mortiboy through to the final week.
It looked at the nuts and bolts of putting on a fringe show in which the budget was published and everyone involved, from the venue to the company, spoke honestly about the challenges faced. The piece was 2,500 words, but I would really have needed 10,000 to do justice to the story, and the individual stories, of everyone who was part of The Amber Trap.
But here are just a few things that following the production has made me think about:
1. We can’t go on thinking it is normal for young companies to make theatre this way. It is not sustainable. It is not good for the art or people’s mental health, and it does nothing for equality or opportunity.
2. Transparency. Transparency. Transparency. Everyone was prepared to be honest with me and sometimes it hurt and made them vulnerable. Particularly in the period after the press night when it looked as if Damsel might end up losing money on the show. But that is in part because the industry’s culture is so secretive about the real nature of the deals, the fudges, the harsh realities of how theatre is made and how much it actually costs. We need to talk about it much more openly and widely. Publishing the budget of a show should not be seen as radical. Publishing your hire deal on your theatre website – as Theatre503 does – should be the norm, not the exception. We should not hide the costs, financial and emotional, of making theatre, or forget that while The Amber Trap had a happy ending, not all fringe shows do, and some are still paying off the debts years later.
3. The piece was headlined online: Against the Odds. Quite honestly, I am astonished that anything ever gets made at all – and it wouldn’t if not for the stamina, dedication and high levels of self-exploitation of all those involved. The very people who instigated the project – director Hannah Hauer-King and producer Kitty Wordsworth – who had put years of work into it, and raised the money to do it, were also the people who would end up foregoing any fee in the event of financial shortfall. It raises questions around who can afford to make theatre and who is excluded by the financial constraints. What brilliant work fails to see the light of day because brilliant artists simply cannot afford the risk? See the thread on twitter from @Katwoods79 for more on this.
4. The financial costs are astronomical: around £39,000 in the case of The Amber Trap. For a show on the fringe! Theatre503’s economic model and own lack of funding means that it cannot charge less. But why is our funding system so skewed that it is those at the beginning of their careers who must bear all the risk? The ecology is broken, and the funding system plays a large part in that.
5. I have been around a very long time and have followed the journey of other productions in other contexts, so I had some sense of what it takes to put on a show. But every critic should do this. Critics, of course, can review only what we see on stage, not the fact that you know someone is working three jobs while also trying to raise £39,000 to get the show on. But it is good to understand the process and I think it is humbling and helps to concentrate our minds and remind us that the 80 minutes spent in the theatre and the time spent writing the review are nothing compared with the blood, sweat and tears that went into making the show.
6. Star ratings. I have written about this before and no doubt will again, but star ratings and the way those marketing theatre are in thrall to them, is damaging. The Amber Trap was an impressive, groundbreaking show, and there was some thoughtful writing around it, but what it didn’t have was the four and five-star ratings that can be plastered across marketing material to sell tickets. Theatre needs to wean itself off of the drug of star ratings. Theatres should get together and call a moratorium on them. Maybe then theatregoers will actually read the reviews and not just look at the ratings.
7. In the piece, designer Jasmine Swan talks about how every time she works on the fringe she feels “she has to make a miracle happen”. Every fringe show is a miracle. But our theatre culture shouldn’t be relying on miracles.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner
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