Lyn Gardner: Raw talent at the fringe needs better support to build lasting careers in theatre
One of the pleasures of seeing the multi-talented 1927 performing its latest show, Roots, in the Edinburgh International Festival programme is in seeing the company reinvestigate the very origins and foundations of storytelling.
Another is in watching the company back in Edinburgh, where it was first discovered on the fringe in 2010. That show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, was a little cabaret gem in a damp dive.
There is a similar pleasure in seeing Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch doing so well at the Pleasance and touring widely, both here and abroad. She too is a fringe graduate. I first caught a glimpse of Kimmings back in 2010 with Sex Idiot at Zoo, a show that charted her attempts to contact her former sexual partners after discovering she had an STI.
There are numerous other artists and companies whose work I first saw on the Edinburgh Fringe, from the Wardrobe Ensemble (recently in the West End with its 2017 fringe show Education, Education, Education, and back this year with The Last of the Pelican Daughters at the Pleasance) to Enda Walsh, who debuted here with Disco Pigs.
I recall seeing Mel and Sue at some point in the mid-1990s and I am sorry to say I didn’t rate them. This year Complicité is back in town, a company that first found major success here in Edinburgh in the early 1980s.
Every year a new wave of companies, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, come bounding on to the fringe, but I do wonder how many of them will be able to sustain careers over the longer term. It is hard enough getting to Edinburgh in the first place, but the pathways out of Edinburgh and the possibility of career progression is tougher than it has ever been.
It is perfectly feasible to find success in Edinburgh and be flavour of the month and have lots of venues wanting to talk to you – and maybe even work with you in some way – and still find it impossible to sustain a career over five years or a decade, as 1927 and Kimmings have.
Many find themselves stuck on the small scale unable to access the opportunities, money or the stages that they need to progress and build sustainable careers. The roll call of talented companies that have disappeared, not because they wanted to call it a day, but simply because as they got older they couldn’t find the financial and creative backing they needed to continue, is dispiriting.
We can look around and savour some of the terrific young companies out and about at this year’s fringe, from Barrel Organ, with its show Conspiracy at Underbelly, and Breach (It’s True, It’s True, It’s True), also at Underbelly, to This Egg (Dressed at the Pleasance) and Groupwork.
But the question we need to ask is: what are the structures and opportunities that need to be in place for their careers to flourish over a longer period like the careers of Complicité, Gecko and Blind Summit? Those companies arrived at a time when there was a much clearer ladder of progression and the possibility that one day they might secure core funding.
It is important because now the fringe is like a machine churning out ever more raw talent, which is attractive to venues who buy it up cheaply. But the issue is they then offer very little ongoing support to develop that talent in a way that allows companies to grow and develop.
It is far easier and cheaper just to go to Edinburgh the following year and nab the latest rising talents and throw a fiver and some free rehearsal space at them. It matters because a theatre ecology that is in rude health is one that has plenty of mid-career artists whose experience, craft and confidence gives the industry the depth and breadth it needs.
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