Matt Trueman: C Venues isn’t just a villain of the fringe – it’s also a victim
Allow me, momentarily, to hold a candle for C Venues. Last week, the Scotsman revealed that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe operator had been kicked out of its original home after 20 years – reportedly on account of exploitative employment practices.
Instead, Edinburgh University’s Adam House, long a hub for student shows, amateur companies and youth theatre groups, will fall under the auspices of the Gilded Balloon group.
It’s a strong stand (though a chance to raise rents) but it’s still a shame. There’s no defending C Venues’ track record as an employer, but we should lament the loss of a space that put amateur theatre at the heart of the fringe.
To be clear: C Venues deserves its come-uppance. According to the Fair Fringe campaign’s testimonials, some venue staff were paid less than £1 an hour and put up in sub-par accommodation – four to a room, 12 to a flat. Lyn Gardner has flagged the difference in artists choosing to work on the cheap – self-exploiting on their own terms – and technicians, venue managers, front of house and bar staff doing the same but faced with fixed shifts and set tasks. She’s right.
But C Venues is not just a villain of the Edinburgh Fringe. It is also a victim of it. Essentially, it always paid its staff in-kind: putting them up and providing a venue pass (free tickets) in exchange for labour. That offer was once viable. It no longer is. As prices have soared – rents, tickets and living costs – such in-kind exchanges haven’t kept pace. How could they? The accommodation has become worse, the number of shifts has gone up and expenses far outweigh the meagre monthly fee.
Beneath the surface, C Venues is a festival of its own – a space where skint students can see one another’s shows for nothing. If other venues are outside your price range, your venue pass is your ticket to the fringe.
C’s staff and its artists get access to any empty seats across its entire programme – and there are lots. That’s what made working there a worthwhile experience (for those that could afford it). It could be eye-opening for aspiring artists.
As a student, I saw the same Johnny Woo show night after night at C – a drag lip-sync musical about Bucks Fizz. I saw the Team’s first two shows there: a splintered riff on Hamlet and an excoriation of Richard Nixon. I’d never seen anything like either before. Shunt’s Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari once told me they took a show to C for exactly that reason: to play to skint student audiences for nothing. I’ve always really loved that gesture.
Let’s not romanticise it. C had to go. Its time had come: its model is neither functional nor fair, and access as payment in kind is no longer recompense enough. Even so, its eviction is another step in the evolution of the Edinburgh Fringe – a sign of a festival shedding its accessible, amateurish skin and mutating into something ever more commercial, ever more expensive and, ironically, ever more exclusive.
Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman
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