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Richard Jordan: Edinburgh 2019 felt like a damp squib – the fringe needs to remain essential

Maddie the Fortune Teller Flyerer. Photo: Richard Jordan Maddie the Fortune Teller Flyerer. Photo: Richard Jordan
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On the first day of the Edinburgh Fringe, I was stopped in the street by Maddie the Fortune Teller Flyerer. She definitely gets my award this year for most imaginative flyering technique on the fringe as she attempted to predict that I would see the show she was promoting.

After the fringe ended on Monday (August 26, 2019), I wondered if Mystic Maddie was still looking into her crystal ball and if she could foresee how many of those who brought shows to Edinburgh had their fortunes made.

People come to the fringe with different dreams: of being discovered, finding an agent, touring at home and abroad, or simply fulfilling a lifelong ambition to “play the fringe”. This reflects the power and importance of an open-access fringe festival where anyone can come and put on a show. But the fringe can be a brutal place to perform.

When it works, there is no place like it for elation, and results happen quickly. But when it doesn’t work, these can be the longest and most depressing days of your life – it may feel like being trapped in an audition to understudy Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

This year, 3,841 shows were playing across 554 venues, but my fringe-going didn’t even scratch the surface.

I have been coming to the Edinburgh Fringe since 1987. Maybe it is a result of the turbulent and uncertain times the UK is facing, but I felt this year was a bit flat and that it never really got started. There has been a growing and concerning disconnect between larger and smaller venues and audiences. Neither did I see the same exciting cultural collisions that normally occur.

The annual criticism of the fringe becoming too big remains a popular subject around Auld Reekie – although it’s consistent open-access policy has arguably been its crowning achievement. It might be considered a victim of its own success, but its continued commitment to being open has been vital in driving a culture of discovery, acceptance, diversity and creative vision.

Angry residents, worker exploitation, soaring rents – can the Edinburgh Fringe really go on like this?

I would once have included ‘experimentation’ on the list of fringe cultural values, but the continually increasing costs involved have made this unviable. I no longer believe Edinburgh is the place to premiere a work without at least having run it somewhere else.

Many works I watched this year felt unfinished or in need of dramaturgy. In 2014, I wrote about how I was concerned over a developing culture of swiftly abandoning works if they had failed to achieve good enough reviews or sales despite months of hard work and funding.  Five years on and this issue has worsened.

This is contributing to a general view among the industry and audiences that the fringe is less significant than it once was. Nowhere did this seem more pointed than at King’s Cross Station where London North Eastern Railway made the ludicrous decision to close the station for engineering work, issuing a “do not travel” warning on the London to Scotland route via York on Saturday and Sunday – the penultimate days of the festival. This is the busiest time for people wishing to travel to Edinburgh for the festival’s final weekend, and for weary performers and staff trying to get home.

Today, many artists and companies feel that if they are not annually bringing a new show to Edinburgh they fall out of sight and out of mind. It has created a pressure on artists resulting in many new works feeling rushed.

This can feel particularly noticeable in a British Council Showcase year, where traditionally a greater number of presenters are attending the fringe. But it does the artist, company and industry no favours if the work represented feels underdeveloped. Sticking ‘a work in progress’ label on a show is not the solution.

The Edinburgh Fringe’s future relies upon it remaining essential, and being recognised as such. This year, it felt as though it had slipped, compounded by the delayed critical coverage across many publications. By last Monday, as the fringe entered its final week, the Pleasance was still waiting on 256 reviews to be published.

I pity those poor shows that received a good four or five star review published on the final day of the fringe, or after their production had ended, and far too late for any spike at the box office.

For those reviews still awaiting publication, many will probably now be shelved. For an artist or company that has potentially paid thousands of pounds to play the fringe, being reviewed by leading publications is crucial to their future and funding chances.

Meanwhile, some fringe-goers wear the number of shows they can cram into their schedule as a badge of honour. The volume risks becoming as important as the response to the works. It diminishes the processing of many shows and their impact.

Performances as powerful as Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer, which deals with his experiences of being stalked, or Travis Albanza’s devastating Burgerz, which explores transphobic abuse, require respect and time to reflect. However, this is lost when audiences rush off to the next show starting 15 minutes later – many may have been checking their watches through the last 10 minutes, to ensure the performance wasn’t over-running.

Fortunes and discoveries can still be made at the fringe, and characters such as Mystic Maddie continue to capture a spirit of the fringe that’s not been completely lost.

However as audiences, we frequently need to afford the work – and the artists performing it – more respect. In turn, audiences need to be served with work that is ready to be presented at its best, if, for all the blood, sweat and tears, Edinburgh is to remain a relevant and necessary annual arts event.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

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