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Richard Jordan: Why calling work a ‘great fringe show’ might stunt its progress

"Good fringe show"? Why not "good show"? Viewing Edinburgh hits only as festival fare could dent their prospects beyond the fringe, says Richard Jordan . Photo: Lou Armor/Shutterstock
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There’s a line you often hear spoken around Edinburgh at festival time: “It’s a great fringe show.” But while the intention may have been to praise a work, it actually represents a problem for such productions’ onward life.

The first impression of a show lasts a long time – which is especially true at the fringe and the space where you first see that work performed is hugely important.

Watching a show in a spiegeltent, for example, can bring a certain magic, and then seeing the same production in a more conventional auditorium risks a diminished experience. Therefore, thinking about where a work might go next is an important consideration when deciding where it runs initially at the fringe.

Edinburgh memories can often be some of the most durable. You can stumble upon something quite unexpectedly brilliant, often following a spontaneous decision to go, in contrast to most theatre trips outside of the fringe that require more careful planning.

Plenty has been written about the escalating costs of the fringe, for performers and venue operators as well as ticket prices. This year, full-price tickets for the Traverse’s main stage will set you back £22 while some shows playing in Edinburgh’s largest headline venues – such as Underbelly’s McEwan Hall – use a pricing system that looks like a fringe version of premium seating.

If an attendee is paying to see a headline name, there is hopefully at least some assurance of quality. However, even the headliner now seems to  want to add their own safety net: 41 productions this year list themselves as “works in progress”, including Eddie Izzard’s Expectations of Great Expectations, but which is charging £17.50 without a concession-price available.

Alongside finished works being presented, Edinburgh should also be a hot-bed for experimentation, development and trying out ideas, but this should also be reflected accordingly in entry price and corresponding venue deal.

If two people are spending at least £35 each time to see a show on the fringe, then they may cut out other works from their festival schedule to meet the budget. This is likely to lead to cuts to the less-familiar titles in the programme, performed by fledgling companies.

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Such works then have to rely on strong reviews to bring in audiences and mitigate the potential losses involved in bringing a production to the fringe. Because even if a show sells out, the costs of playing Edinburgh may still see its run lose money.

One of the joys of this open-access fringe festival is that the headline name or company stands beside the newcomer – for the fringe to survive it needs both playing on its stages – but there is also a balance needed that means theatremakers cannot repeatedly be left in debt by the end.

The Stage ran a poll last week in which 84% of respondents said the cost of taking a show to Edinburgh had stopped them from going. The question is: with the challenges involved, why you would even try presenting a show in this saturated arena?

The answer rests in the fact that despite its challenges Edinburgh still remains the world’s biggest arts marketplace, where the potential of being discovered continues to be considered a gamble worth taking.

Next week, the valuable biannual British Council Showcase will take place with the hope that many international presenter delegates attending will book the works that they will see into their venues.

Each year in Edinburgh, I take part in two free panel events run by the Fringe Society called How to Tour Your Show. They provide advice to participants on how to approach presenting their work elsewhere.

The dream for many playing the fringe, especially those who have funded it themselves or raised the money, is that their work has an onward life. So, much attention is given to how the work gets referenced and “a great fringe show” is a popular definition.

Many theatremakers at Edinburgh want to play nightly at a theatre and not just be boxed into performing at the next fringe

For companies and artists who have made the capital investment to showcase their work at the fringe, what they want – and need – is to play at venues and festivals where presenters pay them.

Being categorised as ‘fringe’ may restrict a show’s potential to be picked up. Many of these artists want to play nightly at a theatre and not just be boxed into performing at the next fringe, or told the work can only succeed if positioned under an umbrella of similar pieces within a festival.

This thinking is vital if many of these artists and companies are to ever stand a real chance of making some sort of sustainable living from their work. It’s therefore important that in these productions’ onward placement, presenters are empowered to think of work as achievable within both these contexts.

The continual growth in the number of shows at the fringe will not change, as it remains a vital stepping stone and catalyst for the growth and development of theatremakers.

However, might it be better to change the mindset in a production’s post-fringe description and categorisation by taking the word ‘fringe’ entirely out of the conversation, and instead describe work as being a potentially “good small, mid or large-scale” production or as a “touring show”?

Whatever the participant’s level of experience, the value in playing the fringe has to be seen as a logical and strategic progression. Participants should be able to look to it as a platform from which to build their work and profile before taking it out to theatres beyond the fringe.

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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