What two things do you need to come to the fringe? Financial clout and bravery would be high on my list, and I’m not talking about the artists but the audience.
Around a fifth of the festival’s 2.8 million tickets sold go to Edinburgh residents, not bad in a city that numbers fewer than half a million. There must be some hard-core Edinburgh Fringe-going locals out there.
But out-of-towners face some of the same barriers that confront artists coming to the city for August – including high accommodation prices. I stayed in a city centre hotel last Wednesday night and it cost £70. Tonight, that same room costs more than £220.
But just as artists have to be brave and take a risk to bring their best work to Edinburgh, so audiences also need to take a risk. In a year in which there are so many already established companies on the fringe, with either significant or rising reputations, it’s all too easy to overlook the work of complete unknowns. But it is further stacking the odds against those newcomers if audiences and critics go around prioritising the bigger names, the companies whose work they already know, and don’t take a risk.
I try, though don’t always succeed, in taking a gamble on at least one in three shows, although there are times when the scheduling, and demands of editors, work against it.
This year the Fringe Society, aware of the need to support those who come to Edinburgh without the benefit of a body of work behind them, have set up an interactive, arcade-style Inspiration Machine on the mound. Press a button and it randomly generates three videos uploaded by any of the artists or companies taking part. The aim is to encourage audiences to take a chance on a show they might otherwise have overlooked amid the thousands in the programme.
Another initiative, the FringeMaker game, also tries to encourage audiences to strike out beyond the main venues with an app that operates like a treasure hunt in which punters discover the hidden top hats located in all 300-odd venues at this year’s fringe. The benefits could include stumbling across an unsung gem.
Another reason I love Edinburgh is that it provides one of the few opportunities of the year to step out of your comfort zone, not just in terms of artists, but art form too. It will never be so easy (or so cheap) to see a circus show or a contemporary dance piece or even check out some Butoh or Japanese rope art.
There was a year I spent an hour watching a man balancing rocks on top of each other. It was mesmerising. One of the pleasures of Edinburgh is seeing shows you probably wouldn’t take a risk on during the rest of the year because life gets in the way and ticket prices are prohibitive.
Approached with an open mind – and a sturdy pair of shoes – the Edinburgh Fringe can broaden taste. That’s a good thing because one of the problems about British theatre is that people working in one area too often show disdain for the work of those working in another.
Recently I saw the artistic director of a festival, someone I respect, dismiss entire art forms – “naff outdoor work and circus” – in a single tweet. But not everybody loves post-dramatic theatre or body art. Many more people will be engaged by street arts than will ever see the entire run of a highly praised show in the National Theatre’s Dorfman, and I am prepared to bet that some of the work will be just as aesthetically interesting. Circus, in particular, is producing some of contemporary performance’s most intriguing work. If you want to see an example of that in Edinburgh check out Knot at Assembly Roxy.
It’s the silo mentality, possibly created by competitiveness over funding and the mistaken belief that if street art is getting a bigger slice of the funding cake there will be less for live art or new writing, that pits parts of theatre and performance against one another. Fortunately, those dividing lines are more easily broken down in Edinburgh where very different shows sit side by side in the same venue.
Part of the pleasure of Edinburgh is not quite knowing what you are going to see: on numerous occasions I’ve picked something from one section of the programme only to discover that it could have easily sat in another. It’s a reminder that theatre is a broad church, and the success of one part of the ecology is likely to also bring benefits to the rest of theatre too. So, go on. Be braver, and bolder and take more chances over the next three weeks.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her daily column from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner