So, Arts Council England has indeed grasped the nettle of providing financial support for English companies who want to come to the Edinburgh Fringe. Tenders are being invited for an organisation or consortium that will produce three showcases taking place in 2021, 2022 and 2023 with a combined budget of £2.25million.
The good thing about this is it means that some (a very small number) of artists based in England will not have to self-exploit to such a degree. The bad thing is that it inevitably strengthens the Edinburgh Fringe’s position as the only showcase that really matters, which of course increases the desperation of artists and companies to get here.
It does little to make venues, promoters and programmes change behaviour, start answering emails and seeing the work of younger companies all year around and not just when they are playing five minutes up the road from where they are staying in Edinburgh.
Instead, it confirms the fringe’s unassailable position and while it addresses the issue of supported pathways into Edinburgh, it doesn’t address the pathways out or the significant problems facing touring shows and the wider ecology upon which Edinburgh has an impact.
It will be interesting to see how this new showcase fits in with the British Council showcase model, which is itself currently the subject of a consultation examining its future. An ACE spokesperson told me that “it is early stages but once we have identified the right producer for our showcase and once the future shape of the British Council showcase is clearer, we’ll look for ways the two projects can complement each other.”
One of the side effects of the new showcase could be that it increases the divide between the supported and the unsupported, the chosen and the not chosen. A showcase by its very title is bound by different expectations of outcome to the funding of individual artists or companies, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are making diverse work, which might have been another route for ACE to have gone down.
A lot will depend on how the showcase is set up. The crucial points revolve around who wins this tender to produce the showcase, its scope, how the work presented is chosen (and by whom), how it is supported, and how the artists are supported, too. The showcases must be more than about trying to sell pre-selected shows to international and UK promoters.
The new showcase needs to be an opportunity for artists to access proper professional development, and raise the profile of all kinds of work being made in the UK, and not just the kind of work that neatly fits into the present Edinburgh model. Questions of diversity and who and what the work is relevant to can’t be set aside for the showcase.
Because if this is simply about selling particular shows like they’re widgets, that will strongly determine the kind of work that is chosen in the first place. This would likely mean it is those who already have most support, and who are most over-represented, who will have the most significant presence.
The companies most in need of support are often young and at the beginning of their careers. They are often making the most diverse and the riskiest work and so are not necessarily making shows that are instantly saleable. It can’t just be the work that is easiest to flog, but the work with the most potential. So how would the success of the showcases be measured? Not, I hope, by how many shows get picked up for Melbourne.
The showcases must embrace those whose work is not going to be immediately exported to venues or festivals across the country, but who will benefit from being seen and the networks and relationships that come out of being in Edinburgh in August. Because they are the ones most in need of help to get here.
As we have seen from initiatives such as Aurora Nova at St Stephens and Forest Fringe, the work presented in particular programmes can have a significant impact on the kind of work presented in future fringes. The fringe is a real shape-shifter. A few years ago, circus had almost no presence in Edinburgh, but in a short space of time it now ranges in scope from the hugely commercial to the experimental.
A really well thought-out showcase might not just respond to the demands of Edinburgh but could demand more of the festival and be a force that helps shape its future development, and make a useful contribution to the whole ecology, not just to the scrum that goes on in August.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner