The Edinburgh Fringe officially began last Friday. I love the last few days before the opening each year – there is a palpable sense of optimism in the air over what delights the following weeks may hold.
The steady growth of the fringe represents a success story and I still believe open-access fringe festivals are arguably today’s single-most important arts industry training ground.
But I have also seen how it has changed: the costs it takes to bring a production, the volume of shows that steadily increases each year and a change in audience expectation. Today, the fringe feels less like a place for experimentation and development of new work.
It’s therefore of vital importance that this element, which at its heart is an essential reason for the fringe’s existence, does not get lost forever. There is more pressure and expectation placed upon shows to arrive as a finished article than ever before – but often, as a result, they can feel exposed and under-rehearsed. Post-fringe they risk swift abandonment and a loss of faith from those involved – if they have not achieved the desired four or five star reviews.
The Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s biggest showcase of work, with creatives and artistic directors coming from around the world. There is also a strong showing from the critics, meaning that for many fledgling companies, actors, directors and writers, this may be where they receive their first national review.
A number of the shows will be UK or even world premieres, but this is not necessarily a conducive environment for premiering works. The high quantity of shows means, while most will have an allotted technical time to plot the lights and sound – on average about four hours – there is rarely time for a dress rehearsal. It is the actors’ first opportunity to get a feel of the performance space, but the next time will be in front of an audience. At the end they’ll bundle out and 20 minutes later another clutch of performers will be on stage under the same spotlights.
The fringe affords precious little time for working on a show in-between performances, and with a new work that can spell disaster. That problem can be compounded by two issues: firstly, critics – does a company allow them in on an early performance that may not be ready, or refuse and risk getting no review at all? Most critics are professional and respectful enough to recognise that they are attending a preview performance and consider this in their review. Nonetheless, any work, especially playing for the first time at the fringe, needs the cast to get used to the performance space and the audience.
‘With many committing thousands of pounds to bring their work to Edinburgh, affording more time seems vital and logical’
The second issue, which can drive the extent to which a new work is run before Edinburgh, is its eligibility for the Scotsman Fringe First Award. Under the Fringe First rules, an eligible production cannot have played more than six performances in the UK two years prior to the festival, or been nationally reviewed. This arguably gives international visiting works an advantage over their UK counterparts, unless they have closed rehearsal performances or the ability to travel overseas and premiere in advance.
The nature of the fringe means there will always be work, at varying stages of development, presented by companies and individuals with different levels of experience. It is all part of the pleasure of discovery that the festival affords. But, in an ever-growing and competitive festival, it could greatly help productions in their preparations if there was an alternating schedule across previews.
With many venues running previews before the fringe starts, it could be worth trialling a new model. On day one, half the shows in the venue play and on day two the other half. If organised properly, it would give each production time to rehearse in the space. This same model could repeat (and possibly mean beginning previews a few days earlier) until the official start when shows play in full rotation. For those companies and individuals it could be a great help.
Edinburgh is still different to almost any other theatre environment where there is no time afforded up to and between previews to work, rehearse, and make technical changes during daytimes before the next preview.
The Scotsman Fringe First’s eligibility for new work regularly motivates the decision to premiere at Edinburgh with six or fewer advance performances in the UK, but perhaps it should consider reviewing this award criteria.
The quality of works presented at the fringe must always be of paramount importance, regardless of the stage it is at in the creative process. With many committing thousands of pounds to bring their work to Edinburgh, affording more time seems vital and logical.
This could make a significant difference to many shows, giving them a better opportunity to hit the ground running at a fringe that shows little sign of slowing down.