Originally published in The Stage, August 2012
“Things had better improve, I’ve risked £10,000 of my own money to be here.” I’m sitting in the performers bar at one of the ‘big four’ venues with an act who has just played his first preview to around half a dozen punters (made up of his agent, her assistant, and his flatmate’s friends).
It’s a familiar Edinburgh tale. Every year thousands of performers descend on the city for the worlds greatest (or at least biggest) arts festival. Over the years comedians, theatre companies, writers, and even the occasional West End producer (Nica Burnes started her career at the fringe) credit Edinburgh as a vibrant place to break through into the industry. But for every breakthrough success, there are many more who leave Edinburgh with a large credit card bill, and little exposure. Even those who see critical success are likely to be left heavily out of pocket by the experience. So who can still afford to take work to Edinburgh, and can emerging talent still be spotted at the Festival? Its not just the finances, the danger is that the worlds biggest arts festival is just too big to really be spotted. How can a fledgling theatre company compete for column inches when huge Edinburgh institutions arrive complete with massive PR and marketing departments? And does anyone really care about theatre anymore? After all, the big four venues (Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded Balloon, and Underbelly) have rebranded themselves as a comedy festival, all be it whilst still programming theatre. Is theatre now the fringe of the fringe?
There are of course companies that have become festival royalty, who have consistently brought high quality work, and who have over the years found an audience at the fringe, companies such as High Tide with Bottleneck seem to have been selling out from the day they opened, but what about the next generation of theatre companies? Can they still make a mark on the fringe landscape?
Old Vic New Voices have started to ask similar questions of the fringe. Having nurtured young theatre makers over recent years it became apparent that good work all too easily gets lost at the fringe, and that theatre makers who could thrive in Edinburgh are often unable to afford it. This year they have teamed up with the Underbelly and are presenting five young companies work. The deal the companies get means that it is possible for them to bring a show to the fringe and not make a loss, some might even go into profit as Old Vic New Voices will be taking none of the box office. But its not just about financial support, as the companies have also seen a huge amount of creative and practical support, including their own dedicated mentor to help them through the process of mounting an Edinburgh show. A number of the companies admitted that whilst they would probably have found a way to Edinburgh anyway they feel sure they would have disappeared, they would have struggled to find an audience without the name of the Old Vic behind them. What is striking about the Old Vic New Voices season is the range and quality of the work presented. There is a real sense that this is what the fringe is about – young contemporary voices, it’s a strong season of work that speaks about a generation.
Over at St Stephens venue, Northern Stage have also been looking at ways of supporting practitioners at the fringe, and their answer has been to curate their very own Edinburgh space. Like Old Vic New Voices the financial deal for companies is incredibly good, but again it’s the practical and creative support that the companies seem to feel the most. At the launch party it was clear that the level of technical support Northern Stage was able to offer its companies was truly unparalleled, and once again performers spoke of the additional exposure they have received because they come under the Northern Stage umbrella. Erica Whyman and her Associate Mark Calvert, have, over the years offered an enviable programme of training and development opportunities for emerging practitioners in the North East, and St Stephens is an exciting opportunity to celebrate that work and see it gain the exposure it deserves.
St Stephens and Old Vic New Voices prove that there is an abundance of exciting new theatre waiting to be discovered on the fringe. The combined effort of the two companies has allowed almost twenty productions to get the exposure they need not only to survive, but also to thrive. Both ventures are experiments, but if they prove successful and return for a second year they will go a long way in ensuring that the next generation of theatre companies, writers, and producers find a voice and have a platform at the fringe.