The Edinburgh Fringe is the only place where new theatre can thrive. Sneer at it if you like, but just try making it on the London fringe insteadby Samantha Ellis / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Edinburgh: home of the Fringe since 1947
I first went to the Edinburgh Fringe six years ago with a company called Aardvark. We’d been hoping to come first in the programme but we hadn’t reckoned on AAAARGGGH Theatre. We took the coach up from London, swigging whisky and performing, extempore, the collected works of Dorothy Parker, and found ourselves on the smallest stage at the world’s biggest arts festival. One review was so bad that I burned it in an act of catharsis far more powerful than our show-that is, until the set went up in smoke. We made a profit of £50 and spent it on vodka. When we got back home, we called all the producers who had given us their cards and none of them remembered who we were. But I still believe the Edinburgh Fringe is special; the only place in Britain where you can put on a show on a shoestring and make it.
It is this belief that keeps the Fringe going and most of the 619 companies performing there this year would subscribe to it. But a surprising number of people, including many in the London press, think that it is fantasy. They argue that an obsession with getting discovered has turned the once-carnivalesque Fringe into a grabby, grubby place, PR-driven and producer-led. They say it’s unwieldy, overblown and no fun anymore.
It is certainly not easy to cope with one-hour slots, 15-minute get-ins, limited storage space and inflexible lighting rigs. But limitations can be a spur to creativity, and theatre on a shoestring is sometimes theatre at its most vital. As technology advances, we are likely to want more, not less, of an entertainment form that relies on real people manifesting their presence in a shared space.
The Fringe is vast. There are 1,491 shows this year, which is testament to the drive and imagination of a lot of people, not to mention the venue managers who requisition unconventional spaces and turn them into theatres. Where else can you see Czech black-light puppetry alongside Australian Puppetry of the Penis? Where else can you see ten shows a day? Quantity does not equal quality, of course, but the risk factor is part of the Fringe’s charm. Fringe director Paul Gudgin calls it the “weird Edinburgh osmosis”-word-of-mouth has a real impact, and punters accost each other in bars and queues demanding recommendations. Imagine that in London.