“What Has The Fringe Society Ever Done For Us?”
First thing’s first – that’s a provocative title to introduce a talking-point, not a sincerely-asked question, I’m not aiming to use this week’s newsletter to sincerely denigrate an organisation that’s overall done quite a bit to help artists and arts organisations. But this week I’ve been thinking about the Edinburgh Fringe, and the Edinburgh Fringe Society, and toying with the idea that, while the latter can’t exist without the former, the same isn’t true the other way around. Here’s a quick bit of background info for those who are less clued-up on the ins and outs of all things Fringe:
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the (until last year) annual arts festival that takes over the city and showcases the world’s best theatre, comedy, art, music, dance, etc etc, the “world’s largest celebration of the arts,” the biggest open-access tribute to creativity and imagination and yadda yadda yadda, you know all this. The Fringe Society is the company that operates as a sort of organisational umbrella for the Fringe. Unlike the Edinburgh International Festival, of which the Fringe was an unofficial, DIY offshoot, hence its name, there is no central body that organises the programme of the Fringe. The Fringe programme is put together by hundreds of venues in contact with thousands of individual promoters, producers and artists. The whole thing is, in theory, open-access (although rising costs make this more of a fiction than we’d like to believe) so that anybody can put on anything they want. The Fringe Society liaises with all those venues and puts their various programmes together into one gargantuan, vaguely comprehensible brochure, and collects registration fees from artists and producers for doing so. It effectively makes the Fringe more digestible to an outsider, so that rather than being presented with a baffling, endless array of different programmes at every single venue, there is one central hub from which people can find the shows they want. They do other things too – they organise the odd support workshop for Fringe artists and things like that, but largely their role is an administrative one.
As I mentioned in a previous newsletter, the Fringe is now going ahead this year in a smaller form than usual, but over the last year there have been numerous statements from the Fringe Society calling for more government support and speculating about the future of the Fringe itself, and I have to say, with the hope that I don’t offend anyone by saying this, that I’ve read most of them with a healthy dose of scepticism. Don’t get me wrong – the government’s support of arts organisations, festivals, venues and other arts professionals has been insufficient over the course of the pandemic, and I know many amazing companies who have had to shut their doors, as well as many amazing artists who have had to walk away from the industry, at least temporarily, and I find all of it heartbreaking. If The Fringe Society went bust, it would be another great tragedy, as it is every time even one person makes the decision that they can no longer support themselves to make a living by pursuing a creative career. But the thing I found odd was the way the Fringe Society, in these statements, seemed to identify themselves entirely as being representative of the Fringe itself. Their logical argument seemed to be “If this company doesn’t get more support, it will go bust, and if it goes bust, there will be no more Fringe,” and I couldn’t help but find fault with that argument. Whether or not there could, should or would be a Fringe without the Fringe Society there to do all the admin for it is another question entirely – it depends on how big a risk it is to the health of performers and audience alike, on how many artists are in a fortunate enough financial position to take the risk on staging a show up there in such precarious circumstances, on whether anything changes regarding local restrictions, and much more besides – but the one thing I was clear on was that it was a separate question. If the Fringe Society were to collapse, the Fringe itself would still be sitting underneath it, at least as an idea, to then address all of these questions itself, rather than having them answered on its behalf.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Fringe Festival
Why ask all these questions when the Fringe is going ahead this year, and the Fringe Society seems to have got enough security measures and financial support in place to guarantee its future? Well, because in the last week I’ve learned that there will be a rather significant difference to the Fringe this year, in that a few comedy shows will be going up that will have no affiliation to the Fringe Society – a sort of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Fringe Festival, if you will. I won’t say who they are, because it might spoil the impact of their own announcements when it comes to putting tickets on sale, but I’ve become aware of a few independent, DIY, alternative comics who are putting on short runs of shows in Edinburgh in August that they won’t be registering with the Fringe Society to have them in the main brochure, they’ll just be putting them on via a deal with an independent venue and selling tickets directly to their audience. These acts are established acts who already have followings of their own, and the shows will be reduced capacity to allow for potential social distancing rules, so cutting out the Fringe Society makes simple business sense – if you’re likely to be able to sell all the tickets anyway, why spend a portion of the potential ticket sales on registering to be in a brochure you don’t need to be in? At one point, I think the idea of being in the brochure was a foregone conclusion – if you weren’t in it, you weren’t really “doing the Fringe,” you were just sort of there. Today, a year on from going without it full stop, I find myself asking the question “Isn’t just being there enough?”
As I said, I’m not exploring this to sling mud at the Fringe Society – they help people a lot, especially those just starting out on their journey at the Fringe. They help enormously with discoverability – if you’re a totally unknown performer putting on a hastily-written, barely-rehearsed one-man show in the basement of a pub at midnight (me in 2012), then the Fringe Society are the one thing that makes the difference between your being a deluded fool entertaining a handful of people in the middle of the night on the one hand, and, on the other, being an artist with their own Fringe show. It’s in the brochure and everything, it’s official! For the sake of helping early-career artists find their way into exploring their own creativity at the world’s biggest arts festival, having an “official” Fringe hub makes a lot of difference, and it’s a good thing they’ve been able to secure their future. But there does come a point when, as a creative person trying to make interesting things, you’re no longer going to the Fringe to be “discovered,” you’re going there to continue exploring and making and sharing what you have with an audience. Maybe as we all get older and less reliant on the additional discoverability and media attention that the official Fringe brochure might get you, the merits of a Fringe that exists outside of the Fringe itself become more apparent. I wonder whether this more DIY, independent movement is one that will only happen this year, because until recently there was still so much uncertainty over whether the Fringe would even happen, or whether it will continue into next year and the Fringes beyond. Whether as a community we’ll continue to push to restore artistic independence to the Fringe, and to communicate directly with our audiences instead of catering to the media scrum that the festival has come to surround itself with. Time will tell.
What do you guys think? Would you like to see the Fringe continue to dissolve slightly to become less rigid, less media-focused, more independent, more artist-driven and less corporate? Or does weakening the hold the Fringe Society has over the Fringe as an entity risk jeopardising the opportunities available to newer artists trying to find their way in? As ever, always very keen to hear all your thoughts!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Lucy Pearman, one of my favourite brains and people in comedy, has made an excellent pilot for BBC Three called Please Help. Lucy plays Millie, who has to care for her nan while running her family’s farm and then unexpectedly develops magical powers. It’s a really excellent marriage of Lucy’s absurdist instincts with a character-driven story and I really hope the BBC make more of it.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – There’s a sketch in season 2 of I Think You Should Leave, which was just released on Netflix, about a class reunion with a college professor who then gets really jealous of his student’s burger, that made me howl.
Book Of The Week – I just finished reading The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson. I’ll be honest, and this might make me sound much older and more conservative than I’d like, but the guy seems pretty excited about the idea of writing the first ever philosophy book with swear words in it. “There was once a prince who was surrounded by expensive shit, and he thought “Fuck this” and went and became really poor and lived surrounded by shit and felt like a total piece of shit and then thought “I’ll live somewhere in the middle.” This guy’s name was Buddha, you might have heard of him. By the way, if you can’t tell, when I was a teenager I was an asshole.” That kind of thing. But once you’ve begrudgingly accepted its insistence on swearing at you all the time, the ideas it discusses are great and it explores them really well.
Film Of The Week – I’ve not watched any good films this week, so this week’s film is World’s Greatest Dad. I watched it because I heard it was Robin Williams’ last dramatic performance, and I love a sad Robin Williams film. Weirdly, I couldn’t decide whether it was bad or not until it was finished, at which point it became apparent it was quite bad. It’s about a father who lies about his son’s accidental death to pass it off as a suicide in order to protect him, but ends up exploiting it for his own gain. There’s lots of really interesting ingredients in there, including Williams’ performance, but it just doesn’t come together into anything very much.
Album Of The Week – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle by Bill Callahan. Been meaning to get round to this for years. It’s incredible. Sort of slow, woozy, magical alt-country stuff. And what a lovely voice!
That’s all for this week! As ever, I love building this little community with you all, so if you’d like to share the Therapy Tapes with a friend or encourage others to subscribe it’s hugely appreciated. Take care of yourselves and see you all next week,
PS Here’s a photo of a duck that my friend Emily took this week. I think it deserves a wide audience.