Phil Ormrod, 27 January 2013

Called by: Joanna Mackie

Present: 12-16 people at any one time

Having been to the Edinburgh Fringe in varying capacities over the last 8 years, I had

become frustrated at a) the economics of taking a show there, b) the service that is

provided for that money and c) the seeming power that the Festival has in convincing

artists and theatre-makers that they ‘need’ to showcase their work there. I wanted to

find out what other people's experiences were; if there was a problem; what the roots

of that problem were, and what we should be doing about it.

Most people were in agreement that Edinburgh was a vital platform for showcasing

new work, since it provided the biggest international mix of programmers and

producers in the world. They also agreed that the opportunities provided for

networking, and making connections, were invaluable. Those who had had ‘success’

(defined in terms of audience numbers, press response, and life beyond the festival)

highlighted that often, up to the next two years of their life as artists was secured as a

result of their work being seen there.

We talked about the fact that the festival has become saturated - more and more

artists want to participate, and more and more venues are becoming available.

Increased competition means everything, from venue rental to accommodation costs,

is allowed to keep increasing, and this means venues have to/can up their prices each

year. Most venues are ‘pay to play’, so the financial risk is passed down the chain to

the artists taking part (with the exception of The Stand and Assembly Rooms). People

were aware of how important the festival is for the local, and national economy. They

agreed that inevitably some people might be making a huge profit from their venue or

organisation, however, they also agreed that lots of venues were not. There was a

feeling that, whilst the economics of the Fringe might be skewed, this was not

necessarily the root problem. Similarly, some said that if people understood the

system they could absolutely learn how to exploit it for their benefit - everyone

expressed frustration about the star system, and the emphasis on huge glossy posters

and marketing material, however, theatre-makers can absolutely choose where and

how to spend their money, and opt out of the conventional routes in exchange for less

conventional ones. A critic present said in the 300 or so press releases they might get

every day, someone arranging to meet with them and tell them about their show would

be far more likely to garner their interest.

The next question we asked was whether people thought they were getting the service

they deserved for the money they were paying. This provoked varying responses,

largely dependent on which venue they had experience of. however, lots expressed

dissatisfaction. Some, who had only been to Edinburgh once or twice, said they didn't

know what they could be comparing their experience to (i.e. what they should and

shouldn't expect in terms of tech, PR, marketing support from their venue). Others

expressed a concern that people were not confronting their venues about poor staff

and service, and there was a sizeable conversation about the problem of young

producers and theatre-makers not following their gut and standing their ground in the

face of poor treatment. Why do people not complain more?

We talked on and off about the Free Fringe model. Whilst it was agreed that this was a

great model, which embodied the original spirit of the Fringe, it only existed as a

‘reaction to’ something (i.e. all the issues mentioned above). Therefore it could never

exist as anything more than this, for example, one on which the whole fringe could be

based. Nevertheless, it should be supported and shouted about.

There was a discussion about the increase in curated seasons of work, sometimes

affiliated with specific venues (Escalator east, Northern Stage, High Tide amongst

others). It was suggested that, whilst these were brilliant models of curated work, and

afforded artists taking part in them the levels of support they should be getting, as well

as the profile, the fact they they needed to exist might be indicative of a wider problem

- are they the wrong solution to a much bigger problem, and are they making life

harder for those going it ‘alone’?

The role of the Fringe Society was discussed as a general arbiter of change -

however, whilst people were aware it existed, no-one had any direct experience of

having engaged with it.

People moved on to talking about the rise of comedy and commercialisation, and the

increased competition between large ‘one-nighters’ (particularly, but not exclusively,

comedy) and how much more difficult it was to get noticed (and get audiences) in the

face of this. People felt that, more and more, audiences come to Edinburgh for

comedy. Huge sell-out shows that attract 500 people with one single, famous, name,

mean there are 500 less people to potentially go and see a whole range of other work.

Ticket prices were also discussed (i.e. people paying a lot for one of these shows and

not spending that money on 3 smaller shows), but it was not felt that this was the big


There was also a discussion about a) the genre and b) the quality of work people were

taking to Edinburgh, and this led to a lot of conversations about the reasons people

take work often not being the right ones. It was suggested that Edinburgh was no

longer a place for edgy, alternative work, or work that was made in non-conventional

ways. There are now numerous arts festivals all over the country, which actively

promote and support contemporary work, therefore trying to showcase in a festival of

3000 other shows (of every conceivable genre) made no sense at all. Similarly there

was a conversation about artists that may be shooting themselves in the foot by

exposing their work at the wrong time and in the wrong context.

Ultimately this all led to a discussion about the fundamental importance of thinking

strategically, when going to Edinburgh: What work are you making (would it suit a

smaller festival better, for example, or one with a specific kind of programming); Is

your work fully developed and the best it can possibly be (or does it need to be

exposed to a smaller audience in order to develop, before hitting an international one);

Why do you need to expose it at Edinburgh (is it for national press coverage? Do you

want to target X, Y, Z programmer? etc etc). In the right context, at the right time, with

the right approach, Edinburgh can have long-term financial implications that far

outweigh the negative ones of taking your show there in the first place. Nevertheless,

without these things, it can be damaging, both financially and creatively.

Whilst it was accepted that the economics of the Fringe might be skewed, it was also

agreed that the solution may not lie in fighting to change the system, but in trying to

get the people taking part in it to think differently - to think independently and

intelligently when considering Edinburgh as a platform for their work. Information

sharing, mentoring, dialogues with those who have experience of the system, and

awareness raising were all deemed hugely important in moving forward, and the

following two things were agreed upon as starting points:

1. A possible Edinburgh-specific mentoring scheme (possibly through Improbable)

2. A widely publicised Edinburgh Bootcamp in January/February each year, to

encourage emerging theatre-makers wanting to take work to Edinburgh to think

strategically and make sure they are asking themselves the right questions.


economics, New work, edinburgh, new work, fringe, Festival, Edinburgh, festival,

Fringe, Economics

Comments: 5

Mark Fisher, 27 January 2013

Sounds like an interesting and wide-ranging discussion - although complaining about the size of the Edinburgh Fringe is

nothing new. In 1961, when the event was less than 15 years old, theatre director Gerard Slevin argued it had got too big

and said it would be “much better if only ten halls were licensed”.

I deal with a lot of these issues in my book, The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide - website here.

Sally Christopher, 28 January 2013

This was a really great session to be a part of - thanks to Jo for hosting! As ever Edinburgh always triggers such strong

emotions in everyone - whether a punter, artist, resident or venue. In reality it is this heightened emotion which drives the

Fringe and keeps us all coming back year after year. I agree with Jo that experienced Edinburgh goers (like myself)

should be available to offer advice where we can to new companies and Producers and I am very happy to do this. I do

however strongly believe, as I mentionned in the session, that the Fringe Society must be at the heart of this discussion in

order to create effective change. I really do think they will be more than willing to listen and will consider ways to improve

the situation. I am sure there would be a good response from Fringe Society/Venues to a D&D invite and I'm happy to

help coordinate this. Also, when in Edinburgh be sure to attend the Ed Fringe AGM - meet the board and ask pertinent

questions. There is also the The Participants’ Council - who enable performers, producers and individuals from venues to

have a say in how the Fringe Society is run. Suggest contacting them for a way in too. With regards to the transparency of

the Fringe Society, all info and Annual reports for 2010 and 2011 can be found here and they clearly identify income/expenditure. Thanks again and hope I

didn't speak too much so as not to allow others a chance to find their voice - I'm pretty pasisonate about ye olde Fringe!

See you in Edinburgh this August. Long live the Fringe! Sal x

Brian King, 28 January 2013

A few random thoughts from a couple of punters.

A visit to the festival for non-locals is expensive full stop although obviously more so for performers / companies.

Because our visit is expensive we are naturally loath to experiment too much when deciding what to see.

In the first instance we will rely on our own experience of performers / companies, the recommendations of those critics that

we have faith in, and on the general reputation of the venue.

When we are in Edinburgh the word on the street assumes primary importance, followed by reviews.

We realise that the star system is deeply flawed but I find that it can help when used with extreme care.

Flyers and glossy posters have no effect on my choice of show (although we may not be typical). The only selling act that

had any effect on us was a guy who offered to give us a $20K Zimbabwean note to go and see his show! … He still gave it

to us even when we said that we were departing the following day and could not fit it in. It was worth zilch but it was a good

and memorable ploy.

I am not sure that we totally go along with the idea that the popularity of comedy will continue to grow inexorably. There is

probably some scope to attract more locals to comedy shows but visitor numbers are unlikely to grow much if at all. We

have only met a handful of punters over the years who said that they majored on comedy.

Bottom line … think long and hard before committing yourself and your pockets to the Edinburgh experience.


Chris Grady, 28 January 2013

Let me start by saying I'm biaised - I worked on my first show at Edinburgh in 1978 (playing one day to a man and his

dog…honest), moved to Publicity for the International Festival and the Traverse in the 80s, returned to run the Pleasance

2000, and returned again to create a new set of venues for Musical Theatre in 2008/9. And once again I'm sitting with my

wife plotting Edinburgh ventures. So I've been both sides.

Its really easy to miss the fundamental of the Fringe ethos - it is every man and woman for themselves with no controls in

place (except legal ones of safety, and crookedness). Noone goes to the Fringe or runs a venue to become rich. They do it

with a passion, and if they are good at it, they return again and again and make enough to pay themselves and their


Its easy to seek change, but its difficult to change something which allows anyone to do anything legal. In fact its a waste of

energy best left to letter writers to the Fringe or the Press.

If you contemplate the Fringe then DON'T take a show there. Instead go there with the idea for your show the 1st year.

Look around, talk to everyone, think what's best for you.

There are plenty of boot-camps to use the phase of the session - the Fringe runs them in 3-4 countries in the world. They

are invaluable. Mark Fisher has written a fantastic book. Producers like Richard Jordan and James Seabright write screeds

and books on the subject. There is a wealth of sensible advice.

Noone worth talking to at the Fringe is trying to take anyone for a ride. Far from it. The Pleasance relies on choosing shows

which will sell wonderfully well. If everything played at their minimum the place would be bust in no time. Its an extraordinary

interdependent living structure. You challenge is to take a deep breathe, take your time, create great work, and get inside

the structure.

Sorry - that sounded a bit “rantish”. Its not meant to be. Yes the Fringe is massive, and crazy, and you can lose your shirt,

and have a hideous time - but you can also have an extraordinary life-changing, career changing time.

Ask loads of questions

Don't harangue to get it changed…it won't…it just IS

Use your energy to create great work, get friends, know why you are there. And get stuck in

Happy to talk to anyone at a CGO Surgery about Edinburgh, or to be part of any panel etc etc etc


[email protected]

Joanna Mackie, 29 January 2013

Thank-you all for your comments - all good food for thought. I fully intend to keep this debate going through whatever

means, and will be posting this report out through Twitter and Facebook soon. Somehow we have to engage everyone in

the conversation - not just those with experience, but those who are embarking on it for the first time, or who have only

been once or twice - I want to know what their perception of the festival is from the outside, so to speak. I can quite easily

advise someone taking a show to Edinburgh for the first time how to best negotiate it and not completely drown, and I know

there are people far more experienced than me (such as some of you guys!) who can do exactly the same. Similarly, I can

encourage someone to think carefully about why they're going, and what they're going for. Edinburgh is, as we all know, a

completely wonderful, crazy, unique, bubble of a place where anything is possible and life-changing experiences can

happen - and do. But there is a whole other reality about it that seems hidden - not necessarily deliberately, but still hidden.

And Chris, I have to disagree with you and say that there are people who are part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival who are

doing what they're doing to get rich, and not for their love of the arts (even less for their love of the artists). They may be a

small minority, but they should be held accountable, and that will only happen if we invite them into a conversation.

I also think we need to invite everyone to be a part of that debate - theatre-makers, producers, critics, venue staff, venue

directors, venue owners, audiences, locals… I have no idea what the outcome might be, but we owe it to the industry to

start questioning what the festival has become, and stop claiming that we know, simply because we are the ones who have

done it so many times. (That's not a comment on the above comments, but a much more general one in response to

numerous conversations I've had with people over the last two years).

I know there are channels in existence for this, and I don't yet know who engages in what, when where etc. I also know this

conversation has been started before, and I'm sure has developed beyond what I've mentioned above. I hope it can now

happen on a much grander scale.

Thanks again for your thoughts and I'm fully open to criticism, so keep the responses coming.