August marks the pilgrimage of a large chunk of the theatre community in the United Kingdom towards their mecca in the north. And just as the Muslim faith decrees that every practicing member must visit Mecca at least once in their life, I would insist that the same should apply to the Edinburgh Fringe. I might be slightly over dramatic because for the first time in four years I am unable to attend, but what can I say, drama is our bread and butter.
Google tells me I can drive the 5,300 miles from Beirut in 54 hours via the A3 but I am not quite that desperate. I would however like to use this gap year and geographical distance to try to objectively understand why I hate so many things about the Fringe yet I keep finding myself drawn to it year after year.
1) The Commercial Edinburgh Fringe
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival might have been correctly named in 1947, but I do not think that the term Fringe applies anymore. The festival has become a money-making enterprise, but not for the artists (surprising I know, artists are usually loaded). Out of the 5000 shows, only a handful make money. The venues charge ludicrous amounts of money and expect the emerging practitioners to take all the box office risk, ensuring that the venues make a nice dime and offer us some “exposure.” Seriously though, from the 30 odd plays my friends have taken to Edinburgh over the years, not a single one covered their initial costs. At this point I am almost certain that it is more profitable to be a beggar or a busker than it is to be a theatre artist in the biggest theatre festival in the world.
2) Predominantly Shit Plays
Despite the risk of sounding like a grinch, from the hundreds of plays that I have seen over the years, I might have enjoyed a maximum of five. All the rest of the plays were either half-baked or just plain bad. What is even sadder is that the five plays I liked never had more than a dozen audience members on a good day. On the other hand, a really horrible clown show at the Pleasance, for example, sells out a 400-seater every day! These trends are just a microcosm of a wider economically-commercial framework that dominates the art world. This brings us back to money and commercialism, and as much as I am ideologically opposed to that, I think what bothers me more is the fringe label it presents itself under.
3) The Stress
The prospect of running our plays for a month in front of such a diverse audience group is so exciting that we sometimes forget the stress that comes with it. Last year, Sweaty Palms took up 7 plays to the fringe. After a couple of weeks of setting, striking, and performing every day we started getting slightly hysterical. Add the pressure to watch as many plays as we can, and alcohol abuse on a city scale, Edinburgh proves itself to be physically and mentally challenging, to say the least. Also, flyering is horrible in all its aspects. Either you are trying to hand out flyers along with 300 other people on one street or you are a tourist that is too polite to say no and has stacks of flyers in your Airbnb. Fuck flyers.
Having said all that, I feel the need to address this paradoxical pull I feel the festival has on me. I rarely get pangs of nostalgia, but the pictures of the fringe this year hit me hard. So, if we leave the festival lighter on cash and more fucked up psychologically, then why do we keep coming back?
1) The Value of Theatre
One of the things that I think is unique to Edinburgh is how this city is literally transformed by theatre. 5000 shows in parks, pubs, theatres, hundreds of street performers, and almost half a million audience members all flocking to the city to celebrate theatre. It all seems like one huge performance; you can sit for an hour on the Royal Mile or the Grassmarket and not be bored for one second. The energy of so many people directed towards performance has such a magical feel to it, it is almost indescribable.
Theatre people are notoriously communal, even in Europe, which is exhaustingly individualistic. This gives the city such a refreshing social atmosphere. Whether you are on the performing or viewing side of things there is never a lack of smiling, warm people to meet, have a pint and a chat with, and of course no interaction is complete without a flyer swap. In short there is a very prevalent feeling of everyone being in this together and sharing this experience on such a grand scale it is definitely spiritual.
This one does not include the audience members, and as much as I hate the concept of being paid in exposure, Edinburgh Fringe sees so many industry people I almost feel offended no one has noticed us. Some of the theatre companies I know ended up making some money by doing a UK tour after their Edinburgh success. I have even heard of shows that got taken up by Netflix and made into TV shows. So, if there ever was a springboard platform for low budget theatre, this is it; despite its contrary nature. Basically, what I am saying is that the Fringe is indirectly good for our careers, if you get lucky.
Having said all that, I will leave you more confused about the Fringe than when you started reading this. Each of us has their own spectrum of what is defined as “worth it.” Love it or hate it, I stand by my statement that every theatre person should visit at least once. There is really no other place like it in the world.