Artistic ambition at the Fringe

The average Fringe experience involves a sixty-minute time slot, an incredibly quick get-in and a show in a space never intended for performance. It is reasonable, therefore, to question whether it is worth staging anything with high production standards. For all the excitement of performances going on all around you, there are undoubted disadvantages. ‘Very few venues can accommodate a show that needs absolute silence,’ says Marlene Zwickler as an example.

Technical triumphs

The Fringe, however, is a broad church, big enough to embrace everything from no-budget student revues to sophisticated pieces of professional theatre. You are likely to have to work harder the more technically demanding your show is, but you should hold out for the best conditions. For a select few companies, that could mean performing at the Traverse, a year-round two-studio theatre with a commitment to presenting polished full-length productions. Dance companies are similarly well served at Dance Base, another year-round venue. Several Fringe venues, such as Zoo and the New Town Theatre, make efforts to match those standards and some companies take control by finding and running the venue themselves.

Barry Church-Woods, the Fringe’s venues and companies manager, believes you should not compromise your artistic standards. ‘Everyone is here, so the best technicians are here,’ he says. It is a sentiment shared by Sam Gough, venue manager at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre: ‘If you’ve got two pieces of work, make sure you bring the best one; don’t just bring the easiest one.’

Working with fellow artists

Wolfgang Hoffman is the producer who brilliantly demonstrated the merit of this argument with Aurora Nova, a venue that ran in St Stephens Church in Stockbridge from 2001 to 2007. Hoffman first came to the Fringe in 1989 as tour manager and performer in Hopeless Games, a dance-theatre collaboration between Potsdam’s Fabrik and St Petersburg’s Do-Theatre. After the buzz of excitement wore off, he became dissatisfied with the artistic conditions on the Fringe. It did not seem conducive to good work when performers had no place to warm up and every show had the pressure of a fast turn-around. At the same time, friends in Europe were asking him how to come to Edinburgh, so he resolved to set up his own venue that would be built in a spirit of artistic cooperation:

I thought maybe if we did a venue ourselves that communicated through quality, it could work as a festival within a festival. We had a technical team that was dedicated to making the show look as good-looking as it needed to be, even with seven or eight shows in a day. Because of the solidarity ethics, everything was easier in terms of the change over. It became a huge critical success because of its artistic integrity. Sharing meant that much more was going to be achieved with less effort.

Finding the fringe festival to suit your show

Aurora Nova ran for eight seasons, after which Hoffman switched his focus to the Dublin Fringe Festival, for which he was artistic director. He now works as artistic director for the Berlin-based Circle of Eleven. Despite his success bringing physical theatre and dance to Edinburgh, and despite his love of the ‘appreciative’ audience, he sounds a note of caution. ‘There’s a lot of work that I respect very much that I definitely wouldn’t recommend going to Edinburgh,’ he says. ‘Work needs to have a certain sexiness in Edinburgh. Work of a more contemplative nature will find it very hard and there are better festivals to go to and be appreciated by.’

He does, however, acknowledge the Fringe’s value as a trade fair for professional companies with artistic ambition, something Kate McGrath agrees about. With her London-based producing organisation Fuel, she has brought shows such as the Perrier Award-winning Jackson’s Way, the site-specific submarine drama Kursk and the museum-like Under Glass performed in the basement of the McEwan Hall (only after they had laid carpet and blacked out the walls).

Some of her shows have done well with a simple presentation and a strong concept; more challenging is to present work with high production values. ‘For us the key has been finding spaces that are right for the work and finding a way to escape the fifteen-minute get-in and get-out cycle,’ says McGrath, who was born and brought up in the city. ‘It is possible. It requires an incredible amount of hard work. You either need to spend quite a lot of money or work like maniacs – which is what we’ve done.’

From The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury)