What The Fringe?  … A Snowball into the Fire

By 8 September 2015Uncategorised

The last time I wrote one of these we were about to enter into the precipice of the Edinburgh Festival with our show Weekend Rockstars.  The good news is that we survived; survived the late nights, the Royal Mile and the threatened financial oblivion. We also came away with some nice reviews, tour interest, a lot of really lovely tweets and a bloody award for innovation in musical theatre! In short, I’m delighted with our August and in particular with our brilliant Weekend Rockstars cast and crew (if I took real time to say how brilliant they all were it would make this blog unreadably saccharin, so I’ll spare you that). In spite of all this I’m still stuck somewhere in the middle of a Tom Cruise-on-Oprah style celebration of the Edinburgh Fringe and a Tony Blair-on-Jeremy Corbyn kind of revulsion. Let’s see if I can explain why.

NB: This isn’t going to turn into a criticism of the financial realities of Edinburgh, nor a detailed analysis of whether the Fringe is ‘worth it’ for emerging (ugh) companies or otherwise.  Other people – much better placed than me – have already written at length on those subjects, and in any case the two things I’m certain of are that it’s 1) not a good way to make money, and 2) definitely worth it.

Instead, I want to write about how we do it, and to start that I’m interested in asking a few provocative open questions. Feel free to comment on this, tweet at us/me, send an e-mail or just have the thoughts in your own head (though that’d be a shame). I’m interested in knowing if I’m in the minority or the majority with these questions…

1) Why do we have star ratings? No-one seems to like them yet everyone seems to use them. Reviewers write blogs about not liking using and then proceed to use them in their next review. Theatre makers blog about not liking them and then tell their cast they have to spend their mornings stapling stars to flyers (sorry…!). And does it really serve audiences, or is it completely reductive? I know that in planning my festival I would often resort to scrolling through Twitter and making a mental note…’ooh only three stars, maybe I’ll give it a miss’ … ‘Five stars?! Well I’d love to see a perfect piece of theatre!’ I’m not the first and won’t be the last to make this point but, like a Conservative government, we only have them because we choose to have them surely? And is there anything us companies can do to move the debate away from ‘how many stars did you get?’

2) Who are the shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for? As I’ve bored people about previously, my main problem with most theatre is that there isn’t often much consideration of who the work is made for and why it’s made for those people in that way.  For me, Edinburgh is the apotheosis of this. From what I can work out Edinburgh is largely about showing your work to other theatre makers, to tired reviewers and to the occasional promoter or venue. I’m not necessarily criticising this but I feel there’s a side to the Fringe that I’m missing out on, or perhaps stupidly ignoring. Do ‘normal’ people go to shows at the Fringe? Do they just not stick around after shows? Are they not as dutiful at tweeting? I’m genuinely intrigued to know the answers to these questions. I know there are a few non-arts types who see stuff and it’s entirely possible that I just missed a whole mass of people choosing to indulge in the Fringe but the majority did feel like art for artists.

The question I need to answer from a Middle Child perspective is – why would a company interested in engaging new ‘non-traditional’ audiences go to the Edinburgh Fringe, other than to further the reputation amongst those who make and write about it? Or is that enough, is that okay?

3) Is reviewing a two-way conversation? Again, I’m not breaking new ground here but I’m intrigued on this question and without agenda. We had some really nice, glowing reviews and some which were the equivalent of shrugging your shoulder and seeing what is happening around the corner. Both of these responses are totally fine – as are constructive nasty reviews (which thankfully we didn’t get) – but my question is prompted by some reviews I read (mostly not ours) which were just poorly written, lacked genuine engagement with the work and in all honesty just felt like they offered neither critique nor purpose. Not all of these were badly rated either, some great reviews I read felt as though they meant less to me because of the lack of engagement with the work or the celebration of the fact that the actors seemed not to forget their lines and that the lighting cues were delivered on time. Again, I’d like to know if we are supposed to engage with these reviews as a conversation or a statement? Should we expect as much from reviewers as we expect from ourselves? Or do we become better at understanding that some reviewers are learning and honing their craft in the same way that many companies do at the Fringe and bite the bullet? My broadest question is what are the reviews for – are they to help audiences select how to spend their money, to develop and challenge companies or to enable us to rise above and sell tickets regardless of marketing budgets? My hope is a healthy mix of all three, yet I read too many reviews this year that felt as though they were working against at least one of these suggestions.

4) Are we allowed to retweet praise? Anyone who (still) follows the Middle Child twitter account will know that my personal answer to this is ‘YES’, but every time I did so I was aware of an audible tut somewhere across the border. My justification is that we’ve spent a hell of a lot of money going to the Fringe and it’s really hard to get an audience so when someone takes the time to tweet something nice it’s not only like a high five from a parent (an exciting treat that never gets old) but also extremely useful. Does this mean we are disgusting egotists? Is it sickeningly un-British to gloat and share positivity in such a public forum? I dunno…

5) At what point do we say what we think? This is definitely a broader question than the Edinburgh Fringe but an important one which I feel is highlighted by the festival. People who loved Weekend Rockstars generally stayed behind for a beer and said nice things to which I awkwardly muttered thanks. I guess people who didn’t like it or who weren’t that bothered disappeared and were lost into the night. Some probably said they liked it when really didn’t, and others possibly thought we didn’t want to hear which bits they liked and which bits they thought were unnecessary. This feels like a shame and a real gap in the kind of critical conversation which would undoubtedly improve future work. I wonder if people are often reticent to say things while knowing companies are in the middle of a run – fair enough – but can we please find a way to have conversations deeper than ‘it was brilliant’ or ‘it was shit’ without ego, schedule or politeness getting in the way? Making a bad show is a very real possibility — even probability; as is making a mediocre one, a boring one or an overambitious one, however that is often necessary in order to ensure that the next one is bloody brilliant. Let’s not stop that happening because we assume companies don’t want to have those conversations. We definitely do and I’m sure we’re not alone. (If you sure Weekend Rockstars and we didn’t chat about please drop me a line – paul@middlechildtheatre.co.uk – whatever you thought. I can take it, I promise)

Like an Edinburgh Fringe show I’ve written this blog as a provocation of thought. Where a show at the Fringe provokes us to consider what it is to be human, I hope this blog may (in a minor way) make us consider what it is to take a show to the festival, and ask whether we can get better at it.

Paul Smith
Artistic Director