A fringe outside the fringe

Pleasance Theatre is raising £1.5 million to directly support a theatre network that is currently not 'effective enough.'
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The Independent Culture

Anthony Alderson, the artistic director of Pleasance Theatre, sees the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as the best launchpad for theatre works in the world. He describes the festival as a ‘microcosm of the theatre industry,’ but notices that ‘there is a neighbourliness and community about the Edinburgh festival whereas the industry is a bit selfish the rest of the year.’ The festival presents exciting, innovative work and people come with an open mind to support and see new plays. He is investing in a model that will essentially create the network that works so well in Edinburgh, outside of the festival and this will hopefully, bring more theatre to the city, as a result. He hopes to improve the communication between a larger network of mid-scale regional venues and smaller-scale Fringe venues around the country. Instead of one theatre having to market one show, a centralised brochure will market the plays that are going from one venue to the next. If theatres work together, costs are reduced and support is increased. A circuit is created that theatres will regularly appear on.

The problem at the moment lies in the lack of support for the fringe outside of the festival. Alderson explains that the ‘fringe remains invisible because we’re obsessed with the mainstream with the likes of Britain’s Got Talent and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s reality show. At the bottom of our culture we have the fringe which is taking place every night but has become disjointed out of Edinburgh. We need to connect it back together again.’ He emphasises the importance of ‘communities’ gathering together to support the fringe. This investment will mean companies don’t miss out on showcasing their work if they are struggling with funds. Theatre companies usually cannot afford to do five week shows, however this model hopes to make the idea of long runs for shows in different venues around the country into a realistic goal. Alderson’s plan is to formalise the model, which the arts council may see as a structure they could fund. He describes a streamlined network where theatres work in collaboration with each other. ‘Imagine what could happen if the Fringe theatres in Brighton, Birmingham and London, Liverpool, Leicester and Nottingham were connected together...a proper support mechanism could be put in place.’ Theatre would become more important as the network is celebrated; smaller fringe venues would send work to London and then onto the ‘firework display’ of Edinburgh.

Alderson explains that the Eastern Region has ‘got it right.’ They created a fund called ‘Escalator East’ which is a scheme that gives direct funding for companies to take their shows to Edinburgh. ‘People want to use that fund to present themselves to a wider body of people and buyers across the world; the knowledge they get from spending time in Edinburgh’s melting pot is incredible….I don’t understand why the Eastern Region is the only one who offer specific funds for work going to Edinburgh.’ Oliver Lansley, the Artistic Director of Les Enfants Terribles, stresses how significant Edinburgh is to him. ‘Our company has grown through Edinburgh; as a company starting out you don’t get that level of playing field anywhere else. I’ve toured all over the world since our launch at Edinburgh; Prague, Poland, Australia but we always come back to Edinburgh because it is so important for us…it is crazy that the biggest arts organization in the country has a blinker to it.’ Lansley is launching an award for young companies to take shows up to the festival because the process of transporting a show to the city resonates strongly with him; ‘that was me ten years ago.’ Many regional theatres find their work at Edinburgh, so this communication between the Fringe and regional theatres would formalise a support that already exists but is not practiced effectively enough.

The system will bring in the festival buzz of a community and break down the idea that theatres that are close to each other have to be in competition. Alderson has been in discussion with Lorreta Sacho who has just bought and refurbished the Old Market theatre in Hove, Brighton to start up this network with venues working more closely together. Battersea theatre is already in discussion with Cambridge. Riverside Theatre and Pleasance are pushing their box offices together so the infrastructure is starting to take shape. ‘If we were to expand this network to Greenwich, Kilburn and West Yorkshire playhouse and we all sat down and spoke of the work we were going to present then all of a sudden you’ve got a tour for a theatre company ’ This network is starting to come together and could democratise the way in which theatre is governed. Alderson explains that he doesn’t want every theatre looking the same but for the venues to work together in a festival environment, which would in turn be a greater support for the creation of new work. Pleasance’s £1.5 million investment is to offer a production development fund aimed directly at supporting the work submitted to Edinburgh, including free rehearsal rooms.

The most important development with this investment is that marketing costs would be greatly reduced. ‘The dilemma for fringe has been if you spend all your money on art, not enough money is spent on marketing, if all your money is spent on marketing then not enough money is spent on art.’ One of the strengths of the festival is that it puts all its acts in one magazine and all its tickets are sold from the same place. If a network of box offices were to join up, then costs would be greatly reduced and the focus could be on the art. As theatres have 52 weeks of the year to fill, they become inherently selfish which, as Alderson explains, is all the more reason to share. ‘If the Pleasance were to sell tickets for the Udderbelly in Southbank, convenience is increased and there is no booking fees, the money would go straight to the theatres.’

The traditional way of producing a show can limit press, exposure and money is wasted. Twelve theatres in London at the moment have less than 1% cross over audience. If we combined these London theatres with small regional theatres, and took plays as a season, communication would be increased and the print market would be the same. Edinburgh is a brilliant launchpad but a connected infrastructure with London and smaller venues needs to be choreographed. Jonathan Holloway, from Red Shift theatre company, emphasises that ‘unless you have an awful lot of money to throw at publicity, London is difficult to make a mark and the audience is limited, in Edinburgh you are suddenly amongst a community of enthusiasts who are looking for new work.’ He supports Alderson’s observation of the Edinburgh community and describes the relationship between art and audience at Edinburgh as unique and mutually supportive.

Pleasance’s investment will offer theatre companies the artistic freedom to bring their vision to life without the constraints bought about by lack of funds or having funding that comes with a catch. Holloway controversially refused funding from the arts council. ‘We felt our work was being prescribed…I wanted to go in a different direction that wasn’t what the Arts Council wanted.’ Pleasance’s investment directly towards theatre companies will offer artists artistic license so they can create the work they really want to make. If the Arts Council invests, the funding can be filtered productively towards publicity. A greater number of people will be exposed to theatre through this Edinburgh-style programme and a collaboration between box offices. As productions are spread widely across the country, theatre will be seen by more people and become more accessible. This network will change the way art is created and marketed for the better.