A Nation's Theatre

| by Catherine Love

Catherine Love reports back from the Guardian Live panel session on the impact of the Edinburgh Fringe on UK theatre and beyond.


Thanks to its huge scale, the Edinburgh Fringe has an impact far beyond the city, influencing theatre in both the UK and beyond. The latest panel discussion in the Guardian’s A Nation’s Theatre strand yesterday addressed just this impact, asking what the latest developments on the Fringe mean for national and international theatre. 

The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner chaired a panel that included Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage; Charlie Wood, director at Underbelly; independent producer Jo Crowley; and Ahmed El Attar, artistic director at D-CAF, Cairo and one of the international delegates at this year’s British Council Showcase.

The discussion opened with a consideration of what “Fringe” really means. Gardner recalled the Fringe’s origins as a small alternative offshoot of the International Festival, while El Attar explained that for him, in the context of Cairo, Fringe theatre represents an alternative political space for work not made according to a government agenda. Now, though, the Edinburgh Fringe has grown from that modest alternative to a huge festival of thousands of shows. So what does it represent today?

Crowley insisted that the Fringe is a vital showcase for sharing work, meeting people and making connections. She also said that patterns and trends can be seen on the Fringe each year, adding that “art is a reflection of society”. There was some debate over whether the themes witnessed across the Fringe are driven by commercial considerations or if they are an effect of the growth in curated programmes in recent years. Wood suggested that “the genius of the Fringe is that there is no one trend” and that it remains an open access festival, but increasingly venues like Summerhall and programmes like Northern Stage are grouping together certain kinds of work. 

One complaint that has been raised by commentators this year is the lack of politically driven work on the Fringe. Campbell firmly refuted this criticism, insisting that everything he’s seen this month is politically engaged. He also spoke about the political significance of the Fringe ecology, suggesting that it is something of a microcosm for what is going on elsewhere and that by pulling back to look at what’s happening we might be able to better frame the argument for arts funding.

Wood brought in a more commercial perspective and reminded us of the role that venues like Underbelly play in investing in shows, taking risks and subsidising the Fringe’s existence. He also stressed the growth in audiences and made some suggestions about how the city could better support the festival. Could there be a voluntary levy on restaurant and hotel bills during the Fringe? And what about moving the school holidays so that children and parents alike can enjoy more of the shows on offer?

There was also lots of discussion about what the Fringe can offer theatre-makers, particularly young companies. Campbell stressed that the Fringe is not an end in itself, describing it as a corridor rather than a room. Gardner questioned how possible it is for young artists to be discovered amongst the clamour of the festival and wondered whether it is always the best place to showcase new work - especially if it is not finished. 

Crowley added that artists should be allowed to fail, but suggested that the Fringe might not be the best place for that process of failure and discovery. As Gardner put it, the Fringe is “the party nobody wants to miss”, but that attitude isn’t always best for artists and audiences. Campbell suggested, on the other hand, that the best way for young theatre-makers to learn from the Fringe might be to work during the festival without bringing up a show.

One major concern was the lack of diversity on the Fringe. While initiatives like the British Council’s emerging artist programme during the Showcase are attempting to tackle this, panellists and audience alike agreed that more needs to be done. David Jubb, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, made the suggestion that National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) could partner with venues to bring young people from a diverse range of backgrounds to the Fringe. The discussion ended on a note of optimism, as Gardner concluded that very slowly, things might be beginning to change.

Read more of the discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #ANationsTheatre

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