Is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe killing touring? – Why the world’s largest arts festival may be bad for the UK’s arts ecology

Each year house – a network of over 150 venues which spans from north Norfolk to the edges of the Kent coast – tours over twenty contemporary theatre productions to arts centres, performing arts spaces in schools and, sometimes, village halls. The team that make this happen are constantly scouting for shows and a big date in our programming calendar (like everyone in the theatre industry) is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

And yet we don’t tour many shows from the world’s largest arts festival.

Sitting within a recurring conversation amongst ourselves about how we find and why we programme shows to tour, I’ve found myself questioning the value and place of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe within the wider arts sector of the UK.

What appears to be happening is that the festival is skewing the market, especially in relation to touring and regional theatre programming. Again this year we’re taking a cohort of over forty programmers from across the network to Edinburgh for a week, and again I suspect that the group will see lots of quality theatre that isn’t the right fit for their programme.

In short, what’s being offered in Edinburgh on the fringe isn’t actually what regional programmers and their audiences want.  Reasons for this include:

The death of the interval

Due to the ‘pack them in’ programming model of Edinburgh venues, the interval has become a rarity in contemporary theatre productions. Artists make work to an hour slot, while festival goers expect volume and will take risk on short shows, but that model doesn’t work for a single stand alone night in a provincial arts centre. To say nothing of the truth that programmers lose bar income. In many venues programming comedy, usually on an 80/20 split, the venue is relying on bar sales to make the night add up.

And what of the audience experience? Whilst in Edinburgh, a show over 70 minutes feels like a big commitment, but to audiences regionally having a full night out and the opportunity to reflect and discuss the show during the interval is important.

Imagine that, but ten times bigger

The beauty of Edinburgh is that you can find yourself in a lecture theatre one minute, and a damp vault the next. On the whole, though, the spaces on offer are on the small scale, and transferring a production to a larger venue with limited set and cast size can sometimes seem too big a step for artists. This means that venues caught between the small- and mid-scale at 300 – 500 seats often miss out, and it’s these venues that can often make a one-night engagement more financially viable.

When forced to strike your set and have a get-out finished in 13 minutes with the next company waiting eagerly in the wings, it’s hardly surprising that many artists opt for the ‘less is more’ approach with the technical capabilities and design components for their show. Budget is also an important factor, as a large proportion of artists either self-fund or crowd-fund their Edinburgh ambitions. Small touring productions aren’t necessarily a bad thing for audiences, but I’ve found that we’re never far from seeing yet another one-person show, and actually a cast of more than five would be a blessing to venues desperate to see more people on stage.

Edinburgh is the exception, not the rule

Having a sell-out run and a host of strong reviews from the festival can warp opinion that shows will automatically appeal to programmers and audiences. A quote from The Scotsman and a Total Theatre Award does not necessarily translate to a successful performance in Harlow. Edinburgh has the ability to propel artists to a new level of success, and with that a false sense of security regarding audience awareness.

The odd ones out

What of the venue programmers and artists who aren’t able to attend the festival? There’s not a clear second option for programmers who can’t afford the time or considerable cost of attending the festival to see work. Edinburgh creates a pressure in artists and programmers to be there or be left out, and more thought into other options to access new work on mass would be worthwhile.

Recently announced by the Fringe office, the 2014 festival indicates an 11% increase of shows in the programme, now totalling 3,193. But how much of this work gets a life past the festival? Depressingly little, I suspect, because too much of it is the wrong shape, rough-edged and made for an audience almost entirely made up of our peers.

Before we place even more emphasis on Edinburgh being the launch pad for every emerging company, can we have more conversation between artists and regional programmers, and consider what it will mean to the people of Didcot and Hunstanton?



This article was originally posted on the Guardian Culture Professional Network Blog. Written by Sarah Wilson, the marketing & engagement coordinator for house.