Lessons Learned from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year. I’ve just clocked two and half weeks on repeat: sleep, eat, theatre, eat, theatre, theatre, eat, drink, sleep. Repeat. I’ve spent my time seeing some fifty shows, hosting discussions over tea and that professional thing called networking. Last week I was questioning why we even bother with taking work to the Fringe when it seems we care so little about audiences. I’d go as far as to say that I’ve even wondered myself – quite vocally in person – about the lack of reasons for me being at the Fringe, but I think I understand now.

Aristotle said that “it is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency”, and this to me is the key to understanding why it is healthy to attend the Fringe as a theatre professional for a lengthy period. Through repetition – the sleep, eat, drink, theatre routine – I’ve come to understand a pattern in the theatre work I’ve seen. I’ve basically figured out through sheer repetition of (mostly) average theatre work the mechanics for what works and what doesn’t. It’s like Meyerhold has put me through his Biomechanics and if I applied that to making theatre next week I’d be making some pretty shit hot work.

Joking aside there is something in the repetition of the Fringe that becomes an engine that drives the festival and participants. Most companies performing wouldn’t have the opportunity to present their work for three weeks straight, even the most professional of companies rarely get that opportunity in a venue. Work naturally shapes and evolves with repetition, so it stands to reason that – one would hope – work becomes richer and more grounded towards the end of the festival.

Another output from repetitive viewing is the determination to never produce work that reaches some of the low standards presented during the Fringe as I’ve witnessed. Look, I know people are cutting their teeth at the Fringe, are on limited budgets and are generally learning, I just wish I didn’t have to endure so much of it. I’ve even come to call this year a ‘dud year’ void of any shows of emotion, intelligence or skill. Maybe my boycotting of the Traverse Theatre needs to stop. More positively though, attending the Fringe allows you to shape your understanding of your taste and desire within theatre-making. I’ve definitely learnt that audiences need to constantly be put first and if not at least be constantly brought into the conversation of why the work is being made.

I tweeted last week that the Fringe is less about the shows and more about the conversations around the work. Thinking about it now I still think this stands. The entire industry moves up to Edinburgh for the month, it makes sense that the conversations around the work should happen over pints and pots of tea in the haze of clocking your ninth show of the day. Much of the Fringe is about listening; to peers discussing work, to Artistic Directors defining their work and programmers discovering their next season. The conversations at the Fringe is where the true joy of the Fringe lies; sod the theatre give me the talk.

During a discussion with David Lockwood, Artistic Director of the BikeShed Theatre, Exeter, he said that (excuse the paraphrasing) Edinburgh gave him space to think about theatre. Through sitting through show after show his thoughts would drift, quite naturally, to the mechanics of making and his own work. Edinburgh afforded him the time to think about theatre without having to sit down and think about theatre. It would happen naturally. I couldn’t agree more. Yes you could throw yourself into an intense discussion about what makes good theatre or you could let your thoughts wonder absent minded over time. If there’s one thing the Fringe allows for it is for absent minded thinking.

I’ve lost count at the amount of times I’ve declared that this will be the last year I commit to the full Edinburgh Festival Fringe experience, but if I only came for a week I’d be like a kid in a sweetshop. Gorging on theatre until it made me sick. At least with a month’s viewing I gorge, become sick of it all and then start to appreciate its value over time. Three weeks at the Fringe is enough to turn you off theatre for life, but actually what it does is focus the mind and propel you out the other side with a commitment: I’ve seen shit theatre, I’ve seen good theatre, I’m going to make bloody brilliant theatre. You can’t argue with that, right?

Image via the Hunter University Department of Classical and Oriental Studies. (It’s Meyerhold’s Biomechanics in action)