The Myth of the DIY Edinburgh Campaign
There’s a limited window to comment on Edinburgh: post July 1st when people start thinking about it, and pre July 31st, when your own work goes up and anything you might say or think of, is written off as sour grapes. So here’s something, on July 30th.
The story goes that the Edinburgh Festival is a fertile ground for DIY, give-it-a-go theatre. That idea has been around since Peter Cook and Alan Bennet made Beyond The Fringe and became the national treasures they went on to be. They came into Waverley station with nothing, and left as heroes. The most recent iteration of this pattern is Fleabag - the brilliant, honest, one woman show that hit Edinburgh, ripped the lid off our millennial angst, and rode those waves all the way to Hollywood. The idea is, if you can somehow get a slot and make it up here, the world is yours for the taking.
But that is definitely not the reality.
The festival has always run on word of mouth. There are so many shows up here you seldom really touch the brochure, except to skim and say “I’ve heard that’s good”. A better tactic is to ask people what they’ve heard is worth while. This is made more powerful by the fact that about two thirds of audience members are not Edinburgh locals, or tourists, but other performers. Lots of these performers are up at the fringe a few days before it opens, and keen to get ‘in the know’ before everything opens. They are, after all, theatre geeks. If they’re not here, they’re here in spirit, on twitter.
All of this means that the fringe actually starts in early July, and is dominated by established companies preparing their fully-funded shows. The word of mouth is already rolling by the 10th, and only gets more intense. Soon enough the pick lists emerge, lovingly curated “have you heard”s of ten to fifteen shows, that have been selected by freelance PR companies and paid marketing departments in collaboration with journalists. Slander? Well I’m working with a big producing company this year whose marketing department went on a trip to Edinburgh in mid-june, exclusively to butter up Scottish journalists…
Come the 20th of July, the posters pop up. There’s no real honesty or integrity to these - most of them feature lists of four star reviews for last year’s show produced by the same company. I’m writing this opposite a poster that has eighteen four or five star reviews on it. None of which are about the show being advertised. The poster for my show at Pleasance has two reviews for mine and Lucy Roslyn’s past work. Easy to do if you're a returning company, completely impossible if you're an unknown.
All of which means that by 30th July, before a single show has opened and not a thing has been seen, the front-runners are already clear. These shows then draw the critics, who head to what they have “heard” is good, from that meeting they had with the marketing company back in June. In the first ten days, these journalists largely stick to the safe bets (with some exceptions), further amplifying the coverage for those companies that had the money to get moving early. Every Traverse show, the most secure and well supported shows at the festival, will have reviews written in the first week.
Come August 10th, or thereabouts, even less people are reading the brochure or taking a chance on things, because there are so many wonderful reviews and recommendations around that they have to see first. The university company who are about to step off at Waverley station on August 11th, are bringing a knife to a gun fight.
If you're finding this cynical and irritating, I get it. But the festival should be about new artists getting a chance for some profile, not about big, funded theatres using their ample resources to bully the market.
If both of my shows tank you can also write this off as sour grapes.