Column: Every Year, A New Fringe
Published in The Stage, 14.08.2014
Every year, the Edinburgh Fringe changes, even though, every year, it’s just the same. You arrive to the same Waverley Station, give or take the odd improvement. You walk past the same fresh-faced flyerers, head to the same wifi hotspots and spot the same sorts of shows in the same sorts of venues with the same sorts of audiences. But the thing that changes each year is you.
This is my tenth consecutive August in Edinburgh. It’s strange to think that, over a decade, I’ve spent the best part of a year pacing its cobbles and shifting my weight on its plastic seats. In that time, I’ve come up as a student, as an emerging artist, as an audience member and, of course, as a critic.
And every single time has been different. Every time, I saw a different side to the Fringe with different shows, different forms and different ideas. I sought out different things. I was a different person.
In my early twenties, I’d race round C Venues, hoovering up student shows that I could see on my venue pass for free– anything and everything, whatever happened to be on. Six, seven, eight shows a day. The TEAM were there one year. Johnny Woo another. The rest of the Fringe might as well not have existed. I couldn’t afford it. I wasn’t bothered.
One year, I cheated on theatre with comedy, devouring stand-up, sketch, anything with jokes. The next, I mopped up every cutesy, puppety, accordion-and-suitcase show going. At some point, I discovered the Traverse and, long overdue, substance. Then the International Festival. Then Forest Fringe and later, the joys of those strange, surprising, undefinable oddities tucked into tiny rooms well off the beaten path.
I’ve been thinking about these former Fringe selves a lot recently. Each of them was an important stage. The Fringe forged my tastes. I wouldn’t be into the oddities today without having gone through the cutesy stuff along the way, and I probably wouldn’t have found those shows without the miscellany of C Venues beforehand.
Two thoughts spring from this. One, for artists, the awareness that almost every show has its audience. You just need to find them amongst the throng. That means talking to people, not just thrusting flyers in their hands as they walk past, and it means seeking out the right audience not simply ensuring you sell out.
Two, as a critic, remembering that different audiences want different things, need different things. I might have grown out of a certain type of show, but those tearing round student shows or discovering the joys of folksy fairytales for the first time won’t have. How do you keep them in mind in a review?
When people talk about the essence of the Fringe, they usually mean those total one-offs that couldn’t exist, let alone flourish, in any other context. But the Fringe doesn’t have an essence. It can be all things to all people – and that’s an extraordinary thing.
Photograph: Peter Stubbs