After explaining a few times to family members and friends what exactly I’m getting up to with my life at the moment, I was keen to put together a short vlog which explained what a PhD (both as product and process) is for the uninitiated.
(What is a PhD Anyway? What does PhD Student life look like? | https://youtu.be/CpqFgR86plk)
My PhD focusses on representations of regional English cities in contemporary theatre. As such, the main strand of my research is textual, looking at how dramatists and devisors alike have filtered the regional English city — both as space and communal identity — in order to present it on stage.
To discuss such artistic practices in a vaccuum, though, would be somewhat naïve. As Harvie forwards
creative and artistic practice is never realised in a hypothetical “blue-skies thinking” bubble where anything is possible. Instead, it happens in a real world riddled with both material and ideological constraints. (2005: 16)
Any analysis of contemporary theatre practice, therefore, necessitates an exploration of the context into which such work is made.
Over the past couple of weeks, then, I have been doing some deep digging into some of the challenges and opportunities facing regional artists in today’s British theatre industry.
I was keen that, as well as drawing on existing literature and discussion surrounding such issues, I also tried to look at some — slightly more objective — data.
At first, I was hoping to get my hands on the figures behind the recent Arts Council England report Analysis of Theatre in England (BOP Consulting, 2016) but, currently, that has not been possible.
Therefore, I decided to focus on a data set I knew I could get my hands on. Though the information available was partial — and I had to build much of it up myself — I reasoned that the importance of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the UK theatre ecology meant that it could serve as something of a thermometer to test out how the volume of work taking place outside London.
The past few years has seen the emergence of a number of programmes which have sought to use the Edinburgh Fringe as a fulcrum to lift some of the dominance of what is an overwhelmingly London-centric industry. Programmes such as Northern Stage @ Summerhall and Escalator East to Edinburgh have used the pulling power of Edinburgh to showcase artists from their respective regions.
Thinking of it further, this became increasingly interesting to me, that with all the words that have been put to paper about the London-centric nature of the British theatre industry that much of the touring ecology revolves around three weeks not even just outside of the capital but north of the border itself.
Steve Marmion, artistic director of the Soho Theatre, characterises the Fringe as
the industry equivalent of a big expo, or one of those fairs where they get six months’ business done in one day […] we saw more than 400 shows [in Edinburgh] last year. And across a year we might see 1,000 shows. That gives you an idea of how much coverage is focused in one window. (in Wicker, 2016)
That such a high-profile recieving venue — and, for what its worth, a London one — carries out over 40% of its annual scouting at the Fringe perhaps suggests that London itself is not as important as we might imagine.
So, I decided to do some research. Proper research. With an Excel spreadsheet and everything. To see how the Edinburgh Fringe — which came into existence primarily as a reaction to the metropolitan artistic elitism of the concurrent Edinburgh International Festival — lives up to those initial ideals.
Handily for me, the Fringe Society website allows one to filter productions by a number of variables and pull them from the site as a spreadsheet. Even better, it designates the United Kingdom not as a whole but as its four constituent nations.
As my main focus here was on theatre productions travelling up from England, all data is restricted to the theatre section of the programme and to English-originating companies.
It’s worth saying also that, as all information is self-entered by Fringe participants, it is prone to some error. Where I have spotted this, I have aimed to correct but that is not to say some erronious data did not slip through.
The data on cast sizes has been retrieved from a mixture of company websites and information available on Broadway Baby’s show listings. Again, where I have spotted this to be erroneous, I have edited and this points to the possibility of further errors in the data.
In a number of places I have separated data relating to professional shows from that relating to amateur, student and school productions. My reason for doing so is that I am interested here in how the make-up of the Edinburgh Fringe impacts upon the UK’s touring ecology as a whole and companies which self-identify as professional are, naturally, those who are most likely to be thinking of giving their productions a touring life beyond the Fringe.
Of course, the self-identifying nature of all of this data means it is prone to flaws. Alongside this, the unique material conditions of the Edinburgh Fringe mean that deriving who is — or who is not — professional is somewhat problematic. Earlier this year, Lyn Gardner forwarded the example of
the young Warwick University company Breach Theatre [who] will be out on tour soon with their Edinburgh hit The Beanfield. So are they amateurs when they are performing on home ground in Warwick and suddenly professionals when they are performing at NPO-funded buildings such as Home in Manchester or Battersea Arts Centre, London, as part of A Nation’s Theatre? (2016)
Despite this, I hold that a company that has made the decision to identify themselves as professional on submitting details for their show are those most likely to look to tour on the festivals close.
One performer and no interval
There has been much discussion over the artistic impacts of some of the material and logistical contexts of the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2008, Guardian critic Paul Arendt complained that ‘more than half the shows I saw this week were one-person plays or monologue collections’ (2008). It is safe to say that such a notion exists anecdotally across the Fringe too.
My research, however, does not bear this out to be quite the epidemic Arendt suggests.
While there are more one performer shows than any other singular cast size, such productions make up only 29% of total English theatre performances at the festival.
Its worth noting, however, that this figure includes amateur companies including school groups and university societies who — as they are usually attending the Fringe for the experience itself, rather than to gain any longevity for the work — are usually able to people their productions in a way not possible to professional performers.
The figures become slightly more interesting when we extrapolate out solely the cast sizes of professional productions.
As you can see to the left, when looking at just the data from professional shows, we see that 43% of these productions have a sole performer.
Perhaps more interesting is by how much the volume of large cast productions shrinks. Where productions with more than two performers represented 66% of all productions above, when we examine the data referring solely to professional shows, they represent only 36%.
Another complaint is articulated by Sarah Wilson of House — an organisation which exists to raise the quality of programmed touring work in the South East — who suggests that
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. (2014)
In the small- to mid-scale I’d certainly suggest that such an argument holds true and so, again, I decided to crunch the numbers; this time, not so much to see whether it was true — it seemed fairly unlikely that shows under an hour were going to be in the minority — but to try and get a grasp on the extent of this hegemony.
As we can see, shows between 46 and 60 minutes dominate at the festival, counting for 67% of the English contingent. Many venues in fact explicitly state that a show must below such a time period.
But the area which my broader research drew me to was the origins of productions at the festival.
Where do you come from?
As I mentioned above, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe began as a radically decentralising movement. When Rudolf Bing announced the programme for the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1946 it ‘included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter, […] the Louis Jouvet company from Paris in Moliere and Glyndebourne productions of Le nozze di Figarro and Macbeth’ (Forbes, 1997). Alongside this, however, was not a single representation of contemporary Scottish art.
When six Scottish theatre companies — alongside two English groups — arranged their own venues and organised performances to coincide with the official programme from which they had been snubbed, then, it was a bold reaction against the metropolitan artistic elitism represented by Bing and Harvey Wood, the British Council head whom he worked alongside.
The reason I began to dug into this data in the first place, therefore, was in order to see whether the festival holds up to that founding principle. If the importance with which Marmion grants it — a notion supported by the numbers of artists who flock their each year — holds true and it is indeed a vital entry point into the British theatre industry, to what extent does it support the entry of new voices or simply reaffirm the importance of existing ones?
By using the data pulled from the Fringe Society website, I was able to further use company websites and social media pages to locate where each company travelling to the festival from England in 2016 is based.
What I found was that 47% of all productions which travelled north across the border were from London-based companies.
But this figure becomes even more startling when we remove those productions by non-professional groups.
As you can see in the chart to the left, 59% of all English productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 were from London-based companies.
London in fact submits 29% of all productions at the festival, nearly twice the 15% which come from inside Scotland itself.
The Edinburgh Fringe offers itself up as an anti-elitist, outsider of a festival. Yet, on examination of the data, we can see that such an image is not bourne out in reality.
Of course, the complexity of the issue is that such a dominance of London-based companies at the Edinburgh Fringe both supports the same dominance across the UK touring circuit and is supported by it.
The history of the Arts Council and — by extension — the arts in England is one of an unresolved tension between artistic excellence and artistic democracy but — even if action to rectify the inequities in funding and logistical support which overwhelmingly favour the capital was decided on — it seems that the complexities of such an issue would be hard to untangle in order to find a similar solution.
While there is clearly much positivity to be taken from programmes such as Northern Stage’s residency in the capital and projects such as Escalator East to Edinburgh, it remains to be seen whether the festival — which presents a huge opportunity for bypassing London’s gravitational pull — can ever deliver on such a promise.
BOP Consulting (2016) Analysis of Theatre in England. Manchester: Arts Council England.
Putting together the first ever Plymouth Fringe Festival along with Dan Baker, Matt Hall and Beth Shouler has been an honour. It’s been a chance to meet some amazing artists, invite some we already knew to this lovely city of ours and truly celebrate theatre and live performance in Plymouth.
But, amid all the funding bids and partnership conversations, I’ve often wondered what the function of such a festival is. What does it add to Plymouth’s cultural offer, which already contains a fair bit of theatre, to add a festival on top? We’re certainly not ones for doing things just for the sake of doing them – maybe this was a chance to reach new audiences or new artists, to make theatre more visible in the city or break down barriers to attendance?
I have to admit, in the chaos of tech rehearsals and keeping everything running smoothly, I’ve not had many chances to actually watch shows yet. But yesterday I managed to catch three, all in auditoriums full of faces I didn’t recognise and companies whose work would likely not have come to Plymouth had we not used the festival to prise open more theatre doors for artists.
But the moment I truly got the point of all this hard work was at roughly twenty past midnight as I wandered through an abandoned funfair on Plymouth Hoe, led by the hand of Brantley Rodgers as part of Aminal’s Night. Dream. Sleep. Perhaps it was the quiet where the rest of my week has been almost deafening or the treat of being able to focus on simply being in the world of a show rather than wondering whether I have any responsibilities if the theatre sets on fire mid-performance.
Now, I like being inside, I like early nights and I like sitting on my arse wherever possible. But the festival let me put those preferences aside and try something different. Outside of the context of the festival I might have given NDS a miss and headed home to my Stephen King novel and the last remaining Twirl but something about the energy in the city made me not want to miss out. I’d spent the day giving audience members tips on what to see and it would have felt criminal not to follow the suggestions that had been thrown my way.
And for my new found adventurous spirit I was rewarded with a touching show which provoked a real guttural emotional response and made me view the city I’ve plodded about for twenty two years through different eyes.
It wasn’t necessarily the outdoor nature of the show that hit me but the fact that it would have felt odd in a traditional season of work yet, this week, it felt completely natural. Particularly, it didn’t feel very ‘Plymouth’ and not in a ‘this is a local festival for local people’ way. Like many other shows at the festival I got the overwhelming feeling that our Janner audience, which is still fairly traditional in its preferences, would have been unlikely to take a punt on something so different but this week there’s barely any tickets left for NDS.
This week has been eye opening. During many of the fringe events which have sprouted up over the past eighteen months, the audience has been fairly static with the same supportive faces popping up again and again. Yet, so far at least, this week feels like a breakthrough. Not only are new audiences taking their seats for shows by emerging artists, they’re taking risks on the kind of work they might previously have shied away from. And, as I stared past a lut up Smeaton’s Tower at the lights making their way across the channel, it all made sense.
To compare things in the present to events in 1984 is a pretty over-subscribed cliche and is obviously simply a useful distraction for our reptilian overlords. Like most of Orwell’s work (and yoga) it’s pretty popular amongst lefties and therefore everyone who works in the arts.
As someone who works with words, its the ideas surrounding Newspeak (the official language of Oceana) which have always fascinated me. The Party realises that, by restricting the language people have at their disposal, you limit their ability to communicate with any specificity. If you erase the language which allows us to declare the difference between a cow and a horse then good luck complaining to the chef about your horsey burger.
And yet, a few years ago, a word started to disappear. In newspapers, in government briefings and on organisation websites, it’s frequency was slowly reduced until it was almost invisible. The word ‘art’ (pronounced a:rt) had been taken out to a field, beaten over the head and buried in a deep grave at a crossroads. Seemingly, no one wanted to talk about art anymore. Over a period of months I’d gone from working in ‘the arts’ to working in the ‘cultural industries’ and from being an artist to being a ‘creative entrepreneur’.
Simply put, we got defensive. As soon as David Cameron limped into office with the help of Nick Clegg, we knew dark days were ahead. Fair enough, if we were going to go for this whole austerity thing, I’d rather we miss out on another production of Hamlet than close a school down and much of the electorate would agree. At the first hurdle though, we agreed to have this debate in their language – they’d brought the ball so we’d play this out by their rules.
At a time when Nigel Farage was gaining popularity by ‘saying it like it is’, we were trying to role-play House of Cards in order to protect what we could. Don’t get me wrong, cultural leaders across the country did this for the best of reasons, and unlike independant artists it’s less acceptable for them to use naughty words at politicians, but it meant we instantly started this fight on the back foot.
At around 6am this morning it was clear that David Cameron wasn’t gonna be needing a removals van and I’m not sure that it takes a genius to work out that the arts might be in for a further beating. We’ve got a fight on our hands again, but this time, lets sound proud of what we do. That starts by not using their language. If we’re gonna head into battle, then let’s dictate the rules ourselves.