Riding the tides

Former Pick of the Fringe winners and founders of contemporary dance group The Kosh, Michael Merwitzer and Siân Williams tell Ruth Dawkins how to get your show noticed at the world's biggest arts fair

Feature by Ruth Dawkins | 04 Aug 2009

“There’s just such a great buzz at the Fringe,” says The Kosh's co-founder Michael Merwitzer who, having first brought a production to Edinburgh in 1983, is a true Fringe veteran. “It’s a fantastic trade fair. You get to burn the candle at both ends for four weeks, and it provides the opportunity to show your work night after night in a place where people come with enthusiasm and an open spirit.”

The Kosh's other leading light and star of their physical-theatre "thriller" The Storeroom, Siân Williams agrees: “You rarely get to put on a show for three weeks in London, whereas in Edinburgh you can let the momentum build and build.”

Indeed, the pair suggest that a large part of Edinburgh’s unique appeal lies in the fact that, even now, a show can be made or broken simply by word of mouth reviews. “It’s interesting to pitch your work against others,” says Merwitzer, “not necessarily in a competitive way, but word of mouth can beat anything. It’s not just a question of how you’re reviewed in the papers. People find out a show’s good and pass the word on. There’s so much choice when you pick up the Fringe guide that sometimes a personal recommendation is the best place to begin.”

For a small company, that word-of-mouth promotion has proved crucial at Fringes past when competing with the better funded outfits. When they first appeared in the eighties, The Kosh was a larger outfit – more dancers, more performances, more cash. But after a well-publicised spat with the Arts Council and the complete withdrawal of their £200,000 of annual funding (the council said they didn't deserve it; 5,000 fans wrote to say they did), the company was reduced to the founding two.

Merwitzer tries his best not to sound bitter: “The Arts Council gave us some money towards this show, which we are very pleased about. We hope it has opened the doors again and it’s the beginning of them funding us in the way we feel we’re entitled to. You really can’t mount a physical theatre production without subsidising it.”

Both Merwitzer and Williams believe that there are significant issues with arts funding that need resolving, although Merwitzer confesses that he has been "banging on" about that for too long already: “There’s such a rarified view of what’s working and what’s not,” he says, sounding exasperated. “How do you get audiences interested? How do you reach them? How do you fund companies in an open, available way, and make sure the money is getting to people with a good record of work?

“To be harsh about it, there are middle class, politically correct views about what constitutes making arts accessible, and they’re so bound up in the idea that ‘we must do community workshops’. For lots of people, that’s the last thing they want to do. What they want is the opportunity to go and see a show that is entertaining, exciting, draws them in, and maybe takes place in a venue where there wouldn’t normally be performances going on. I don’t think it’s so wrong to suggest that the best way to get people interested in the arts is in getting them to see a show that they enjoy.”

Williams agrees, criticising what she calls “an obsession” with audience participation. “People can be passionate about theatre and what happened to them as an attendee, without having to go through other experiences,” she says. “It’s problematic that lots of companies have to prove the value of their production by then saying they’ll do lots of related workshops. That’s not what all theatregoers want.”

As choreographer for The Globe, Williams sees numerous audiences for whom the magic of witnessing the performance, without the addition of any further participation, is enough: “It’s so exciting when you get schools coming in,” she says. You get young people who have previously only experienced Shakespeare through studying the text in their English Literature class, but when they come and see the show in this wacky venue it all suddenly lifts off the page for them and provides a real stimulus for their study.”

Despite the challenges of financing a physical theatre production, particularly in the current economic climate, The Kosh have recently completed a successful tour with The Storeroom – a show which stretches Williams' considerable talents to the edge, combining theatre, dance, acrobatics, music and even ventriloquism. And it's perhaps this ability to provide an immersive, engaging theatrical experience that have kept Kosh off the dole and in dancing shoes. Not unreasonably, the success of the tour thus far has left the pair optimistic that the show will fare equally well at the Fringe: “Some people," says Williams, "are reporting a drop in audience numbers, but it’s possible that we’ll see the opposite. The arts can flourish in hard times because people want some entertainment. We all need a bit of escapism.” Politically correct or not, it's the bottom line that counts; and Kosh seem to know exactly how to keep above it.

The Kosh in The Storeroom Gilded Balloon 7-31 Aug (not 17 or 24), 1.30pm, £8.50