The Reality of Bringing a Show to the Edinburgh Fringe

In the third part of our series on building a Fairer Fringe, we look at the realities of bringing a show to Edinburgh in August

Article by Eliza Gearty | 24 Jul 2019
  • Katie Smith RGB

While on a trip to Australia last year, the actor, scenic artist and drama facilitator Helena Collins had an idea. "I was visiting Black Butt Nature Reserve and saw a koala puppet for sale," says Collins, who trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and comes from a working-class background in London. "I've always loved puppets as a child and have worked with them so it felt like a no-brainer. I called the koala Jerry." This was the beginning of Jerry & the Adventures of the HMS Stargazer: a heart-warming children's puppet show created by Collins and director Jessica Barrett, which tells the story of Jerry, the tiny Australian koala lost in London who wants to find his way back home. The show, which debuts at The Space at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, has an ethical strand to it too: 90% of the props and the set are made of recycled materials. Collins and Barrett will also offer a workshop for children, giving participants the opportunity to create their own puppet from recycled materials to 'continue the adventure'. 

For Collins, it's a passion project with a purpose that aims to be educational as well as entertaining. “It shows children that you can create theatre; you don’t have to have lots of money. You can create it from literally nothing – a bit of cardboard and an idea,” she tells me. The reality of getting the show to the Fringe, though, has been difficult. Collins pursued Arts Council funding, but was rejected on the basis of Jerry… being an Edinburgh Fringe show, outside of England. Their Kickstarter campaign also failed, leaving Collins no other choice than to work four jobs. “In some ways, it's more rewarding because of the hard graft [thats going into it],” she says. “but when you’re working four jobs, you’re working an average of fifty to sixty hours a week. It takes its toll, and you can’t stop, because you’re carrying the whole show yourself.” 

"They call it working-class for a reason... because I am always, and always have been, working"

Eve Simpson, the co-writer of and performer in Twice Over, a new show profiled in our Fringe Firsts feature in this issue, agrees. "I painfully relate to the words of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez: 'They call it working-class for a reason... because you're working non-stop,'" she writes, in a short piece about her experience entitled A Young Working Class Woman's Debut: #FringeFirst.'"I am working-class according to this definition. Because I am always, and have always been, working." Simpson believes her show is an important one to platform at the Fringe, but that the need to continue working overtime in order to support herself throughout the process has been at best trying, and at worst, intrinsically unfair. 

The ongoing struggle to keep one's head above water for artists like Collins and Simpson runs the risk of deterring many exceptional theatre-makers from diverse backgrounds from the festival. Earlier this year, Jessica Brough wrote for Gal-Dem that she was 'done with White Fringe... the Theresa May impersonations, Brexit dramas, all-white improv murder mystery casts', and the general 'overwhelmingly white, middle-class environment'. Back in 2012, the comic Stewart Lee wrote for the Guardian that 'profit-obsessed promoters' were tearing apart the ethos of a Fringe that, by enforcing high costs, 'deters just the sort of independent minds we used to value'. The extortionate prices of venue hire, accommodation and promotion, combined with the mandatory unpaid workload, is hardly a new problem – but every year it continues, the more the quality and diversity of the Fringe's programme is arguably affected. 

Fun For Some: Disrupting The 'Rich Kid's Playground' 

"There is a risk of the festival becoming a 'rich kid's playground'", says Matt Lim, the Artistic Director of Punchline Theatre, who has taken six full shows to the festival in the last ten years. "It's the same kind of financial and social elitism that discourages some really talented actors from applying to drama schools." He says that the all-in cost for bringing a show to a festival is "around £10,000"; and that most new companies are paying out of their own pockets. It took Lim four years to pay back one show's debts in installments. 

Rachael Young, who is taking two shows to the Fringe this year, Nightclubbing and Out, is the recipient of Summerhall's new Eclipse Award, launched to support Black British Artists. The award includes a £10K cash bursary, marketing and press support and a 'care package' provided by Sick Of The Fringe. Young's shows have been hotly tipped, and included on various 'Highlights of the Fringe' lists – but without the award, Young says she might not have made it to the festival. 

"I have been to the Fringe before, but only for a week," she tells me. "Was it successful? We were nominated for a Total Theatre Award, so it was – but in terms of financially and mentally? It was a big strain." Young always wanted to go to the Fringe for a longer run, but, until winning the award, viewed it as "financially impossible." 

"Accommodation in Edinburgh at this time of year is absolutely ridiculous," she says, when asked about how artists can be 'priced out' of the experience. "Some people wouldn't be able to go because of that alone. It does mean that some people who are really talented, and could reap the benefits from that kind of exposure, can't afford to go – the financial risk for some people is just too great if they don't have any support."

What can be done?

Awards such as The Eclipse are a wonderful step for greater support and representation. But Lim believes that the festival is "an economic bubble" bound "to burst" if more general restrictions aren't applied to venue hires and accomodation prices – particularly when awards and grants are so scant and competitive. 

"Venue hire fees are extortionate and they should consider profit sharing and taking percentages, like we see in fringe venues up and down the rest of the country," he says. "There has also got to be an enquiry into the prices of accomodation in the city during August." Young agrees, stating that rental charges should be capped during the Festival season: "The Fringe needs to be a fairer place... [accomodation costs] make it really difficult."

Helena Collins doesn't regret taking her show and Jerry the Koala to the festival this year, despite having to juggle jobs as a bartender, an office worker, a promoter and a drama facilitator to make it happen. "To take my own production – something exciting and different – to the Fringe: that in itself is a privilege," she explains. "[Costs] wouldn't deter me [from doing it again] because it's a chance to be part of one of the world's biggest festivals." 

Jerry and the Adventures of the HMS Stargazer, theSpace at Surgeon's Hall (Theatre 3), 2-10 Aug, 11am, £6-10
Twice OverGreenside at Nicholson Square (Fern Studio), 2-10 Aug, 6.40pm, £8-12
NightclubbingSummerhall (Old Lab), 31 Jul - 11 Aug, 3.45pm, £5-12
OutSummerhall (Old Lab), 13-25 Aug (not 19), 3.45pm, £8-12