No sooner was the idea of a London Fringe floated in the press yesterday than the soapboxes were quickly assembled and shouted from. The first article I read on the subject was in The Standard who obviously swallowed the London Fringe press release wholeheartedly, describing the idea of trying to run a large scale festival in London in August as “throwing down the gauntlet” to Edinburgh, an event with a 60 year history and international reputation.
Swiftly followed a Gruniad piece on the subject penned by Veronica Lee which pretty much covered my main concerns - that trying to set up a fringe festival in direct competition to Edinburgh would be a fruitless endeavour because the majority of companies, arts journalists and dedicated fringe theatre goers will have made the 400 mile trip north.
Today has seen articles in both The Stage and its US equivalent Playbill questioning the logic behind setting yourself up for a head to head with the world’s largest performing arts festival. All have sparked healthy debate, particularly the Guardian article where the comment thread is a civilised and balanced discussion.
To give the London Fringe’s organiser Greg Tallent his due though, if he can attract this much mainstream arts media coverage from one announcement then maybe he stands a chance of turning his London Fringe pipedream into a reality. Admittedly, many of the pieces may have been written simply to call the idea out as sheer madness, but the prospect of a London Fringe taking place in August has now been firmly established and has probably generated thousands of hits for his business.
One of the main issues brought up by either side of the debate is the difficultly of taking a show to Edinburgh, main complaints focussing around the cost of hiring venues, the perception of a steadily decreasing audience and the inability to generate press coverage.
Quite what the venue costs are going to be in a London environment still have to be established however. The list of venues wanting to be involved in the London Fringe is impressive, ranging in scale from The Jermyn Street to the Hackney Empire, but what kind of deals will need to be put in place to allow these established (unionised?) venues to operate performance spaces 14 hours a day? Many Edinburgh Fringe venues do, quickly turning over shows, covering a number of their running costs from over priced bars. Another issue not mentioned: Edinburgh venues tend to be staffed by armies of almost volunteer staff. Could the same model be adopted in a London environment?
The idea that the Edinburgh audience is diminishing should probably be quickly nipped in the bud. Edinburgh’s sales overall were up again this year, in spite of the world’s economy going to hell in a handcart. Bouncing back from a year which almost saw the Fringe Society bankrupt itself with the ticketing fiasco, every big venue in town seemed to be boasting of increased ticket sales and revenue at the end of August this summer. The number of shows being presented as Fringe events also grew slightly on the year on year.
Attracting an audience to fringe shows in London is nororiously difficult no matter what time of year you pick. Once the hardened fringe theatre goer has embarked on their annual jaunt to Edinburgh is there still an audience for fringe work in London? I fear the London Fringe may be a local event for London companies playing to smaller London audiences than they would expect at any other time of the year. Making an impact on the greater London theatre marketing landscape may also be a near impossible task, with West End productions having far deeper pockets they can use to attract summer tourist audiences.
Many commenters in the mainstream press have passed judgement on the difficulty of running a fringe festival in as disparate a city as London, with many of the venues being serious commutes from each other. This is certainly an advantage that Edinburgh has, with just about everything Fringe related in the city centre being, at most, a 30 minute drunken stumble – dodging the tram works of course. If you do ever make mistake of stepping off the beaten Fringe track in Edinburgh you could be forgiven for forgetting the thing is on at all, indeed venues placed only a few hundred yards away from established “Fringeland” can struggle to generate any footfall at all.
Having trawled the London Fringe website for information about the event the most worrying part in my eyes is the £10 proposal submission fee. Written off as a cost to help cover the running of their website and administer the event, surely this fact alone could dissuade serious producers from getting involved. Some of Edinburgh’s players bring 12 or more shows. Are we expecting them to pay £120 up front just to start talking to the London Fringe about the possiblity of involvement. In a very similar fashion to the way drama schools scalp auditionees £30+ for applying there is something seriously fishy about asking for cash up front in this situation.
The Edinburgh Fringe has had a rocky couple years. The ticketing fiasco was undoubtedly darker times for the world’s largest arts festival, however 2009 year saw a real resurgence with new leadership in almost every role at the Fringe Society. Companies with international reputations regularly grace the stages of temporary venues, watched by audiences who show no signs of going away and critiqued by arts journos who have firmly decamped from London for the month. Lets not forget there’s the Edinburgh International Festival needing reviewed in August as well. With sixty years of experience and tradition behind it the Edinburgh Fringe could never disappear over night. It appears highly unlikely from here that the London upstart is going to help it on its way.
Photo credit: Proggie on Flickr