As I just mentioned, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was born in 1947 as the brainchild of a group of theatre artists who were rejected from the fledgling International Festival and responded to that rejection by, in essence, giving it the finger. They came to Edinburgh, they found their own venues, and they put up their shows with no regard to the curatorial decisions of the International Festival Committee. Good shout: they unwittingly gave birth to what is now the world’s largest performing arts festival, curated or un-. And, as I just mentioned, they coined the term Fringe.
Seventy-odd years later, what does it all mean? These days, the Fringe is heavily dominated by standup comedy and corporate-run venues. Big money. Slick and expensive advertising, millions of pounds’ worth of liquor sponsorships, big names who drop in for one show and abandon the rest of the Festival, the freaking BBC turning up to run a fat tent of decidedly non-Fringe ethos. The Big Four: the unholy alliance of enormous, big-money venue corporations who try to price little venues out of good Fringe venue buildings and treat their performing companies as mere products, shuffled in amongst the multitude of bars and tacky constructions of flashy lights and Astroturf.
Some of us, well, some of us don’t like that. (With the possible exception of the liquor sponsorships–Brew Dog, call me!) Even the Guardian knows it’s a problem: Stewart Lee published this amazing piece recently, railing against the pruriently named Comedy Festival. The spirit of the Fringe, he argues, is slowly asphyxiating under all that money. I think he’s right.
But I don’t think it’s doomed. That’s why I’m here, me and my colleagues at Gryphon Venues, feeding our energy and love into the delicate Fringe organism: we believe it is alive, if gasping, and we are giving it a little CPR. We, a not-for-profit put together by four friends with a common passion, we with our small means, quietly building the best venues we can build, and caring for our performing companies as if they were our own families. We welcome well-produced, practiced acts and we welcome harebrained performance schemes. We welcome new writing, fresh takes on classics, general mayhem. We give our performers cookies. We give them everything we’ve got–not everything some big London-backed corporate venue has got, granted, but everything we’ve got. That’s important. And you know what? It’s working, little by little. And we’re not alone. Our friends at Greenside, Paradise Green, Summerhall, Sweet, Zoo–they’re working hard under the radar, too, doing their best to nurture this thing. Independent venue companies are doing things the Big Four aren’t–like signing on to the Best Practice Code (use your “find” function). We’re thinking hard about how to run our venues greener. We’re treating our performers with the respect they deserve, and bringing in the audiences they deserve, too.
What is the spirit of Fringe, after all? It is Edinburgh: grown up out of the local rock, against all odds, creating a spectacular culture unique in all the world, and inspiring all the world. It is mighty, and it will survive the plastic money-men.