In observing the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, it’s communities, its vibrancy, and its impact on the arts scene worldwide I was continually asking myself the question ‘why come here?’ As a theatre director and producer, I was fascinated by the challenge of bringing a play to the world’s most intense playground, and I wanted to see the Fringe first, gauge the terrain and understand how to succeed. It took me a month of investigating to understand that the very idea of success at the Fringe is a personal one, and can be different even within teams working on the same piece of art. Whilst many artists and technicians seek to enjoy the experience, their main hope and expectation is just to survive it, like a mountain to be climbed or a wilderness to be crossed.
If you have an incredibly important thing to say through your art should you have to build an incredible financial and emotional resilience to take part in the Fringe? Or should wellbeing and access be placed firmly at the heart of a festival that has grown into a Wild West? Our TSOTF hosted Producer Gatherings raised many points to this effect. Taking on-board a relatively large financial risk is the first millstone loaded on to the producer and artistic team’s mental health. Money is outlaid to create a platform where your art can be seen by all those reviewers and programmers who are ‘unable’ to attend your show, a perennial problem if your work is made outside London’s zones one or two. The second level of risk comes from reviewers or programmers still not attending even in Edinburgh, and the related anxiety that comes from a negative response. Thirdly is the emotional risk from the physical challenge of the flyering, performing and networking cycle, and the fact that personal and team wellbeing is pencilled with a question mark at the bottom of a long production to-do list. As we found at the TSOTF Tickets to My Trauma events, those that make up the temporary artistic community at the Fringe are uniquely positioned to understand each other’s issues and problems and give advice and support. But whilst this is true in many cases, the true reality of community at the Fringe is that the ability for each artist to listen to each other’s troubles is severely limited.
To speak about access brings the need to define it, alongside the standard definition of improving accessibility for those with physical disabilities, hearing/sight impairment or mental health challenges. A significant amount of work could still be put into making the Fringe and Edinburgh city itself more accessible in this way, but there is a broader definition that should also be addressed. There is a question of the access to create at and attend the Fringe without being part of what is actually quite a slender demographic - a privileged position of having the resources to pay the venue and accommodation, a willing (usually unpaid) team, and a strong mental and emotional robustness.
The Fringe Society has begun making real steps into this terrain, ones that will eventually have to involve everyone from producers and artists to venues and the council. BSL and surtitled performances can be costly and logistically difficult but with enough lead-in time and pre-thought out infrastructure it is very possible. Edinburgh Council must consider in every way how a historic city can be physically accessible considering disability, age and crowd management. That includes disseminating this information far and wide, not just to those who will request it but to those who will relay this information. It will require producers to challenge venues to aid them in considering important wheelchair space, BSL show dates, gender-neutral toilets, quiet spaces for members of their cast or audience members that require it. A financial commitment from curating and commercial venues to consider more work from teams that have access requirements and then challenge themselves to learn to support those teams properly. A shuttle and/or buddy system for those who would rather be accommodated further away but would like to perform centrally. These are small steps, but remembering to ask these questions even while stressed and creating art will all have a knock-on effect and open the door to more audiences.
In relation to the big question of emotional access and wellbeing, everyone must be honest with themselves about what they can handle. Producers, have proper conversations with your entire team and with yourself about what you need, even if you don’t necessarily have the budget to provide all (or any) of this provision. Engaging in a conversation with an actor that has to endure emotional abuse as a part of the script regarding how they plan to decompress, and then facilitating that routine is useful in itself. Check in on these bespoke wellbeing plans throughout the month, and maintain your own.