World Fringe Congress Report #2: The word on the street and Congress opening

All is not well at the Edinburgh Fringe, and like in North America, there is considerable discontent amongst artists on the street regarding an increasingly corporate festival. It seems that most artists go into an unreasonable amount of debt to play at the Fringe, while at the same time a deceptive new system,  the re-branded “Edinburgh Comedy Festival”, steers audiences and critics to a small area comprising four venues (Underbelly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Assembly) where  comedians with deep pockets are trying to make it big. It’s near Bristo Square, a place with an obnoxious amount of visual pollution, including a giant inflatable upside-down cow.

With any semblance of balance gone, artists are complaining that the Fringe has “lost its edge,” with The Guardian reporting that the Fringe “has become an angrily disputed territory, so threatened by commercialism, some believe, that the future of the entire annual international event is in danger.”

According to Fringe veteran Tommy Sheppard, who now runs  comedy venues at the Fringe, “The ‘pay-to-play’ system means that the rich kids always win. No matter how funny a working-class kid is, if they can’t ask mum and dad to give them five grand they are not going to be able to come up here to perform… As a venue we want to share the risk with them.”

Interestingly, while there is no infringement festival here yet, there is a movement called Free Fringe that actually encompasses three distinct non-corporate Fringe Festivals, including the beloved Forest Fringe in a recently re-opened venue called the Forest Café, which is located in a rather non-descript building just around the corner from our lodgings on Riego Street.

I learned about this fascinating dynamic by chatting with artists on the street, many of whom were promoting their shows. One Fringe veteran named Benjamin Crellin, who overheard my conversation with another artist, chimed in and gave me a comprehensive picture of what is happening.

He plays at the Free Fringe now and explained that, outside the Forest Fringe, there are two competing versions: the PBH Free Fringe (named after organizer Peter Buckley Hill) and the regular version (run by Alex Petty). Unfortunately it seems that both organizations, according to Crellin, do not get along well and are the result of a philosophical and organizational split. I took note, promising myself to investigate further when time permits.

Not to be upstaged by the word on the street, the World Fringe Congress also began officially today in an ancient Veterinary College-cum-Fringe venue called Summerhall, on the boundary of a massive park called The Meadows.

Before arriving, however, I had to print up information for the infringement festival to distribute at the World Fringe Fair on Saturday (and for the public in general). After a relatively sleepless night creating the documents, I am pleased to report that I now have a stack of infringement materials including a small booklet, the ethical sponsorship criteria, and even an article from The Watch about the Halifax Fringe threatening legal action against students at King’s College, Nova Scotia, for attempting Fringe theatre without their permission (the students wisely switched to the infringement model).

Whilst creating these materials I summarized, for the first time, a comprehensive list of corporate behaviours that the infringement shuns, and wrote:

To safeguard Fringe integrity, the Infringement Festival promises:

NO Unethical sponsors                                  

NO Conflict-of-Interest sponsors                    

NO Visual pollution/corporate spam        

NO Pay-to-play fees                                      

NO Box Office “service charges”                   

NO Trademarking (™)                                    

NO Legal threats for using the word “Fringe”  

NO Censorship                                              

NO Kicking artists out                                    

NO Banning political artists                            

NO Favouritism                                              

NO Security guards/bag searches                 

NO Hierarchy or corporate structure              

NO Naming rights/cross-branding              

NO Corporate manipulation/interference      

I figured while this message might not be popular amongst Fringe delegates, at least it might cause them to reflect on their own attitudes towards corporate involvement in their festivals.

In any case, the World Fringe Congress kicked off with a keynote speech by Ruth MacKenzie, the director of the London 2012 Festival, an event where she curated artistic works as part of a “Cultural Olympiad”. She recognized and joked about the irony of giving a keynote about the usually open-accesss Fringe while she curated works for a living. She spoke about the importance of our work as leaders of Fringe Festivals.

At a reception following the address I met all sorts of Fringe delegates from around the world, with almost 50 festivals now represented. I willl be honest in saying I was relieved to be the only Canadian festival present. It seems the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF), who has locked the word “Fringe” into a trademark in Canada, was not in attendance despite having over a dozen Canadian “Fringe” festivals and several American ones. The only CAFF representative was their American vice-president, a very nice man named George Wallace from the Disney-sponsored Orlando Fringe. I told him that there was nothing personal between us and that the cultural war being waged between CAFF and the infringement festivals could be put on the backburner during the Congress.

I enjoyed meeting delegates from other Fringe Festivals all over the world and am pleased to report that all of them were friendly, open-minded, and seemed to genuinely have their hearts in the right place. Many of them represented new Fringe Festivals, demonstrating that there is an explosion of new festivals being created right across the globe, especially in the United States and other parts of Europe, such as Amsterdam, Stockholm and Poland. I was especially relieved not to see any faces from the Montreal and Toronto Fringe festivals, given that they often bar me personally from entering their festivals and even call the police sometimes.

Following the reception, we were invited to a night of up-and-coming comedians at the Dirty Martini Lounge, presented by the Fringe Comedy Academy. While the jokers were pretty funny, I was exaughsted. I left after the first set, hell bent on a good night’s rest. Wandering the dark and winding streets of Edinburgh on the way home I realized that this is going to be a potentially game-changing visit: if only a handful of people embrace the infringement concept, it’s quite possible Edinburgh will have its own infringement festival in the near future!


Read more from this series:

Preview: World Fringe Congress to welcome infringement festival

World Fringe Congress Report #1: First Impressions

World Fringe Congress Report #2: The word on the street and Congress opening

World Fringe Congress Report #3: Retaining the Fringe Edge or Show me the Money!

World Fringe Congress Report #4: World Fringe Fair, Open Spaces and Members Only Clubs

World Fringe Congress Report #5: Searching for the Fringe and Reflections

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