You can’t win unless you learn how to lose
The Fringe Festival is awash with theatre awards. Too many some would say, but if you have thousands of shows, then perhaps increasing the odds of winning something isn't such a bad thing.
Most prestigious are The Scotsman’s Fringe Firsts. This year’s judging panel of critics Mark Fisher, Susan Mansfield, Sally Stott, Fiona Shepherd and David Pollock, chaired by The Scotsman’s chief theatre critic Joyce McMillan, picked the winners (too many to list here) from nominations made by a wider team, reach recognising excellence in new writing.
Other established awards are The MERVs, known as The ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ Awards when first presented back in 1992. They celebrate the talent and pluck and this year went to The Mistake, Ballet Freedom, The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera, Made in India/Britain, Taiwan Season: See You, Aurie Styla: Green, SK Shlomo: Breathe: The Play That Becomes a Rave and Black Is The Color Of My Voice.
The Stage awarded gongs to Mara Menzies, Maimuna Memon, Keith Ramsay, Michael Dylan, Samuel Barnett and Jessica Clark amongst others.
Less well-known awards include the Popcorn Writing Award, which went to Brown Boys Swim, and the Filipa Bragança Award, which was taken home by Chloe-Ann Tylor for her performance in Svengali.
There is a plethora of comedy awards too and Joshua Bethania won the 35th So You Think You’re Funny? competition.
The Malcolm Hardee Awards include one with the title Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid which went to Jerry Sadowitz, who enjoyed a huge increase in ticket sales for his tour and added a London date at the massive Hammersmith Apollo following the cancellation of his show. Looking at it cynically, his forthrightness and/or penis got him double dibs of free publicity.
Everyone likes to win something, but for the many companies and artists who leave Edinburgh (or even arrive in Edinburgh) with financial debt, it is difficult to know how much difference a gong will make to their bank balance, or longer term to their career, unless it is one of the big ones or it leads to a profitable transfer or funding.
It has been widely reported in the professional media that the biggest financial challenge to visiting artists and companies is the soaring cost of accommodation, with demand for affordable digs at breaking point.
This is only a part of a bigger picture that includes increasing travel costs, industrial action, cost of living rises and the legacy of COVID.
These issues lie against a backdrop of falling ticket sales. theSpaceUK, with 19 theatres across 7 venues, reported only a fall of 1.5% on 2019 but overall the figure was closer to 27% compared to 2019, although the ratio of local sales was up.
There are of course several programmes to support artists taking shows to the Festival but they can never be enough in this landscape.
The same obstacles largely apply to visitors as they do to performers and the city was not as teeming with people has it has been at previous Festivals, proving that tickets sales were not down because of higher ticket prices, although ticket spend must also have been a factor as everyone thought about having to tighten their belts.
For the many unknowns who risk their shirt taking a show to the Fringe, it can be tough enough to fill houses in normal times, so this year when there weren’t enough bums to cover the seats, and with the additional hazard of shows being cancelled by COVID amongst venue staff and/or performers, it will have put additional physical and mental stress on performers.
Reviewers, critics and bloggers are not immune to the same obstacles either so it is no surprise that an opinion piece from industry doyenne Lyn Gardner raised the issue of “smaller Edinburgh Fringe shows… struggling to be seen because of fewer reviewers and less coverage across the festival”.
There were 777 professional media accredited from 21 countries at this year’s Fringe. Spread across three+ weeks and thousands of shows, and with all the other events in the city, you can see that the media are spread very thin.
If I might be allowed a brief moment of trumpet blowing, with nearly 170 reviews across three Edinburgh festivals (plus four podcast episodes), the BTG’s team of 10 reviewers (seven in Edinburgh and three reviewing from this year's much smaller programme of online shows) working over 3½ weeks punched above its weight.
The overarching feel I have been getting is that the Fringe didn’t just not recover, forgive the double negative, it shrank this year, and, with the difficulties around a finite resource such as accommodation, that is unlikely to reverse in the short term. There have long been those who complained that the Festival was getting too big, but I can't image they get any satisfaction from this.