What's the Point?
There are always those who will question the value of any institution, no matter how popular or venerable, and that has to be a good thing. If no one questions, there is no progress. If progress requires the demise of an institution, then - painful though it may be - the institution has to go.
This year, for the first time that I can remember, there has been some fairly widespread discussion about the value of the Edinburgh Fringe - in newspapers, on websites and in news groups. Some of this will undoubtedly be by would-be iconclasts who feel the need to knock anything that is popular, but so widespread is the discussion that I suspect it is more than that. Perhaps, then, it is time for a re-evaluation of what has become a major international theatre event.
But before we launch into that, let's take a look back.
The Fringe is 56 years old. It began in 1947 when two or three groups decided to ride on the back of the International Festival and, naturally, called themselves the Festival's Fringe. Since then it has grown enormously - this year the Fringe sold over 900,000 tickets worth over £7,100,00 - and has outstripped the main festival (the EIF) in every way.
It is controlled by the Fringe Society, with representatives of companies, venues and local people and businesses, although the day-to-day running is in the hands of a Festival Director (Paul Gudgin) and a permanent staff of nine which is massively augmented (about 80) during the three weeks it runs (and for a while before and after).
Anyone can perform at the Fringe: all it takes is the willingness to pay the necessary fee to the Fringe Society (almost £400 this year) plus 6% (plus VAT) commission on tickets sold through the Fringe Box Office (as distinct from the venue's box office), the cost of hiring a spot in a venue (averages approximately £100 per 100 seats per day for a mid-range venue), plus, of course, all the other expenses, including advertising (one company was offering 10,000 A6 Full colour Flyers and 500 A3 Posters for £350 ex. VAT), accommodation (very variable, and should be booked as early as possible), subsistence, and so on.
As the performers pay for their spot at the venue, they would normally keep the full box office income from their show (apart from tickets sold through the Fringe BO, on which they pay the commission).
Few Fringe shows make a profit - popular wisdom has it that the average audience is six! - but they still keep coming. For the fortunate few, the Fringe can lead to great things - or, at any rate, a tour, or, for individual actors, work in established companies. The occasional show does transfer to London, even to the West End - and that, of course, is the Holy Grail of Fringe participation.