at the Fringe?
First Scottish International, now
Edinburgh's Garden Party. How many more major promoters will get their fingers burned before the world's
biggest arts festival caves in?
Words: Allan Radcliffe
For performers at lidinburgh's Garden Party. the aftermath of this year‘s Fringe intist seem like one of those prolonged hangovers that no quantity of lrn Bru and paracetomol can shake off. What was generally agreed to be a strong idea. reasonably well marketed. prudently budgeted and organised by two of the most experienced operators on the Fringe — Assembly Theatre and the Gilded Balloon -— has resulted in substantial losses and had blood between protagonists. The reason'.’ Not nearly enough bums found their way onto the seats in Princes Street Gardens.
The event was run by Gasworks. a company established by Assembly Theatre‘s William Burdett—Coutts and Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon. As a first year venture. its budget was
drawn up cautiously on the basis of
40% box office (a Fringe ventte would normally be run on projected ticket sales of at least 50%) with most performers and companies agreeing to split any profit ()0/40 with the organisers. Sadly. despite featuring an eclectic programme of dance. theatre and family fare. the Garden Party ultimater attracted only 20% of its capacity audience.
()ne of the companies affected by the failure of this project is 'l‘heatrum Botanicttm. whose [.mly Salsa imported performers and musicians from Cuba at considerable expense. Though the show eventually built up a moderately high lidinhurgh audience and is now enjoying a successful London run. initial difficulties coupled with a scathing .S't'nlsmtm review meant the show had to rely on word of mouth to pull in Fringe punters.
The experience has proved a potentially fatal turning point in the company‘s seven-year history. ‘ln the past we successfully ran our own venues but last year we were beaten by the weather.’ says producer John Lee. referring to the rain-soaked Journey To .lltlt‘bt’lll in Edinburgh‘s Botanical Gardens. ‘You always take risks at the Fringe but foolishly we thought we‘d go in with these bigger guys. The debts we‘ve
10 THE MST 1630 Not. 2000
'The debts we've incurred are going to cripple us and the irony is that we had a successful show.’
incurred are going to cripple us and the irony is that we had a successful show.‘ Various factors are being blamed for the Garden Party's failure. lidinburgh city council has been castigated for charging excessive rent for its venues. The usual suspects have been hauled in for questioning. including high ticket
prices and declining numbers of
tourists to the city. Nonetheless. Fringe audience numbers have increased steadily over the last 25 years. reaching a record 860.000 by I999.
Mary Shields. Assembly‘s general manager. feels that audiences are simply less willing to risk their cash on unknowns. ‘This year at the Assembly Rooms we grossed more at the box office but we sold far less tickets for daytime shows. so some of the smaller companies made losses of up to £|0.000.' she says. ‘lt‘s not necessarily a comedy-versus-theatre thing because although Bill Bailey sold out the Music Hall. Liz Lochhead‘s Met/m did very well too.‘
The Garden Party situation highlights how difficult it is for new companies to establish themselves. As
reported elsewhere. the move of
Scottish International from Chambers Street to Dynamic liarth has put it in a similarly precarious financial position.
‘In many ways the Fringe is a victim of
its own success.‘ says Fringe director Paul Gudgin. ‘lt's an important
showcase so everyone wants a share of
the pickings. But because of the way the Fringe is set up we can‘t bail out struggling companies. so the art for them is to survive the first two or three years. Personally I thought the Garden
Lady Salsa went down well with audiences, but the company has yet to _see its box office takings
Party had a strong programme but it's incredibly difficult to set up these new ventures.‘
There’s already talk of legal action being taken against Gasworks by performing companies. but as Gasworks has neither cash nor assets. those involved will be in for an interminany long wait. If anyone suspects the bigger Fringe venues of ripping off performers. it's a suggestion that William Burdett-Coutts. still recovering from lengthy financial shenanigans with lidinburgh council. refutes. ‘Assembly is absolutely not a money-making exercise.‘ he says. ‘The costs of putting on shows are staggering for us as well as the performers and we barely break even.‘
Because the Fringe was set up to nurture talent. the fact that new ventures are foundering so early on is worrying. Directors like Burdett-Coutts are already working with Gudgin and the City of lidinburgh Council to reverse this trend. In the meantime. while the local economy continues to benefit from the Fringe. it's depressing that inventive. ambitious companies such as Theatrum Botanicum should be brought to the verge of bankruptcy with no hope ofexternal financial support.
For Mary Shields. the failure of the Garden Party represents a particularly low point in her association with the Fringe. ‘ln fourteen years of working for Assembly I‘ve never been in the situation where we couldn't pay a company. And these are old friendships we‘re talking about. people we’ve worked with for years which makes it incredibly sad.’