JOYCE MCMILLAN on SCOTLAND ON THE FRINGE for The Scotsman 5.8.10
THERE’S HARDLY A TRACE OF tartan tat to be seen. Yet still, the Scottish presence on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is the most powerful for years; and it seems like a good time to recognise and celebrate it, if only to remind us of what we stand to preserve and to gain, if the current battles over arts funding finally go the right way.
At the core of Scotland’s current high profile on the 2010 Fringe stands the Scottish Government’s Expo Fund, a pot of 6 million pounds over three years designed to help showcase Scottish work at all 12 of Edinburgh’s Festivals, and described by Fringe director Kath Mainland as “a really successful and imaginative initiative, that has already begun to transform the careers of some Scottish artists”. Of that 6 million pounds, some 1.2 million has been earmarked for the Fringe – around 250,000 each year to help Scottish companies appear, and a further 150,000 to enable them to take up touring opportunities which come their way as a result; and this year’s fourteen beneficiaries cover a dazzling range of new work and revivals.
Among the work already seen, there’s Grid Iron’s legendary playground show Decky Does A Bronco, the exquisite Giant Productions children’s show Songbird, and David Leddy’s astonishing and chilling promenade play Sub Rosa, set backstage in a Victorian music hall . The new work includes the Traverse’s major new production of While You Lie, by rising star writer Sam Holcroft; plus Ankur Productions’ Roadkill, a searing off-site show about young women trafficked into Scotland, and Catherine Wheels’ new chldren’s show White, aimed at 2-4 year-olds, and performed at the Scottish Book Trust.
What’s striking about the 2010 Fringe, though, is how many Scottish companies are shaping up to the challenge of the Fringe, even though they are not part of the Made In Scotland scheme. At the top end of the scale are the National Theatre of Scotland, who present their new show about boxing, Beautiful Burnout, at the Pleasance Courtyard, and Aberdeen Performing Arts from His Majesty’s Theatre, who – after a major new initiative in theatre production over the last three years – are seeking a wider audience by bringing two major full-length shows to the Music Hall in the Assembly Rooms. One is their 2008 production of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, the other Peter Arnott’s fine 2009 adaptation of Neil Gunn’s Silver Darlings; and if it’s a high-risk initiative to bring two long, large-cast Scottish shows to a Festival now addicted to the short slot and the fast turnaround, these plays should provide some rich theatrical nourishment for those who don’t care to see eight shows in a day, and are interested in strong Scottish ensemble acting, inspired by two of the finest novels in the 20th century canon.
All over the Fringe, though, there are signs of much smaller Scottish companies taking a chance, and hoping that their experience wil turn out to be a good one. Dog Star from Inverness are at Udderbelly’s Pasture with their award-winning 2008 show The Tailor Of Inverness, and a new Henry Adam play, Jacobite Country. The up-and-coming Glasgow group proudExposure are at the Underbelly with a new show called Quality Control. Director Graeme Maley and actor Liam Brennan reprise their beautiful 2009 Oran Mor monologue Djupid (The Deep); and there are many more.
And up in the Lawnmarket, at Diverse Attractions, you can find a small show called Pale Moon that typifies some of what happens at the less glamorous end of the Fringe. Staged by a group of Queen Margaret drama students and recent graduates, Pale Moon is new play by Andrew Henry about ordinary people betrayed by their government; and for the past year, Henry and his friends have been determined to give the play a showing on the Fringe. “Diverse Attraction have been great,” says Henry, “ever since I secured a week’s hire of the venue, back in December – really supportive and helpful, with so much technical support too. It’s really important that they are a venue which tries to help newcomers on the Fringe.
“And apart from that – well, the venue rental came straight out of my overdraft, and the rest of the costs, about 2000 pounds in all, have just come bit by bit out of the money I earn working in a hotel. I’ve been down to living on soup, some weeks, because we don’t have any wealthy people in the background, or anything; and we need to sell about 80% of our tickets to break even. But we just wanted to get this play on; and with the help of Diverse Attractions, we’ve succeeded.”
It’s the love of making theatre, in other words, despite financial stress, risk and hardship, that keeps the Edinburgh Fringe thriving and growing. It’s also worth noting, though, how much difference a little financial and in-kind help can make. According to David Leddy, a cheque for 10,000 or 20,000 from the Made In Scotland scheme – hardly enough to dent a senior banker’s bonus – can make all the difference to a well-known Scottish company’s ability to appear on the Fringe, and to make a career-changing success of the experience. And similar schemes like Escalator East To Edinburgh – supported by Arts Council England’s eastern region, centred on Cambridge – have made a visible impact on the Fringe in recent years.
In an age when cash is tight, this seems like an ideal area for a combination of modest but highly productive public funding, and well-directed philanthropy. But when we talk of philanthropy, let’s not talk only about the big bucks of those who can afford to write cheques. Let’s also remember the huge generosity of spirit shown by those on the front line; the artists, writers and performers who come to the Fringe because they think there is a story that needs to be told, and are prepared to give their time, effort and energy for nothing, through four life-changing August weeks, in order to make it happen.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe from today, until Monday 30 August; details of all shows in the Fringe brochure.