To Fringe or not to Fringe

It’s now July and ordinarily, I would have begun the countdown to the Edinburgh Fringe by now but it’s also 2021, Year Two of Our Lord Coronavirus, and I don’t wanna. I’m still mourning the fact that this pandemic gave us an opportunity to make things right, to do better, and the gatekeepers just chucked it in the bin like the soggy flyer they just took from you on the Royal Mile because they had no intention to come see your show anyway.

If you are an Edinburgh resident or a person involved with the performing arts, you’ll have heard all the complaints that had been escalating in the past decade or so. In a nutshell, the Fringe got too big, too expensive, too overwhelming – many others have written eloquently about all these issues in the past few years so I am not going to repeat them (some links are provided here, but there are many others that you can find). I’m just going to focus on my personal experience of the past 3 years.

We all have a love/hate relationship with the Fringe, there’s no denying, but 2019 was the year that this dynamics definitely skewed way more towards the hate side for me. I’ve done full runs, short runs, I’ve worked as a stage manager, flyerer, venue manager, tech operator, producer and director at the Fringe, I’ve done free shows in pub basements and I’ve done shows in some of the ‘Big 4’, I’ve done profit-share (also known as zero pay or if you’re lucky, you get enough for a meal deal), I’ve been paid flat rates and I’ve been paid by the hour, and I went on ‘Fringe Binges’ with a friend, trying to watch as many shows as it was logistically and humanly possible within 24h. The Fringe can be extremely stressful but it can also be a lot of fun. In 2019, I didn’t have fun. I was just angry for 4 weeks.

I was angry at the quality of shows – a noticeable phenomenon across the board that year was that shows that ticked the right boxes were given the stars, the funding and the awards, even if they were poorly conceived or executed. I was angry at the prices of tickets and the bars. I was angry at the bars becoming the main event and the shows being pushed to one side. I was angry that club nights that were no different from ordinary club nights year-round were taking up space in the programme. I was angry at the person staying in the Airbnb above my Canongate flat asking me and my partner how many nights we would be staying for – the sheer realisation that folk who come here in August don’t even consider the possibility that people might actually *live* in central Edinburgh! I was angry at a distinctive shift in programming across venues, meaning all theatre and dance stopped at 7pm and all you could find after 8pm was cabaret and comedy (in addition to the aforementioned bars and club nights). Sure, I want to get absolutely wasted and go see Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens on the last night of August, when I’m not even going to remember where I live anymore, but I also want to be able to cheer up my friend who’s just been dumped by her Fringe Fling by taking her to see Titus Andronicus at midnight, or catch some edgy devised piece in some obscure attic at 2am. Those options weren’t there in 2019 and I lamented that.

I was going to have two shows at the Fringe in 2020, both at the Scottish Storytelling Centre: Debbie Cannon’s The Remarkable Deliverances of Alice Thornton and Dave Robb’s The Devil in the Belfry, both of which had done really well in other festivals (Being Human and Cymera, respectively) in 2019. When the pandemic started and many people took their work online, I chatted to both Debbie and Dave and we decided to wait it out until it was safe to return to the meatspace. The two main reasons for that decision were: financial and dramaturgical. Neither show was publicly funded, so we had to be careful with our money, which would come from other work that had also been halted. Dramaturgically speaking, we felt that both shows had been made to be experienced by an audience sharing the physical space with the performers, so we would rather not mess with the existing structure of the pieces for now.  Our venue had handled the Fringe registration process for us and also handled the de-registration process, as the venue themselves decided not to offer an online Fringe programme in 2020.

The truth is, I don’t actually know what the 2020 Fringe offered at all. I know the Fringe Society received a £1.2m support package from government in June last year, but I don’t understand what that money supported. I am vaguely aware that there was a digital programme and things like Shedinburgh, but I was living in a post-thesis submission haze and didn’t have the brainspace to engage with any of it. In my head, the Edinburgh Fringe didn’t happen in 2020. Except it did, sort of. And it’s coming back, sort of, in 2021.

This is where I’m getting angry again. I wish that, like me, Debbie and Dave, the Fringe would have just taken a deep breath, assessed the context, and taken some time out for real. Now I’m angry that they announced they would open for registration before the latest lockdown ended and were still charging a registration fee upwards of £200, which would not be refunded after ticket sales started. I’m angry that they promoted a competition for small grants with a tight deadline and an application form as complex as those you fill out for a Creative Scotland Open Fund, and that basically asked you how you would change the world with £2500. I’m angry that I asked the Fringe Society Artist Development team to host a public forum to discuss these concerns and was told to host one myself, when they are on a salary to do that sort of thing and I am not. I’m angry that when I pointed that out, they said they didn’t have the capacity to organise such an event and offered to have a one-to-one phone chat with me, when I explicitly said that I didn’t want that because I was not an elected representative of the grassroots theatremakers of Edinburgh and didn’t feel comfortable having conversations that affect us all behind closed doors. I’m angry that that put an end to that conversation altogether. I’m angry that the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe programme was announced yesterday and it looks more curated than ever. This feels especially hurtful when we’ve been told over and over again that one of the reasons why the Fringe can’t possibly be better is its open-to-all nature. After a year that has been rough for all of us, during which several task forces and lobbying groups were set up to address not only the problems with the Fringe but with our industry as a whole, it is utterly disheartening to see things being handled like this. I’m also angry at the fact that many enthusiasts support a return to growth and one that can happen asap.

When I attended a safety training session with Police Scotland for Fringe venue managers a few years ago, I learned one fact that I hadn’t considered before and made a huge impression. I knew the Fringe was the largest performing arts festival in the world in terms of the number of acts in the programme. What I didn’t know until then was that in terms of audience and ticket sales, the Fringe was the third largest *event* in the world, only behind the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. And when you think that those events usually happen in big cities like London, Rio, Tokyo, every four years, and change hosts every time, it’s INSANE that such an event happens yearly in a relatively small city like Edinburgh. It can’t be sustainable.

All these things considered, I would have liked to see a kinder, smaller, local pandemic version of the Fringe that emphasised the ‘Edinburgh’ part of its name. By all means, offer a digital programme too because we all know that this benefits a lot of people, and this could be the role of a reduced Fringe Society. But in terms of the meatspace, wouldn’t it be lovely if, for example, we had focused on the recovery of local venues only, those that are here year-round? What if we had given full Fringe admin power to local venues and waived the registration fee for Edinburgh acts altogether, then distributed that sweet support money in a fair way among local artists and companies to do their shows in these venues, which in turn would make tickets cheaper or even free for Edinburgh residents…? This way, we could still have a Fringe, we could pump some cash directly into the local economy, and also keep audiences, performers and venue staff safer from infection, which is something that I haven’t even started to mention because it should be obvious by now. Granted, this version of the Fringe wouldn’t be the largest, the most world-beating or whatever, but it would also not be the most expensive, the most stressful or the deadliest.

Is it unrealistic? I don’t know. I also remember attending a panel at the Fringe a few years ago (maybe it was 2014?), when the convener asked the invited speakers to define ‘radical theatre’. All of them said energetic, even violent, things, like ‘we need to blow shit up’ and ‘take people down’, etc. When the question was put to the audience, I was mindful of a show I had just seen the day before, a low-key, low-budget act that entailed a guy balancing rocks for an hour with a wee speaker gaffa-taped to his head that spoke some metaphysical text over it. It was small, simple, gentle, experimental, challenging, weird, and surprisingly enjoyable. That, to me, was radical.

Two movements, both alike in dignity…

DISCLAIMER: the following are my personal views and mine alone, they do not reflect the views of any of the groups cited or individuals who work with me elsewhere.

I am currently part of the leadership teams of two grassroots groups striving to shake things up in the theatre sector: Migrants in Theatre (UK-wide) and Theatre Directors Scotland (as the name suggests, Scotland-only). Each group has specific aims, needs and demands, but there is a lot that overlaps between them. Both groups are reasonably young – though both have been unofficially running for longer, TDS launched in 2018 and MiT launched in 2020, mid-pandemic. Both groups are unfunded and entirely volunteer-run. Both groups intend to address gaps in the sector, identified through hundreds of hours of unpaid research. Both groups had important meetings with sector leaders this week.

I have been thinking a lot about the dynamics between people in salaried jobs in theatre and freelancers/people on zero-hour contracts for the past few years, but this difference has been massively exacerbated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting closure of theatres. I have written elsewhere* about how much a missed opportunity for meaningful reflection and renovation this whole year has been, but today I am feeling particularly bitter about it and the reason for that is that the MiT meeting left me energised, whereas the TDS meeting left me feeling despondent.

Throughout my 14 years in the UK, I have always been unsympathetic towards London. When asked why I decided to live in Scotland, my usual reply is ‘because it isn’t London’. I should explain that this is not necessarily a dislike of London itself, I just never stopped being a small town girl that doesn’t feel comfortable in giant metropolitan centres. If I had to go back to Brazil, I wouldn’t want to live in Rio or São Paulo for the same reasons. Granted, I stayed in London for 9 weeks a few years ago, on an unpaid internship as Assistant Director to a rather peculiar and extreme person, which was not exactly the most pleasant of experiences, and that may have influenced my perception of London as a place to live and work as well. But this afternoon, seeing the London ADs coming on screen, readily asking the MiT group, ‘what do you need? How can we help?’, engaging as active partners in the movement, was so refreshing and left me wishing sector leaders in Scotland were more genuinely interested and less reluctant about taking responsibility for changing the game.

I could move, I hear you say, but Scotland is much more than theatre to me. It’s where I built a community of people that matter to me more than many of my blood relatives in Brazil. I could follow the government’s advice and retrain, I suppose, but that would mean throwing years of training in the bin and abdicating from the sector I’ve been so hellbent on improving. Besides, I am stubborn and suffer from a sort of Don Quixote Syndrome.

There is no conclusion to this Friday night rant, which was going to be a twitter thread but I decided to compile my disorganised thoughts in one single text. Comments and ideas are welcome. If you are reading this, you know where to find me. I’d say buy me a G&T and we can rant together in the pub, but that’s not allowed this year, so I’ll take comments here, on twitter or via email – your choice.

*I have contributed a short essay to forthcoming book Scotland After the Virus, edited by Simon Barrow & Gerry Hassan, to be published by Luath Press in November 2020.

No place I’d rather be

Back in 2005, when I started planning my escape to Scotland, my first plan was to go to Glasgow and study at the (then) RSAMD. My first attempt was neutralised by a rejection letter after a terrible audition tape – bitter as it may sound, I didn’t fancy myself as an actor anyway and only applied to that because it was the only course I had knowledge of at the time. The good thing about being rejected was that it prompted me to expand my research to Edinburgh, which led me to a course that sounded more like what I was after (and turned out to be pretty shit, but that’s another story). I also found out I was allowed to apply to up to 6 courses through UCAS and spread my wings across Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberystwyth and somewhere in England that I can’t remember. Second time round, I get unconditional offers from all of them. I quickly dismissed most of those, giving myself a couple of weeks to decide between Aberystwyth and Queen Margaret University, and although the Welsh course sounded more convincing, I accepted QMU’s offer because of Edinburgh. I had never been to Edinburgh before in my life, I didn’t know anyone who had lived or been there, but I had a good feeling about this place. Also, I’d read about this Edinburgh Fringe Festival thing, “largest performing arts festival in the world”, and for someone wishing to pursue a career in theatre, it just sounded like it was the right place to be.

I arrived in Edinburgh for the first time on 31st August, 2006, just in time for the fireworks concert. I did not experience the Fringe until the following year, when I was invited to be stage crew for a couple of my lecturers’ show. I was there for the first 10 days of the festival only, as I had booked a trip to Brazil to attend a cousin’s wedding, but it was enough to give me a good taste of what the Fringe actually was and I promised to myself I’d be there for the whole thing next year. In 2008, I got a flyering job with a company producing mostly Irish comedy shows. That was the year I decided that, no matter where I were living or working, I absolutely HAD TO be in Edinburgh every August and enter this magic interdimensional portal that opens in the city every summer. Cue 5 consecutive years of mad parties, indulging in theatre from all over the world, A LOT of hard work and stress, fringe flings, ridiculous amounts of fun, the best show I’ve seen and been part of ever, very little or no sleep at all, and wonderful memories which will get re-told endlessly until the day I die. And then September 2012 came and, as you know if you have been following this blog or if you actually know me in real life, I was forced to leave the UK and was subsequently refused an Exceptional Talent visa to come back.

When the Fringe programme was out in 2013 and I was in Brazil, I had a huge breakdown. It was the first and only time in my life that I needed to be given tranquilisers. For a week, I felt I could do nothing but sit and watch TV, from early morning to bedtime. I avoided the internet for a few days, as I couldn’t bear my friends’ updates about the Fringe that year. Then, I realised there was nothing preventing me from just coming to visit as a tourist. My best friend from home would get married in Portugal in September that year, and I was one of her bridesmaids, so I’d be travelling to Europe anyway. May as well go a month earlier and experience the Fringe as a mere audience member for the first time (I wrote about that here), and that was actually quite nice. With re-invigorated stubbornness, I returned to Brazil after that, applied for the Exceptional Promise visa and was refused again, but I had such a great idea for a show. Determined to not back down, I started working on La Niña Barro with Eli, Alex, and Marta over skype and email and boom – we had a show in the 2014 Fringe. We had our problems with it, but it felt good to be back in the game.

Fast forward to the Fringe 2015. I wasn’t planning to put on a show of mine, but I offered my services to a couple of theatre companies I know and was very excited to be invited to work with both during their Edinburgh run. Only problem: the new student visa I was about to request would only be valid from 30 days before the start of my course, or the end of August. But I had a cunning plan. If I could get my new visa before August, I would travel to the UK and enter under a Visitor Entertainer stamp to work during the Fringe, then come September hop across the water to Spain/Portugal to check on my girls for a few days and return to the UK once the validity of the student visa started. I wrote to the Home Office asking if this would be acceptable, and they confirmed I would be ok to do that. Sorted. But this is me and nothing would be easy, right?

Right. So, due to a much more complex and unnecessarily roundabout system now, my student visa application was delayed (I will write about this part of the saga on another post), making me miss the Fringe for the first time in 9 years! I can’t even begin to tell you the level of rage and frustration I achieved when I realised this was happening. It wasn’t a sad meltdown like the one I had in 2013, it was an angry one this time. Although the companies I had committed to had been warned that this might happen, it was still embarrassing to have to tell them they couldn’t count on me to help with the run. This is what this immigration policy does, ultimately: it generates angst, frustration, shame, stress, self-doubt. If I hadn’t already received an offer and confirmation of a research studentship at the RCS, this would have been the point of throwing in the towel.

I felt the need to vent about this and wrote a long email that sat in my drafts folder for about a week, as I didn’t even know who to send it to. Eventually, I fired it in all sorts of directions: politicians, journalists, arts organisations, bloggers, education councils… I received two replies agreeing that yes, it was terrible. There, there. That was it. Powerlessness wins.

There is no definite conclusion to this post. I am writing this 8 months after the events and it still makes me bitter. I can only cling on to the ridiculous glimmer of hope and optimism that I don’t know why I still have deep inside that things will change for the better eventually.

 

A wee break in Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo is huge. It contains 4 times the population of Scotland in its metropolitan area. I had been there a few times visiting relatives before, but they stay just outside the city, so I hadn’t actually seen Sao Paulo until I visited my friend Leandro in 2012. He lived in the city centre then, and gave me a detailed guided tour of Paulista Avenue and its surroundings – on which he had written his MA dissertation, so I did get a five-star tour indeed.

As per my previous post on applying for a US visa in Brazil, you have to choose a consulate to attend an interview. You can pick from Rio, SP, Brasilia, or Recife. Brasilia and Recife are further away from my native south, and therefore, more expensive. I then opted for SP because it was the closest of them all and friendlier than Rio, in my experience.

Leandro doen’t stay there anymore, and my relatives, as I said above, don’t actually live in Sao Paulo, so I got in touch with a friend who had offered his couch a couple of times before (word of warning: don’t invite me to your house if you don’t mean it, because I WILL turn up eventually!) and decided to take a wee break to enjoy Sao Paulo for a week.

I was staying near the neighbourhood known as Vila Madalena, one of the coolest (albeit hipster-tastic) parts of town, so I took the opportunity to explore it on foot.

Vila Madalena can be quite pricey, but if you’re feeling lush, I do recommend eating at Lá da Venda, a charming retro grocer’s and restaurant with a delicious menu of typical Brazilian food and gorgeous coffee. In fact, if you are a coffee lover, Vila Madalena is packed with the stuff – I also had a coffee stop at Livraria da Vila (a brilliant bookshop) and bought a bag at the Coffee Lab (the funkiest cafe I’ve ever been to) to take home.

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Your own filter coffee served at the table at Lá da Venda

Now, if you’re a bit broke and just fancy a wander, it’s worth getting down to Vila Madalena to see Beco do Batman – an impromptu graffiti gallery outdoors. It’s pretty straightforward to find and you can easily spend a couple of hours there looking at the graffiti made by local artists.

Apart from Vila Madalena, I also went to MASP – Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Again, if you’re travelling on a budget, it’s free on Tuesdays and on Thursday evenings. There will surely be long queues, but they move fairly quickly. You’ll probably have to brave hordes of people taking selfies with the pieces, but once you get past that, it’s worth it, particularly their collection of Brazilian modernist art (I fucking love that shit!).

I was lucky to be in Sao Paulo when the LGBT Pride parade happened – one of the largest in the world, it gathered around 20,000 people this year and it was bloody FABULOUS! Homosexuality is not a crime in Brazil and same-sex marriage is legal, but it’s also one of the countries with the highest rates of violence against homosexual and transgender people (with 13.29 LGBT people suffering some form of violence per day in the country, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Federal Secretary of Human Rights, available here in full in Portuguese). It was great, then, to be able to witness a day of celebration, which was also marked by intense political protests.

The one thing that left me a bit disappointed was, ironically, the theatre. I took a tour around the Municipal Theatre (an opera house, rather than a theatre), which was stunning, but didn’t attend any shows there. I went round Rooselvelt Square, where the fringe-y theatre types live, but nothing in their programme that week caught my attention. I watched one play that had been highly recommended to me, A Alma Imoral, which was good, but not mind-blowing. I was more impressed by one very simple, yet highly effective, street show by Catalan performer Joan Català, who was participating of the SESC International Circus Festival. What left me a bit disheartened was that I was looking for something that I knew I would not be able to find in the UK or in Europe, something more rooted and unique, but I realised with some sadness that about 80% of what gets put on Brazilian stages are adaptations of European or North American classics. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of new writing in Brazil, and devised theatre seems to be constrained within academic walls.

Other than that, my week in Sao Paulo was excellent. It’s not usually considered a tourist destination (or at least not as popular as Rio and the northeast), but it’s such a great place for a city break. There is loads on offer, and although it is generally more expensive than other Brazilian cities, it’s easy enough to adjust your plans to your budget. The public transport system is rather civilised (compared to the experience in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, for example) and I felt safer walking around there than I do in the south these days.

So there you have it. If you’re planning a trip to Brazil, do consider including Sao Paulo on your itinerary.