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.

A Trial Run of Curitiba

I had been to Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, only once before, roughly 12 years ago. Back then, I was at uni in Porto Alegre, studying to become an EFL teacher, and the reason of my visit to Curitiba was a TEFL convention. I didn’t remember much about it, as I was only there for a weekend and spent most of my time at the convention, but the few memories I had were of the good kind. I started paying attention to the city again in the past few years for a number of reasons: a couple of my cousins moved there, their official twitter account is absolutely hilarious (Portuguese speakers only, soz), and they have the largest and oldest theatre festival in Brazil, Fringe included. In addition, it’s famous for having a colder climate than the rest of Brazil year-round and for having a decent public transport system. It sounded like a good place to live in if I ever decided to move back to Brazil, so I thought I would give it a trial run. I got a job as a venue manager at the Fringe and went to Curitiba for a month.

I stayed with one of my cousins for the first week and couchsurfed the rest of the time. I was in charge of Solar do Barão, a gorgeous listed building that houses the Museum of Photography, Museum of Engravings, and a comic books library year-round. This 19th-century manor house was the family home of Ildefonso Pereira Correia, Baron of Serro Azul, whose intriguing story I learned from the staff and some audience members while I worked there. A yerba mate lord back in his day, the Baron once saved the city of Curitiba from being pillaged by rowdy gauchos (my ancestors), but entered a complicated political tangle that got him assassinated on a train en route to Rio. After his death, the Baroness moved next door and donated the manor to the Army. It was used as a barracks until about 30 years ago, when it was passed on to the Curitiba Cultural Foundation.

As cool as the story of the venue is, it has its problems as a place to host fringe theatre shows. Having to create a performance space where there isn’t one wasn’t the issue – building the truss and putting the dance floor down was the easiest part. The hard work included shifting a baby grand piano (which allegedly belonged to the Baron and no one is allowed to touch) and accommodating pieces that involved liquids being spilled on stage. The venue regulations stated that the use of liquids, food, and fire was strictly prohibited, due to the risk of damaging the historical structure. Also, with no accessibility, no trained first aiders anywhere to be seen, no emergency lights, and only one possible exit down a wooden staircase, the venue was a death trap.

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We took a group of 20 blind people and one wheelchair user up and down these.

Thankfully, we didn’t have any emergency situations, but I was kept on my toes throughout the full run. I was also fortunate to be working with a tiny, but very good and attentive team.

What of the result of my experiment? Well, it’s unfair to compare this with the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s unfair to compare anything with the Edinburgh Fringe. Some negative aspects of the festival were the relative dullness (it was way quieter than I expected), unclear relationship with performers (a few of the ones we worked with didn’t seem to understand what a ‘fringe’ was), difficulties with the venue (they have an interesting festival-funded venues system, but it’s full of restrictions), and the ‘Ticketless Movement’, which seemed like a good idea at first, but annoyed me to no end, and could be used in a more productive way. On the plus side, I met lots of interesting people and got a dose of some good acting. As for my expectations regarding the city, it was all lies. I think it rained only once in the whole month I was there, temperatures stayed between 30 and 35°C, and getting a seat on a bus is just impossible (well, having enough room to breathe on buses was a laborious task). It has its perks: it’s pretty, it’s clean, and it’s cheap, but I have stopped considering it as a possible base. I would definitely like to go back to visit, though, and potentially to participate in the festival again.

Bristol with an L

After my visa refusal in April last year, I decided I was going to Edinburgh for the Fringe anyway, just for a visit, as there’s absolutely nowhere else in the world I’d rather be in August. Prior to my trip, I started hearing horror stories about people who were seeking entry to the UK as tourists but were refused and deported. I’d read a couple of them online, via the Manifesto Club, and the third one was told by a friend. His niece went to London to study English for a month and wasn’t refused entry after all, but only after she answered a number of pointless questions about her family and their lives in Brazil. Subsequently, the immigration agents called her dad and asked the same questions and the answers had to match. Needless to say, I was terrified I wasn’t going to be allowed to visit my friends in the city I’d lived in for 6 years.

I proceeded to gather as much information as possible and be prepared to be grilled at Edinburgh Airport. I think I’ve memorised the whole of the UK Home Office website by now (it was still the UK Border Agency then). I pre-warned my friends picking me up that it might be a while until they let me through, and that there was a chance of not actually being allowed in.

As the plane landed in Edinburgh, I started to cry. My heart was pounding, and it was all a concoction of feelings ranging from happiness at being back and fear of being sent away again. I filled out my landing card, waited in a long queue and finally arrived at the desk. A lovely, really polite lady was my immigration officer that day – one of the reasons why I always preferred to connect somewhere in continental Europe and then fly straight to Edinburgh rather than to London, where people who work at airports seem to be miserable and sadistic. She took my card and passport, asked me where I’d flown in from. “Paris” – And are you here on holiday? “Yes” – Where are you staying? “With friends, and here’s a couple of letters to confirm this” – Are your friends Brazilian? “No, they’re both Scottish” – Ok, how do you know Kirsty? “Through work” – And how do you know Jennifer? “Uni” – So you lived here before? (checks out my last visa, still on passport) “Yes, for 6 years. Had a student visa for 4 years, then a post-study work visa for another 2, which is the one you can see there” – Ok, good. Have you ever had any issues with Immigration before? “Yes, and I know that this is why your computer’s beeping” – Can you tell me about it? “I’ve applied for a Tier Exceptional Talent visa and was refused” – Why was that? “Because I’m not exceptionally talented” – (smiles) What did your refusal letter say? “Ehhh, no, love” – Pardon? “They didn’t give me a reason, they just said no” – Are you sure? “Yes, I am. I actually ended up filing a Freedom of Information request to the Arts Council of England to get more detailed feedback, which was still vague. Look, I could tell you the whole story, if you want, but let’s just say I also contacted the British Consul in Rio and she said herself she wasn’t clear how this visa worked” – I see. So what did you study while in Edinburgh? “Drama and Theatre Arts. Got a First. Want to see my diploma? I have it here” – No, thanks. And now are you living in Brazil? “Yes, I am” – What do you do over there? “I’m working as a teacher and translator. Here’s a letter from my employer” – Oh, good, thanks. And do you live in a rented property? “No, I own a flat with my sister” – Ok. So is that why you requested an Exceptional Talent visa, for your work with languages? “Erm… no. For my work in theatre” – Oh, so have you done that sort of thing before? “Yes, I’m a director and producer. I worked in theatre throughout my 6 years in Edinburgh” – That’s lovely. And are you staying for… 3 months? “Yes. Here’s a copy of my return ticket” – It’s an awfy long time to see friends, isn’t it? “Miss, I lived here for 6 years. I have a fair amount of friends to visit. But I’m not spending all 3 months in Edinburgh, I’m also going to Portugal for a wedding, then I’ll come back to fly out from here” – Ah, ok. When are you going to Portugal? “Just after the Fringe. Wedding is on the 14th September, I’m a bridesmaid” – (smiles) That’s nice. So, you said you’re working as a teacher, but how can you go away for 3 months? “I don’t work at a regular school, it’s a language school for business people. We tailor our courses according to the students’ needs, so there isn’t a regular calendar of classes” – Ok, I get it. Look, have a seat over there, I’ll need to take all this with me in there and just cross-check a few things. (goes off for another 20 minutes) – Right, Miss D’Avila, let me explain this: I’m allowing you through, but there is a stamp with a code here meaning that when you come back from Portugal, you might be asked to produce all this information again. Is that clear? “Sure thing. Well, thank you”

Almost an hour later, I’m allowed in.

Toni Nealie is a writer from New Zealand who lives and works in Chicago, and has had her fair share of immigration trouble. I completely identify with her feelings, thus described: “Being viewed as a potential threat diminishes you, fractures a personal landscape, peels off pieces of bark until you are raw. You begin to suspect your own legitimacy, your place in the long, snaking lines of mainly brown people waiting for their numbers to come up. Are you trying to sneak through a keyhole into a society that doesn’t want you? are you in the shadows of illegality? could they deport you? could they make you disappear?”. Her heartfelt narrative of her own airport trials can be found in full here. It really is a bizarre situation to be in.

When I stepped out of the airport and was taken to Cramond Island for a picnic with my friends, I felt like it was the first time I’d breathed in almost a year. And I had a wonderful month and a bit in Edinburgh, and then took a train to Bristol to see a long-lost friend and from there I flew to Lisbon.

I arrived in Lisbon with another thick stack of photocopies of everything I reckoned I’d need to be allowed in the country. I was a tad more concerned, because my friend getting married was Brazilian, but I had all her details, including her residency number. Not having a copy of the actual wedding invitation was another thing making me nervous, and I was kicking myself internally for forgetting to do that. I waited in a queue for 40 minutes and then arrived at the desk. [following dialogue was in Portuguese] – Good evening. “Evening (hands over passport)” – Where are you flying from? “Bristol” – See, when you say that word in English, you pronounce the L at the end, don’t you? “Yes…? Bristollll” – Ha. That’s funny. (stamps passport) Welcome to Lisbon.

Yep. That was all.

Some people get kicked out of bars, some people get kicked out of countries

One of my best friends once taught me that good artists steal, so the above line was stolen from a Bacardi ad. If you’re reading this and don’t know me personally, hi, I’m Flav and I’m an alcoholic a theatre director/producer Brazilian. I’m starting this blog because something very bad happened to me recently and putting things in writing as if I’m talking to someone helps organise my thoughts. Also, because the whole situation is too ridiculous to bear alone, and I’m sure there are quite a few people out there going through similar predicaments. I say we find each other and start a support group. Anyway, if you’re new to my life you have to catch up and if you can’t be arsed reading, here’s a video of my telling this story. If you’ve been around me for long enough, you know what I’m talking about and may stop reading now.

I moved to Scotland in 2006 to study Drama and Theatre Arts, which was something I’d wanted to do for years. I had a Tier 4 Student Visa for 4 years, at the end of which I graduated with a First Class Honours (nae bad for an international student whose first language isn’t English). After that, I was granted a Post-Study Work Visa (previously known as Fresh Talent) for another two years. During that period, I got an alright “bill-paying” job and set up my own theatre company. I’d worked with quite a few theatremakers from the UK and beyond throughout the previous years and only now had a clearer idea of the artistic direction I wanted to pursue. I went to London for 6 weeks to take a course in Theatre Production to help me with this endeavour, and spent 2 weeks in Denmark training at the Odin Teatret as well. My company, Fronteiras Theatre Lab, put on its first show at the Edinbugh Fringe in 2012. Earlier that same year, the same company was a semifinalist at the Scottish Institute for Enterprise’s New Ventures competition.

However, despite being able to pay rent, bills and taxes, I didn’t make enough money to apply for a Tier 1 Skilled Migrant, or Entrepreneur visa to stay in the UK and take this project forward. What I could potentially do was apply for the wonderful brilliant well-thought out Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa (applause, please). But in order to do that, I had to move back to Brazil for a few months. Because that isn’t counter-productive at all.

I don’t want to bore you too much, so I’ll cut the story short. I moved back at the end of September 2012. I organised an international theatre project, worked as an advisor for local cultural organisations in my hometown, and went back to my old job as a teacher and translator to get some money. I applied for the Exceptional Talent visa, but was not deemed Exceptionally Talented by the powers that be. I went to Edinburgh for a wee holiday and then went to Portugal for my childhood’s best friend’s wedding. Then I came back to Brazil and started planning my second attempt at that visa. That’s a whole new post, though. We’ll get to that.