In his speech opening the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, Mark Ravenhill stated that he believed that austerity will be good for British theatre. He is of the opinion that the arts have gone soft over the last couple of decades and today's economic climate will see a toughening up, marking the beginning of a new era of edgy British theatre. Well my experience of the Fringe, both in Edinburgh and London, tells me you are wrong Mr Ravenhill.
You see back in the day, when we were both first spreading your wings, they were very different places. Back then I remember there was a feeling of collaboration and mutual support, fringe theatre was the nurturing ground for new talent and an incubator of new ideas, and there were plenty of opportunities for fresh faces from all walks of life. Nowadays it is nothing more than a cash cow, one of the many businesses that have grown up to exploit those who are attempting to start a career in the performing arts. You don't believe me?
Today the average fringe production costs over £10,000 to produce (and that's with cast and crew on the dreaded profit share). This certainly puts paid to the Cliff Richard ethos that 'We can do the show right here'. These days you need some serious investment and, with fringe audiences sparse, you are unlikely to see it back again. In London most of your money will end up in the pocket of your venue who, acting like a theatrical slumlord, will charge you at least £2,000 a week for a grubby 50 seat space, and at Edinburgh Fringe you could end up paying some three grand for an hour slot in a similar sized space if you don't read the small print. My current venue is straightforward and honest but others will wheedle as much as they can out of you with fees for ticketing, inclusion in their brochure and large guarantees. In both cases these venues will take absolutely no risk, bill you for everything from the photocopying to the cleaning, and offer no PR or marketing support. This means you will have to employ your own PR and marketing company, pay for your own advertising, and shell out to a myriad of companies who have grown up to feed off of your efforts.
Fringe producers rarely get any financial help from the Arts Council either and, with fringe theatre not meeting the demographic for corporate sponsorship, most productions are funded privately by the producer or by their family and friends, making the whole thing elitist by default.
So the fringe is an industry that is eating itself. Producers regularly lose money, cast and crew are hardly ever paid, and those who can afford to gamble prefer the safe bets. Is this the 'democracy' you talked of in your speech Mr Ravenhill? Because it does not sound much like one to me. More like a sweatshop where mass-produced Shakespeare is trundled out by underpaid actors for the pleasure of the middle classes. Or maybe it is some great Ponzi scheme run by Bernie Madoff's evil elder brother, which will soon collapse around our ears and leave the government to bail it out as they had to do the banks. Trouble is they won't, will they.
Grist to the Mill and Red Dragonfly's The Autumn of Han is on every day at theSpace @Surgeons Hall until the 24 August (not 4th or 18th).