Anyone who has previously read any of this column, or is aware of New Model Theatre, will know that this summer, along with many aspiring theatre companies, comedians, dance troupes and human statues, we migrated to Edinburgh in order to share our show, Static, with similarly-migrating audiences as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Every August, Edinburgh plays host to this huge event, which has grown from small beginnings to become the largest arts festival in the world. With a creed that holds ‘open access’ above all else, it has come to represent a playground for ideas where anyone can take their work and fulfil their artistic dream. But, much like the similarly-fabled American Dream, there are two sides to the coin: not everyone ends up as New York, some companies come back as a bankrupt Detroit.
We were extremely lucky. Early on we decided that we’d head to Edinburgh as part of the Free Fringe, a part-organisation-part-movement which is free for artists to perform and for audience members to attend (should they wish, audience may show their appreciation through a donations bucket). This meant that, although we were unlikely to come back millionaires, the production was less of a financial gamble.
In contrast most companies pay a large up-front fee to hire a venue and spend the month hoping to recover costs, which many find themselves not doing. As this was our first visit, I can’t comment on how the amount of financial risk carried by artists themselves has changed over the years, but it’s safe to say we met a few people with shows at the fringe that perhaps felt the dream had been miss-sold.
The opening address of this year’s festival, by noted-playwright Mark Ravenhill, asked us to prepare for a time when there was no public subsidy of the arts in the UK. In fact he seemingly looked forward to the day, arguing that “The artist free of any relationship with any public funding body is freest of all.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe Banksy wouldn’t have reached global acclaim if he’d spent his time writing Arts Council applications to pay for spray paints, various stencilling gear and five-weeks-of-his-time-at-the-union-agreed-weekly-rate. Similarly, how different would Kafka’s works be if he’d been free to write full-time rather than being oppressed by the bureaucracy of his day job?
But it sets a dangerous precedent. For a sector which is unavoidably progressive, it is still one which is soaked through with privilege. The risk inherent in forging a career in the arts is one that can put off the less-wealthy and closes doors to all but those with the financial means to absorb that risk.
The Fringe serves a very important function within the theatre, comedy and performance industries. It essentially acts as an opportunity for artists from across the world to show their work to one another and to wangle some inches in the national press. The work is exciting and edgy and everything you’d expect from the world’s biggest arts festival yet, as a model for a post-subsidy Britain, it just doesn’t work. In this imagined world there would be the choice between creating exciting new work and charging a premium ticket price or sticking to known-formulas and bringing ourselves to a cultural standstill.
It can often be hard to defend public subsidy of the arts, clearly hospitals, schools and fire-engines are top of the shopping list, but art is the way that we tell our story to the world and to our ancestors. If the position of writer of that story is only offered to a minority then that story will end up sorely-twisted.
If you’d like to read more about our adventures in Edinburgh (with less deconstruction of its implications on art as a product) you can have a read of t he New Model Theatre blog at www.newmodeltheatre.com/blog Now, efforts are focussed on preparing for an even-bigger tour of Static in 2014 as well as trying to work out what comes next…