The Final Act: With More Shows Every Year, You Might Think That Scotland's Annual Arts Bazaar Was Alive and Kicking. but Quality Has Plunged, and the Average Size of a Fringe Audience Is Just 11. There's No Doubt about It, Writes David Benedict, It's Curtains for This Festival
Benedict, David, New Statesman (1996)
It's over. At the risk of catapulting myself into pole position for the Curmudgeonly Old Git Award (Coga), I have to tell you it's curtains for the Edinburgh Festival. True, this bizarre bazaar is showing no sign of imminent demise. Indeed, were growth the determining factor, the patient would be alive and kicking. After all, where there was just one festival in 1947, there are now at least seven, including the International, Fringe, Book, Film, Military Tattoo, the intercultural weekend Mela and the annual media bun fight (sorry, the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival). And all of them are expanding at an ungainly rate. The Film Festival, Britain's second largest after London's, has 74 UK premieres; the 58th International Festival has roughly 150 opera, classical music, dance and theatre events; and the Book Festival, celebrating its 21st anniversary, boasts no fewer than 550 living authors.
Then there's that triumph of hope over experience, the forever burgeoning Fringe. Its programme, accommodating nothing but listings and advertising, is the size of a telephone directory--224 pages guiding you (hah!) through Edinburgh's 236 venues hosting 735 companies performing 1,695 shows in 26,326 performances. That's a 10 per cent rise on last year. Hurrah!
But hang on a minute. We're talking art, not merchandise, so why are we so hung up on size? Shouldn't we be vaunting quality over quantity? Not at Edinburgh. Less is no longer more. This is the festival most easily mistaken for a marathon, and every year some schmuck attempts to beat the record for the number of events crammed into 24 hours. Well, good luck to you, but I'm staying out of the running. We may live in a culture where nothing succeeds like excess, but since acting at Edinburgh--I once even took my clothes off on stage--then returning as a critic, I've concluded that you really can have too much of a good thing.
You don't have to go back to the festival's founding year to know that, once upon a time, it was incontrovertibly a good thing. Until the 1980s, the International Festival was a corrective to British performing arts organisations, which largely remained aloof from the rest of the world. Learning by example, however, rivals such as the London International Festival of Theatre (Lift) and the Barbican's Bite seasons sprang up, programming grand-scale work from abroad and thereby diluting Edinburgh's brand. Former regulars such as Pina Bausch and Mark Morris have switched allegiance to London's rebuilt Sadler's Wells. The International Festival still commissions brand-new work for a percentage of its ambitious programme, but the rest is available from the international touring supermarket, whose aisles are now crowded with British managements eager to snap it up.
The 1980s also heralded the arrival of one green bottle. The Perrier Award appeared in 1981--when it went to the Cambridge Footlights, whose personnel then included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. Suddenly the media had a focus and comedy was crowned king. OK, I have read the statistics, and comedy accounts for only 23 per cent of activity on the Fringe, but everyone knows it's a month-long trade fair for TV transfer.
Yet the real reason for the supremacy of comedy and the death of drama is cost. All you have to do to be a stand-up is pay for the space, write your material, turn up and talk. Taking plays to the Fringe requires money--lots of it. On top of steep venue charges, there's publicity, advertising, set, costumes, crew and all those pesky actors demanding wages and accommodation, with an estimated 15,629 performers fighting for space.
Worst of all, the (unofficial) average size of a Fringe show audience is, amazingly, 11. That means an awful lot of shows play to nobody. The odds are so stacked against attracting reviews and an audience that established theatre companies no longer play there. …