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Open Letter

 

2014: In his annual Fringe essay, Artistic Director Tomek Borkowy asks

 

Are we starving the Fringe Goose that lays the golden eggs? 

 

Undoubtedly the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest Performing Arts event in the world.  It also injects over £120m into the local economy without which the city and region would be much poorer.  However there is little real appreciation or understanding of how this wealth is delivered and how fragile it is.

 

Edinburgh Fringe stakeholders fall into two main groups. Investors and Beneficiaries.  Theatre companies and performing artists invest their own money to perform at the Fringe.  The big investors are venue producers, who convert empty spaces into theatres and engage technical, marketing and front of house staff.

 

The second group of stakeholders are Beneficiaries:  the flat owners and hoteliers renting accommodation to 40,000 performers and over 500,000 visitors; landlords renting premises to venue producers; suppliers of technical equipment; the printers; pub and restaurant owners; retailers; transport companies; and the City Council.  All of them benefit from the greatest arts event in the world - without investing in it.

 

And what is wrong with this, you may ask?  Surely we live in a market economy and everybody is entitled to take any opportunity to make money. The problem is that many of the beneficiaries not only grab opportunities to make extra money, but effectively profiteer to the extent of milking the Fringe cow to inevitable death. 

 

During the 25 years that I have produced a Fringe venue the cost has risen by over 600%, which is greatly more than the increase of the average ticket price.  Many of the cost increases are due to ever-growing statutory obligations imposed by legislators with little regard to the cost of implementation.  For example, the price of a temporary theatre licence in Edinburgh is the most expensive in the world. Venue producers have no choice; they have to pay. 

 

The most outrageous profiteers however are accommodation and property owners. For many years, hotels have imposed a special “festival” rate - often double the high-season rate - and then they campaign vigorously against a £1 festival bed tax.  Residential accommodation rents double or even quadruple during the Festival and rental fees for buildings used as Festival venues continue to rise much faster than inflation.

 

I have to say however, that Universal Arts’ landlords at the Freemasons’ Hall on George Street and the Hill Street Masonic Society are notable exceptions and I thank them for that. I am not a Mason but maybe there is something in their moral code that makes them more understanding and supportive.

 

The biggest landlord of the Fringe is Edinburgh University and therefore one of biggest beneficiaries.  In the last eight years students’ accommodation rented out to Fringe companies has risen over 200% with the biggest increases in the last three years.

 

For a number of festivals we have presented shows in the University’s the Old College Quad.  This year we had lined up one of Poland’s most impressive outdoor puppetry companies offering performances plus free family workshops and a free exhibition.  Unfortunately this year’s fee has risen to a level that is now disproportionate to the level of facilities and services offered and beyond what the company could afford.  As a venue producer I am well aware of what it costs to convert a space, to provide a high quality performing environment, to legally staff it for 15 hours a day and run a 4 months PR campaign to support the presented work.  I believe that in comparison only a tiny fraction of these costs are needed to run the Old College Quad as an outdoor venue with no seating installed and when lights and sound are provided by the performing company.

 

There are many similar examples across the city contributing to a growing international reputation of Edinburgh as being greedy. Every year the beneficiaries are waiting for the Fringe Goose to lay for them another golden egg.  But they don’t see that the Goose is being starved.  The culture of profiteering is definitely not in the interests of the city and Fringe.  I urge the University, as the leading landlord, to rethink its relationship with the world’s premier arts event.

 

Currently 75% of the Fringe audience attend licenced venues.  In the last decade only one or two new venue producers have been prepared to take the risk of producing a venue, because it is too costly, too risky and too stressful.  And they are right.  The costs of producing a professional venue ranges from £200K to well over £1m.  Given that our Fringe industry is totally self-financed, the risk is enormous and when the old timers such as myself retire, who will be willing to pay to create the professional venues of the future?  Will the Fringe Goose simply die? Can Edinburgh afford that?

 

As a reaction to the growing costs of participation, there are now three Free Fringe managements mainly presenting first time performers and amateurs in bars and pubs.  Their investment is negligible as they don’t pay rent, don’t provide proper theatre facilities or need temporary theatre licences, using the landlords’ year-round entertainment licence.  Landlords are happy to accommodate these unregulated and often unsafe “free venues” as they make money from increased alcohol and food sales.

 

The Free Fringe has already become a threat to smaller licenced and well-equipped venues. This could have long-term consequence for the entire Festival including the Fringe Society.   The Free Fringe has secured a number of places on the Society’s Board of Directors.  The irony is that although Free Fringe participants make significant use of Fringe Office services, on principle they don’t sell tickets through the Fringe Box Office, effectively working against the financial stability of the organisation.    Since the 2008 crisis, the Fringe Office under the leadership of Kath Mainland and her supportive team, has become a better and stronger organisation.  However, the lack of a long-range strategic vision from a weak Board of Directors is tricky for the entire festival.  The Fringe Office has grown to perform many more tasks than ten years ago.  This enlargement has spawned a corporate structure, which has become a problem in itself.    Because of the size, its prime responsibility has become its own well-being.  This contradicts the purpose of the Society’s existence, which first and foremost is constituted to serve and support Edinburgh Fringe participants, venue producers and promoters.

 

The main source of the Fringe Office income is its commission on ticket sales.  Since a growing number of the Free Fringe participants, supported by a number of the Society Board members, refuse to sell tickets through Fringe Box Office, the Fringe Office has to look for other sources of income.  A key one has become advertisements in the Fringe brochure.  It is expensive and therefore gives advantage to the wealthiest companies, affluent comedy agencies and commercial companies.  It looks as though the purpose of this advertising is to make money for the Fringe Office.  I believe that removing ALL adverts, except commercial advertising not connected with performances, would bring back a genuine level playing field and an impartial Fringe Society. 

 

The Festival Fringe’s survival, and continued economic benefit to the city, depends on a diverse programme from around the world.  To deliver this we need participation in the Fringe to be an affordable experience for performers and visitors.

 

The long-term health of the Fringe largely depends on whether the beneficiaries are prepared to be part of the solution.  So, here’s to more joined-up thinking and meaningful partnerships and a Golden Egg for everybody!

 

Tomek Borkowy

 

archive 2010

The Importance of Being Earnestly Professional

 

 

(July 2010) TOMEK BORKOWY calls for the Arts to get more professional and for joined-up thinking to safeguard creativity in Scotland. The Fringe is the biggest Performing Arts festival in the world but are we making the most of its potential to support Scottish Arts Industry?

 

Few people automatically think of the Performing Arts as an industry that generates substantial amounts towards the country’s GDP. Although Scotland has many talented and highly trained practitioners, generally they are not regarded as educated professionals. Why does this perception prevail? And why is it important to change it?

 

Accordingtovariousdefinitions,a PROFESSIONAL is a qualified, skilled expert, practising learned abilities in order to make a living. The remuneration, practice, methods and continuous self-improvement, differentiates a professional from an amateur.

In most European countries, professional arts form a significant part of education and the intellectual development of society. It is seen as an occupation with the same status as other professions. In the UK for many years however, the boundary between professional and amateur arts, and especially in the Performing Arts, has been obliterated to the point that the value of the craft of professional artists has been undermined.

 

In theatre blame lies on both sides of the proscenium arch. On one hand, professional Performing Arts practitioners stopped fighting for their status and the importance of professionalism, frequently tolerating mediocre work. Often a ‘that will do’ complacency prevails, ‘justified’ by a lack of funds. But equally alarmingly, an ‘Oh, it’s OK’ notion predominates with audiences and typically people tend to accept sloppy, or cheap and cheerful amateur work as ‘good enough’ for them. This attitude from both, producers and consumers, rewards mediocrity and gives amateurism a quasi-professional status.

 

How has this happened? And why is it dangerous for the future of the Performing Arts in Scotland?

 

Margaret Thatcher was deeply suspicious of professionalism and convinced that only direct control by government, cutting subsidies and market competition would solve the social and economic problems of the country. As a result, professional unions were disempowered, financial investment in the arts shrank and free market forces were imposed on the entire PerformingArts. Allthiswasconceivedand implemented by a government that didn’t understand the significance of the arts.

 

It was hoped that Labour would reverse Thatcher’s attacks on UK culture. Instead professionalism came under attack from a different angle. The arts were forced to take responsibility for ‘Social Inclusion’. Public financing was skewed towards arts projects that directly connected with social programmes, which in turn further reduced the status and strength of professional arts bodies. Furthermore, the state took away responsibility from the unions for determining standards and conduct that regulated entry to their profession.

 

In time, these policies led to uncontrolled access to the arts industry and completely destroyed boundaries between amateur and professional arts. Heavily subsidised Social Inclusion projects, enhanced by university drama departments admitting more and more students in order to maintain their public subventions without improving training facilities, has resulted in massive overcrowding and lowering standards within the Performing Arts sector.

 

Another problem, which emerged from ‘Inclusion’, is the notion that mixing talk of money with talk of arts somehow corrupts the art and that artists can and should work for free. A lot of amateurs and non-professionally-minded artists have endorsed this idea, categorising performing arts practitioners, and specifically actors, as second-rate, low-skilled, incidental workers.

Although artists have a professional responsibility to their communities, they need to maintain a distinction between amateur and professional work. Saying this, I strongly believe that the amateur sector should be helped to develop and be cherished as a breeding ground for future professional practitioners.

 

To be credible in the eyes of the general public and among other occupations, the Performing Arts sector needs to return to a point where it is regulated by its own professional bodies, actively encouraging high standards and the on-going education of its membership. Working in the Performing Arts is a vocation. It is a dedication to educate through creation and an obligation to self-development. The devotion of so many practitioners in Scotland is perhaps the strongest argument for the preservation and development of professionalism in this industry.

 

But how important is it for all of us to understand the distinction between professional and amateur Performing Arts? How significant is it to maintain quality professional theatre in Scotland? In the current economic environment, we all need to be able to answer those questions.

 

A lack of clear distinction lowers standards and quality but even more damagingly, drives the best talent away from Scotland. Regrettably, there is a view that an actor, and many other creative practitioners of any calibre must go to Londontosucceed. InordertokeepScottishtalent at home, we have to be more astutely critical about what has been presented to us. But at the same time we all, artists, policymakers and audience, have to help our professional creative industries to develop. We have to realise and accept that the Performing Arts is of benefit not only in educational and intellectual terms but also as an industry that can bring substantial employment and income to Scotland. It should be a crucial part of Scotland’s identity on the world stage.

 

As audience members we should appreciate and encourage the efforts of amateurs and demand quality from professionals. Of course there is no absolute rule that all professional shows in the Fringe will be good and all amateur shows inferior but, regardless, we should be much more particular and demand a clear advertised distinction between professional and amateur productions. When I am choosing a show, I want to know if I am paying to see a professional production with a professional cast or I am choosing a ‘cheap and cheerful’ amateur show. I would therefore judge it with different measures and I don’t want to pay the same amount for both; professionals are doing it for a living and amateurs for their pleasure.

 

I believe that our SNP government understands the importance of investing in Professional Arts. However, Scottish artists have to be more enterprising too. An economic impact study shows nearly £135 million is spent in Edinburgh as a result of the Fringe. But how much of it benefits Scottish Performing Arts? I believe, very little.

 

A great number of festival venues are run on a commercial basis, but Scottish-based companies run only a small percentage of these. All venue producers are my colleagues whom I respect, but I estimate that last year 85% or nearly £3m of venues’ gross profit left Scotland to support the Performing Arts industry elsewhere. There are five big commercial venues in the Fringe and only one, the smallest, is based in Scotland.

 

To keep our industry vibrant, Scottish promoters, artists, unions and Creative Scotland together with the Scottish Government and Scottish sponsors have to take advantage of the biggest performing arts festival on earth here in our capital. There are commercial opportunities here, which can support Scottish Performing Arts and other creative industries.

Difficult times lie ahead for the arts and we all have to think how to avert the destruction of the creative and intellectual lifeline of the nation.

 

Being earnestly professional is the first essential step.

 

tb@universal-arts.co.uk

 

 


 

 

Tomek, your statement holds true far beyond the Arts in Scotland, it's pertinent for the Arts in general. The Arts have always had a struggle to claim their significance and validity, but with too many options and most of them low-quality, the appreciation of the arts, as well as what to expect has dropped significantly. The easy way out would be to not be involved in the arts at all or simply accept the low standard as "what it is" and conform to that. But then (to quote Kerouac) there are "the mad ones," who relentlessly believe in the crucial need and total significance of the Arts and fight for that cause, knowing what they are up against. You are an inspiration as a "professional" and and "artist", and by being so, are setting a higher standard and tipping the scale.  As a young producer, without 35+ years of this beloved business we call "show" yet under my belt, I feel utterly inspired for the future, that is, if there are people like you and Universal Arts around to set the standards, or at least shake them up.

 

Cindy Sibilsky

International Representative/Tour Producer for Company XIV

and Producer/President of InJoy Entertainment LLC 

www.injoyentertainment.com