Why many fringe festivals are not as “open access” as they claim

Anyone familiar with me will know I have a love/hate relationship with fringe festivals, especially the ones I feel put their own numbers ahead of the participating artists.

Members of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals aim for a participant focus but most of the big well known ones aren’t part of that association and would struggle to meet the association’s ambitions.

It’s why I set up Anywhere Theatre Festival as a way to put the focus back on the participating artists, an objective that seems to have moved down the priority list for many fringe festivals below “grow festival size” and “provide sponsorship opportunities”.

Because here’s the thing: if a festival is truly an open access fringe festival, the organiser (let’s be honest, the term Artistic Director is a stretch) has close to little control over the number of shows, the type of shows, where they are, audience sizes and what they’ll be about.

This is an issue when reporting back to most funding bodies who want audience and show number growth based on a 3-5 year plan and for corporate partners who want to know what they are getting well in advance and who they’ll be able to network with when they get there.

It’s a bit hard to plan either of those when the majority of a fringe festival’s shows are registered in the week before the registration deadline just four months before the festival starts.

That’s why the established major state theatre companies have more success with corporate partners. They know the minister, councillors and other business people and potential business and philanthropy leads will be at the opening night and that’s why they go. The show is irrelevant as long as it fits the theatre company brand and doesn’t offend too many people. It’s a machine with cogs that can’t be changed without changing the engine, chassis and the bodywork. That’s a lot of work.

But open access fringe festivals are and should be different. It is an explosion of ideas and energy, some of which will make you wonder why you bothered to leave the house and many many more that will blow you away and stay with you to the day you die.

But once again, as a fringe festival organiser you don’t know which show will be which until they start their run, and often not until they have had their closing night. That is the curse and magic of theatre.

So, to get some control, fringe festivals start creating their own curated hubs and commissioning their own shows.

This is a bad thing for most of the artists presenting work at a fringe festival and for each fringe festival brand. A very bad thing.

It’s a bad thing because all of a sudden the artists who have paid to be part of an “open access” festival are not just competing with other independent producers doing the same thing – they are competing with shows in which the fringe festival has a vested interest and an obligation to support much more than all the other registered participants.

This means those commission and “hub” shows will get the big entries at the front of the festival program and a bigger proportion of the festival’s marketing energy.

These shows also get a bigger share of festival attendees who plan to only see one or two shows because it simplifies the audience choice. These shows are easier to find in the program and have the endorsement of the fringe festival. Potential ticket buyers also assume it is a guarantee of quality when a fringe festival is meant to be about taking a risk and seeing something new.

This is the beginning of a fringe festival’s inexorable slide to a two tier program that has a focus on a small number of acts at the expense of the large majority who are meant to be what the fringe festival is about.

“But these are well know companies” I hear you cry, “They should be given more attention” No, they should be part of a curated festival instead or play on the same level playing field as everyone else in the festival.

I have heard the arguments about commissioned shows bringing in audiences that then go to see other shows in the main program. I don’t buy it and if it really happened fringe festivals would be shouting those statistics from the rooftops. I’ve looked through a lot of annual and festival reports and I haven’t seen any mention of how these works are used to funnel audience members to the shows by paying independent producers who are at the festival because it is “open access”.

The festival’s figures look good though.

At its worst this two tier approach increases an audiences focus on the curated program, with the other curated and hubs shows being promoted to attendees with little mention of the broader program.

Fringe festivals should be doing everything they can to get audiences to see the shows that have paid to be part of the festival program. They should be doing everything they can to encourage exploration and dabbling instead of providing an easy choice that eliminates the bulk of the program.

And that is when a fringe festival is no longer a truly open access fringe festival. It becomes a wannabe version of the main city based curated arts festival while exploiting the majority of the artists the festival is meant to be about in the first place.

That’s when independent producers should seriously think about whether presenting a show in those types of fringe festivals is doing more to help the fringe festival than it is for them and whether they should instead spend the amount that would have gone on the registration fee and the inflated festival related costs on presenting their work at another time outside the festival against far less competition.

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