A Politics of Festival: Blog for Forest Fringe

Politics, Rambles, Theatre

The folks at Forest Fringe, the free and radical performance space at the Edinburgh Festivals, asked me put a blog post together about the politics of the Festivals after a Twitter exchange about Devoted & Disgruntled. You can read the result — an exploratory trip through capitalism, performance, rootedness and festival — at their blog here; some extracts are below:

Here’s the core idea in the Forest Fringe’s question: if the Festival should be politicised, then that politicisation requires not reform (a part played here by shows with political themes but without politicised means of production), but revolution, which is to say, by overturning, by radically changing the means of artistic production. That in this crucial political-artistic moment (“crucial” comes from “crux”, as in “cross”, as in “crossroads”), a political Festival would be a Festival which reimagines not just what theatre we make, but how we make it, which overturns not just what we’re talking about, but what our intentions are in speaking.”


“Much of the Festival works on these principles: Some people own the means of production — access to venues, equipment, marketing sources, &c. Other people rent those means of production in order to produce a show — and of course the owners of the means of production charge more for that rent than the cost of running the means. And still others sell their labour to the owners. […]The more capital you have, the more capital you can and must make. The bigger your venue empire, the more efficiently you can wring money out of the people using your venues and the bigger still your empire can become. Moreover, you start benefiting from economies of scale — the way buying lots of a thing makes the cost of the thing cheaper than buying only a little of a thing — so that you have easier access to better marketing, better equipment. That means more audiences come to your venues, and more of the renters — the people putting on shows — want to use your venues. The short story: the big venues at the Festival, the ones whose logos you see everywhere, are expanding every year.”


“in many of the big venues, people are selling their labour for the lowest of low costs: “experience”, a bed, and free tickets. When there is a wage, it’ll be the minimum. This is so grossly like 19th century factory economics that it hurts: such a venue is a performance-factory where the bosses own the labourers’ houses and pay them in tokens only redeemable at the bosses’ own shops. I would not be surprised if in coming years the big venues started charging for their employees’ accommodation.”


“Revolutionary political economy tries to think of other ways society could function than this untrammelled libertarian marketplace. I’m not going to get into the huge debates here, but I am going to sketch out some of the possibilities and how they relate to the Festival, using theatre as an example. There’s state socialism, where a government, democratically controlled or otherwise, runs all the theatres for the benefit of employees and audiences. There’s anarcho-syndicalism, where freely organising voluntary associations, strongly encouraged by social pressures, build and run free theatres and shows for the benefit of all, with or without a monetary system. There’s benevolent feudalism or philanthro-capitalism, where individual beneficient dictators own and run the theatres out of their own pockets and to their own principles. There’s liberal charity, where those with time and privilege to give organise theatre for those without. And there’s liberal democracy, where we all pretend that our rare rituals of voting have any influence whatsoever over the behaviour of the elected “representatives” who make pragmatic decisions about how theatre is run determined by whichever way the political and financial wind is blowing.”


“What I mean is, you’re bringing a show to Edinburgh, not just to the Festival. There is a year-round arts scene here which you might want to find out about, engage with, and give something back to. There are people living here who might want to be involved in the Festival somehow, but you’re too busy marketing to tourists: you don’t think about how to find them, let alone make your show accessible and affordable to them, let along encourage them.”


“Festival advertising is a barely regulated market, and the result is possibly the least effective method of matchmaking between audiences and shows. You have to be very savvy to find what you’re looking for, and you have to be very lucky to find something surprising. Most of us just follow big name reviewers, or directors/writers/venues/companies/performers we trust, or go to whatever’s free, or stick with plays and comedians we already know. Maybe we’ll risk one or two chancers, and then go home disappointed. This is terrible for art, for politics, and for life. We have to be able to do better.”


“The Festival is an industrial powerhouse: performance is a factory, and a show is the product of a lengthy production chain. As such, it is already a deeply political artistic space. I am saying that we — performers, audiences, workers — need to take control of that political space. We need to start making conscious decisions about what we want that space to be, and start acting them out. Better still, let’s think about the best way of making those decisions together.”


“Seize the means of artistic production!”

Fringe Reflections, pt. 2

Rambles, Theatre

I’m currently based in Edinburgh. The world’s biggest arts festival happens to be here. Here’re some part reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre. Part 1 (featuring Freefall, Penelope, The Author, and much Forest Fringe) was here.

NTS, Bryony Lavery and Frantic Assembly: Beautiful Burnout @ Pleasance Courtyard

Three theatre-makers I love greatly collaborating on project about boxing: like a dream. When a project brings in heavyweights you expect it to pack a punch – how does that expectation frame your experiences? It largely depends on the individual, I suppose: those I went with were mostly mildly confused and disappointed: I was delighted, enchanted. The play was deeply experiential, deeply in the present, in its music and video, in its movement, in its speeches: everything was about what is happening right now. Memories of the past were treated with scorn, hopes for the future drove only immediate action. Jab. Cut. Punch. Yes, to go into the issues and feelings in more depth would have been more recognisably satisfying – but I licked the way this grazed huge moral conundrums, vast emotional chasms, and then rapidly moved on. Like most of life, like most people’s lives.

Aces Wild: The Tempest @ C Too

Sometimes it can be fun to see a production so awful that by its depths it serves as a warning, reminds you what to avoid in making theatre. The metre was ignored, voice weakly squeaked emotion, bodies were floppy and unresponsive, the cuts were nonsensical, the characters ciphers – oh my, it was so very bad. But they were trying to hard! It breaks my heart to see a group who clearly cares about theatre, who clearly wants to make good theatre, do so many things so obviously wrong.

Simon Callow / Jonathan Bate: The Man from Stratford @ Assembly

A biographical lecture in theatrical form. Surprisingly not as pompous as I thought it would be, actually rather tender at points – though too often it is a vehicle for Callow to plum his way through his favourite snippets of verse in his hammy way. I didn’t learn much, but I did get to thinking how the cipher of Shakespeare’s life allows authors and actors to fill him up with their own lives and desires – so though we know nothing of how Shakespeare made it into theatre, Callow tells a story of gradual working upwards through roles that is remarkably similar to his own. But I suppose that’s part of the fun, in the plays and the person.

Michael West / Corn Exchange: Freefall @ Traverse

A startlingly beautiful deathbed play, in which four actors take on a dizzying array of roles comic and tragic, playing out an ordinary Irishman’s life for him in his final moments. Only occasionally mawkish and frequently hilarious, it touched me rather deeply. And yet. The narrative was wonderful, but what do I remember the next day? What ideas it had were trite – it was only an emotional storyline which carried me through. So beautiful, but not so substantial. Another note: the protagonist seems quite the most blameless man in theatrical history, having seemingly said only one misanthropic thing in his life, for which he immediately apologised.

(Pro-feminist pedantry: yet another play in which all female characters are defined solely by their relationship to a man, and in which an elusive Mother and a longed-for-to-protect Maiden are the driving forces. Sigh.)

Enda Walsh / Druid: Penelope @ Traverse

Well gosh. It feels like a play that could have been written 50 years ago, very consciously in the shadow of Beckett and Ireland’s great male dramatic blarneyists (Farquahr, Wilde, Shaw, Coward, Beckett . . .) Four awful men compete at the bottom of a decaying swimming pool for Penelope’s affection; they are lover, soldier, justice, pantalone, and death. They meditate on life, masculinity, love, porridge. There is a dazzling and brutal quick change act. While it sometimes mistakes verbosity for erudition, and while we really do not need yet another play about maleness in which the female role is a purely mythic ideal, it is conscious of these flaws and brilliant despite them. I was quite breathless. From laughter as much as from action and thought. It lasts.

Camille O’Sullivan @ Assembly

At the forefront of contemporary cabaret, singing songs from throughout the 20th Century, performing everything from an astonishing impression of Tom Waits to a gorgeous reimagining of Jacques Brel. I’ve heard her music before, but now her promoters are seriously trying to make her a moneyspinner – she’s the most advertised show in Edinburgh, as far as I can see. It hasn’t done her enormous harm, but there is this strange thing that happens to musicians as they grow in scale: they get excited by the possibilities of new money, start hiring more musicians, expand the effects of the show. And, of course, the best ones discover that they were better off minimal all along. I preferred her when she just had a piano and a coupla horns, when her theatricality and persona weren’t dwarfed by the staging, tighter, crazier, sexier.

An odd thing happened at the show: a couple booed her country rock cover of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (a fantastic stomping feminist reappropriation of the mellow anthem). I’ve never heard a boo at a music show before! Only for comedians, or for performers being genuinely offensive. What would move someone to do that? It really threw her: she said a couple of angry things, and then dissolved into tears, apologising for being mean, saying nothing like that had ever happened before. I wouldn’t apologise for telling asses to piss off – but she was that sweet. And vulnerable. A theme for this festival: the vulnerability of performers, the uncertainty of being on stage in front of people, the necessary critical self-consciousness of performance. Dangerous, intoxicating, enthralling.