“The Edinburgh Fringe is as vital as the world’s greatest pressure valve”: An interview with Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance Theatre Trust
Life has ground to a halt. The cancellation of the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe Festival has hammered home that even with talk of loosening social distancing, it will be long before life looks like it used to be.
The Pleasance Theatre Trust is one of many institutions that stands at the centre of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, connecting artists and theatre-makers to audiences and amplifying new voices. On cancelling scheduling for the festival Anthony Alderson, Director of the Pleasance Theatre Trust, wrote: “Our primary concern is for public safety. In light of the current risk to public health, and with so much uncertainty about future risk, we firmly believe there is no alternative but to suspend any plans.” Of course, the knock-on effects of cancelling such a galvanising cultural event extends well beyond the highly anticipated August month of shows. The Pleasance Theatre Trust is a lifeline to artists and theatre-makers. Presently, its value is infinitely more evident.
We caught up with Alderson to discuss the current state of affairs, the unique allure of the Edinburgh Fringe, and ways to support the work of the Pleasance Theatre Trust in these troubling times. Anthony was keen to remind us that “it is often periods of stillness that lead to great moments of creativity.” The world has proven itself to be fragile. The events industry has been obliterated as a consequence of necessary social distancing and will inevitably be one of the last industries to find its form again. Though much remains uncertain, it is clear that creativity will continue to creep through the cracks of our fractured world.
Can you talk about your work at Pleasance Theatre Trust? How has it changed since you started working as its director? In what ways would you like it to continue to develop in the future?
The Pleasance as a charity has grown substantially in the last 15 years, both in London and in Edinburgh. We are a lifeline for new artists, technicians, producers, writers and directors just starting out and a vital industry platform and showcase for those with brilliant ideas who want them to be taken seriously. The role of the Pleasance hasn’t changed, the ethos remains the same as it did 35 years ago, [but] we are now able to offer more support.
Last year, we put in the region of £220,000 directly into financially supporting work. Two years ago, we started a brilliant new partnership with VAULT Festival, another festival organisation with matching aspirations and skills, to support this industry from the bottom up. We plan to develop greater ties there and to create even better opportunities to make and see great work and great people on- and offstage.
Can you talk about your decision to suspend this year’s programming? Were you in communication and coordinating with other theatres and programmers involved in Edinburgh Fringe? What were some of the main concerns for the Pleasance Theatre Trust and the Edinburgh Fringe Community that arose out of those discussions?
This decision could never be taken in isolation, the Edinburgh Festival environment is hugely complex and intertwined and there are multiple festivals with multiple stakeholders. The Festival Fringe is the largest open-access festival in the world; it doesn’t belong to one organisation, it is like a giant market with multiple stallholders.
The decision to suspend was taken with the consultation of other venues, the Festival Fringe Society, our landlord the University of Edinburgh, and partners like the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and of course the authorities. Suspending an event often dubbed the Cultural Olympics is not easy. However, concerns for public safety are paramount and we needed to ensure that theatre companies, promoters, actors and comedians didn’t have too many financial liabilities. It was the only course of action.
How are you planning to engage with the Edinburgh Fringe Community in light of the circumstances?
If social distancing is relaxed and we are given permission and have the public’s support, we may try to do something small and live to keep the festival spirit burning. There has been work at the Pleasance Courtyard site since four of the original eight pieces were performed there at the Fringe in 1947. It was a different organisation then, but it has been a vital site for the Fringe ever since.
Even if it is just some readings, it would be great to do something. Creativity will seep out – look at what has been happening online already, these past few weeks. We want to do what we can to support artists and companies to showcase their work and we want to give our audiences the same quality of programme we always have. Last year we welcomed 600,000 ticket buyers through our doors, we would love to see them again this year. There are a number of ideas being discussed, I have no doubt that something truly great will emerge. Watch this space!
In your view, what makes Edinburgh Fringe so special?
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is unique. It is hosted by one of the most beautiful small cities in the world, where the artistic community, hell-bent on sharing the very latest ideas, thoughts and opinions, explodes into the largest gathering of freedom of expression anywhere on the planet. This to an audience of over three million ticket buyers.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is vital as the world’s greatest pressure valve. It is crucial to our society’s well-being, to our mental health. We as a community get to examine ourselves and the world around us. We explore new ideas and we get to breathe a huge collective sigh of relief that live culture, that gatherings of humanity remain accessible, exciting and challenging. This is also the entertainment industry’s largest global showcase and a training ground for new talent both on and off stage and the Pleasance is at the very heart of it.
Have there been any digital communities that Pleasance Theatre Trust has grown or is looking to grow since the way in which we live has shifted so drastically?
The Pleasance has hosted a festival podcast programme online and around 300,000 have regularly listened to our festival podcasts. This was made possible with the financial support of platforms such as Audible that engaged in the festival to discover new talent and create digital content for an online audience. However, the finance models are difficult to sustain without a huge investment and with so much being distributed for free it is difficult to compete with. If the arts or the festival is really to develop online audiences this would need considerable financial support.
This period of social distancing has made us appreciate just how important the arts and culture are. But will it last beyond this period of lockdown?
We adore live entertainment and festivals demonstrate how contact with other people is so important, for that reason they have been growing and hopefully will again.
What advice do you have for theatre-makers during this time of uncertainty?
Don’t give up hope and keep dreaming up work, please use this time to be creative. It is often periods of stillness that lead to great moments of creativity. The theatres will reopen, there will hopefully be adequate support. Live theatre will endure and once we have our chance to reopen, I truly hope the audiences will come out in support of us again. Whilst the front-line workers have done an incredible job to keep this country going, those in the arts have greatly helped maintain our wellbeing and kept our communities and families united. We must remember just how important all of this is when this crisis is over.
There seems to be this untenable pressure to be the most productive we have ever been. How have you structured your time during the age of social distancing and what advice do you have for others?
I am very fortunate because I normally work from home and I live just outside Edinburgh beside the beach in Portobello. We have a small garden that has now been rearranged and tidied several times and our two dogs have been walked on a regular basis by each of us and the weather has been incredible. My twelve-year-old daughter is mad keen on Aardman-style animation, thanks to a workshop they did at the festival a few years ago. She is making a new short film. Her two older brothers have been engaged as set-builders. The house is slowly being turned into a studio. It’s great fun and I greatly recommend it.
Can you talk about your current work at Pleasance Theatre Trust and what project, if any, you are able to continue working on during this time?
With all the staff furloughed, there is only a limited amount those of us still working can do. All live work has ceased and the theatres are dark. But, we are able to support companies that would have come to the festival by at least getting those lists out to regional theatres. We will do some showcases for new comedy just as soon as we are allowed. The main job currently is planning our survival and recovery. The losses without our London theatres and without a festival are extreme. We will need a large amount of money to put the festival operation back on its feet and build up some resilience again. It has taken years to build the Pleasance to where it is now and it will take years to do that again.
How can people continue to support or get involved with the Pleasance Theatre Trust?
We are so grateful for the donations made already. We are a not-for-profit organisation and we don’t receive any regular subsidy, we rely on ticket sales from the festival each year. Do please visit our website at www.pleasance.co.uk if you can support us. To get back what the Trust has lost and to remount a festival in 2021 is going to take the Pleasance around £1.8m in support. For the festival as a whole, we probably need to raise in the region of £15m. Given that the festival makes around £180m for the local Edinburgh economy on an annual basis, £300m annually for the Scottish economy, not to mention the incredible platform it provides for our Arts and Entertainment’s industry, I hope that support is well worth making.
Would you like to add anything else?
We will be allowed back into theatres again one day. Please support your local theatre in the meantime. Joy and laughter are contagious too!
Photo: Gabrielle Motola
For further information about the Pleasance Theatre Trust visit their website here.