Programmes within the programme - The Skinny 28 July 2015

Curated multi-venue programmes are changing the landscape of the Edinburgh Fringe. Here we explore the reasons why, taking in Aurora Nova and the Made in Scotland Showcase

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is mushrooming. This August a record 3,300 productions will descend on the city, and as the Fringe becomes bigger and bigger, independently curated programmes that open out like Russian dolls to reveal mini-festivals are becoming not only inevitable, but also very valuable for performing companies and audiences alike.

Programmes that specialise in certain themes or aspects of theatre, and encompass multiple venues across the Fringe have a basic practical function. For the casual theatre-goer or first time visitor, navigating the rich but exhausting Fringe experience can be a momentous task. By highlighting productions that stand out according to specific criteria, more nuanced than straightforward categorisation according to genre, these smaller, more manageable programmes allow audiences to map out the kind of shows they really want to see, while also giving them access to as broad a variety of venues as possible – the venue, of course, being an integral part of the experience.

But they serve a deeper purpose. Independently curated programmes are helping the fundamental ethos and alternative values of the Fringe to stay alive, as it spirals further and further into the realm of the commercial.

Free Festival, held across 19 venues that are free to hire for artists, was established in 2004 with the goal of countering the increasingly punishing process of staging productions at the Fringe. Its founders, Alex Petty and Kevin McCarron of Laughing Horse comedy, hoped to offer performers greater artistic freedom by reducing the substantial financial losses typically incurred by a three-week run of shows.

Free Festival’s model of a financially viable programme for performers and audiences may seem more relevant to comedy and small scale gigs, which can be staged in bars and cafes, and are Free Festival’s main areas of expertise. However, independently curated programmes of bigger theatrical productions are embracing similar values to offer artists a helping hand in the harsh Fringe environment.       

Berlin-based theatre booking agency Aurora Nova is one such example. Principally concerned with circus, dance and physical theatre, its annual programme of top international performances has been invaluable in allowing these genres to not only survive, but also to thrive at a festival which, until quite recently, didn’t have much time for them.

Aurora Nova’s humble beginnings have a lot in common with Free Festival. Its founder Wolfgang Hoffman first experienced the Fringe as a performer in 1999, and after witnessing first-hand the financial and technical challenges facing artists there, he began to envisage an alternative model for the kind of productions he himself was involved in: a designated performance space that would be artist-led, with the goal of lowering the financial risk for companies and encouraging a spirit of mutual support amongst artists. He teamed up with the Brighton venue Komedia to develop the idea, and in 2001 Aurora Nova began its life at the Fringe with a programme of 16 shows from 13 different countries, all of which were staged at the relatively unknown venue St Stephen’s Church.

"Navigating the rich but exhausting fringe experience can be a momentous task"

Against the backdrop of a festival dominated by commercial theatre, Aurora Nova instantly stood out as something truly alternative thanks to the artistic solidarity it cultivated, and upon which it relied. Artists promoted each other, contributed to the running of the venue and pooled revenues. The swift popularity and early critical acclaim of Aurora Nova demonstrates the benefits of choosing the road less travelled. The venue was lauded by critics for the quality and adventurousness of its programmes, with the 2005 Edinburgh Guide describing it as "the vibrant heart of International Physical Theatre" at the Fringe.

Aurora Nova’s journey from alternative Fringe venue to curator of Fringe shows across a diverse range of locations goes hand-in-hand with the rise of physical theatre and circus as respected genres in their own right. The small venues and rapid turnovers typical of the Fringe previously meant that the presence of these categories was comparatively limited, but this has changed dramatically.

2015 promises to be a big year for circus in particular. Underbelly has made the bold decision to invest £600,000 into two big tops that will be erected on Edinburgh’s Meadows for the duration of the festival. These will host avant-garde circus performances from all over the world, the number and variety of which has never been seen at the Fringe before. Aurora Nova is right in the thick of it, with Czech company Cirk La Putya and The Palestinian Circus Company both offering highly anticipated productions at the new circus hub.

However, far from getting too comfortable with the emerging status quo, Aurora Nova’s current programme has remained true to its vision of providing a platform for the radically new and different, including the genre-defying Animotion Show, a collaboration between Russian visual artist Maria Rud and Scottish virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

Herein lies another huge benefit of independently curated Fringe programmes: in the vast mire that is the official Edinburgh Fringe programme, they provide treasure trails that go off the beaten track and lead to the discovery of hidden gems that would otherwise be obscured within the thumbnail forest of 400 pages of listings.

The Made in Scotland Showcase that runs annually at the Fringe is a prime example of how up-and-coming companies and artists can benefit from inclusion in a tailor-made programme with international recognition. Supported through the Scottish government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, the showcase provides funding for a handpicked selection of the most exciting Scottish dance, theatre, and music of the moment, as well as giving artists an invaluable promotional opportunity.

Being counted among the cream of the crop in the Scottish creative scene and having the support of a well-resourced professional agency can make a huge difference to the prospects of any small production in the great Fringe free-for-all, and moreover it gives emerging theatre companies a boost by showcasing them side-by-side with those already well situated in the theatre scene.

Among the companies making an appearance in this year’s programme are Vanishing Point, who will be bringing Tomorrow, their critically acclaimed exploration of dementia, to the Fringe. Currently based in Glasgow’s CCA, they describe their work as "intuitive, not intellectual". The company’s website hints that they somewhat lost their way in the past due to a familiar evil that looms over almost every creative venture at the Fringe: commercial and financial pressure.

'[When] we first received funding, we forgot how to make theatre. We thought we had to do things the way other people did them, that we had to meet certain standards,' their bio confesses. Now, however, Vanishing Point assert that they have set out on a new path, and performances of Tomorrow have already garnered the acclaim to suggest they are finding their feet once more.

Vanishing Point are joined in the Made in Scotland showcase by Stellar Quines, who have been making award winning theatre that explores and celebrates the experiences of women for over 20 years. This year they are returning with The Jennifer Tremblay Trilogy, bringing together three acclaimed plays by the Quebecois writer. The List and The Carousel are both Fringe First winners, with new and final addition The Deliverance this year looking for the same.

There can be no doubting the significance of the rise of independently curated programmes-within-the-programme. They are changing the way punters engage with the Fringe, and opening up new opportunities for artists. It’s likely that more and more of these will generate organically out of the already over-extended main programme, and perhaps the entire structure of the Fringe will evolve accordingly. For anyone asking what the Fringe will look like in 10 or 50 years’ time, this could be your answer.