Festival Countdown: Underbelly Co-founder Ed Bartlam's EdinburghDate: 16 July 2009
Underbelly was first opened in 2000, as a small performance venue for five shows brought to the Edinburgh Fringe by the long-running Fringe company, Double Edge Drama. Double Edge directors, Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood, now directors of Underbelly, had heard of the venue through a production of Gargantua, performed by Scottish company Grid Iron in the vaults below the cityís central library. The vaults proved the perfect location for all five of Double Edge's offerings that year, and the company went on to attract sell-out houses and win a Fringe First for its productions of Bent and Marat/Sade.
The next few years saw the Underbelly rapidly grow into one of the most popular venues on the Fringe. Its atmospheric setting in the former bank vaults under George IV Bridge presented performers and public alike with site-specific spaces and a real Fringe experience. The combination of dilapidated crumbling walls, a challenging and often provocative programme of shows and a loyal following of Underbelly regulars drew many, including founder of the Traverse, Richard De Marco, to suggest that it was the first venue in years to sum up the true spirit of the Fringe.
Celebrating its tenth year at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, the Underbelly now encompasses 109 shows across 13 performance spaces in four venues, including, for a fourth year, the E4 Udderbelly, the famous upside down purple cow tent, which finishes its inaugural London season at the Southbank Centre this weekend (See Photos, 28 May 2009), before packing up and heading to Edinburgh, where it grazes in its own Cow Pasture in Bristo Square.
When was your first Edinburgh Fringe & what took you there?
Double Edge Drama was how I met Charlie Wood, my business partner now, who was then a director - a better director than I was an actor. So I performed for a few years at the Pleasance, and then in 2000 we were bringing up some shows with Double Edge Drama, including Bent and Marat/Sade, and I wanted to find a new venue. Charlie had heard about these amazing vaults which had been used by Grid Iron before. I went and had a look at them, spoke to the local council and got permission to use them. Thatís how Underbelly began.
Whatís been your most memorable Fringe experience since then?
How has the Fringe changed since you first attended?
I know some people have a concern that comedy has overtaken theatre, but certainly from the Underbelly point of view, weíve always tried to programme interesting new theatre as well. This year itís pretty much 50-50. Charlie and I both came from a theatre background, and from day one, the Underbelly was very much a venue where weíve tried to put on new theatrical talent and new writing. We only started doing comedy in 2002. Obviously, thatís grown quickly to be a large part of our programme, but itís never been ridiculously off balance. Weíve always tried to keep it roughly equal.
And last year Ė with the Assembly Rooms, Pleasance & Gilded Balloon - you launched the separate Edinburgh Comedy Festival, which drew a lot of criticism. What was the thinking behind it?
None of us have that kind of surplus money - it costs so much to run and programme our venues, and none of us our subsidised - so we need to find investment from a different source. Sponsorship by a commercial organisation is the best route, and we feel the best way of securing that is to put our comedy programme under one banner. It created dissent last year because people initially saw it as a breakaway. But when we stepped in to help the Fringe sort out its box office problems, it became obvious thatís not what weíre about. Weíre just trying to help sell Edinburgh to the wider world and attract new audiences. If that means selling the comedy, which is a main component of the Fringe, then that should be a good thing. Iíve always maintained the belief that it doesnít matter how you get people up to Edinburgh. Whatever hook you use, whether thatís theatre or comedy or the book festival or the TV festival, just get people up there. What Edinburgh benefits from hugely - which is exactly what happened to me - is that people come up for the first time and they fall in love with it and they come back.
Whatís the biggest challenge for the 2009 Fringe?
The Fringe is massive. Thatís only a problem - and this goes back to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival idea - in that it can be difficult to market, because itís got so many different strands, and itís sometimes difficult to navigate once you arrive. But thatís one of its great strengths too. Part of the fun is being besieged by thousands of different artists and performers and performances from all directions. You donít find that anywhere else really.
What are you most looking forward to about the 2009 Fringe?
Weíre also doing some revamps to our original venue, the Underbelly. On Monday and Tuesday of every week, 98% of the shows in Underbelly on Cowgate are selling tickets for just £6.50. Over the last few years especially, ticket prices have increased a lot, mainly because the costs of a production coming up to Edinburgh increase every year. £6.50 was the price of a ticket when we first opened, so itís great that ten years on, we can still offer £6.50 tickets two days a week. I hope it will encourage people to see more and to take risks on new shows they might not have seen otherwise.
Having the London season at the Southbank Centre for the Udderbelly this summer before the Fringe has been really successful. Itís allowed shows that weíre taking to the festival to have a preview, and itís been a helpful in marketing Edinburgh as well. Weíve been distributing Fringe brochures from our London box office and bars. I hope in a little way thatís been a help Ė I think people definitely make the connection. Itís taken us three years to get the cow set up in London, and itís very much the hope that it will become an annual fixture. Weíve got a series of debrief meetings with the Southbank Centre this week and weíre already thinking about 2010. Thatís our aim.
How would you advise keen theatregoers to get the most of the Underbelly programme in Edinburgh?
Whatís your top tip for surviving - and getting the most out of - the festival?
And, beyond the festival, whatís your top Edinburgh city tip?
The 63rd annual Festival Fringe, the worldís largest arts festival, runs this year from 7 to 31 August 2009 and involves an estimated 18,901 performers from over 60 countries presenting 34,265 performances of those shows in 265 venues. For full coverage of Edinburgh 2009, including more countdown interviews as well as news, gossip, reviews, blogs, features and video throughout the festival, go to Whatsonstage.com/Edinburgh2009. And for further details specifically about the Underbelly programme in August, visit www.underbelly.co.uk.