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Stella Duffy On ... The Cost of Producing Work on the Fringe

Stella Duffy may be best known for the twelve novels, over forty short stories and eight plays she has written, but she is also an associate artist with Improbable, most recently having been part of the team behind Lifegame at the Lyric Hammersmith and Bristol Old Vic in November. She is also a performer and has been a member of improvised comedy company Spontaneous Combustion since 1988. 

As a director, Stella's recent work includes Cell Sell at the Soho Theatre for the NYT, The Seduction of Ms Sarah Hart at The Oval for Kindred Spirits as well as Skin Tight (Pleasance & Riverside), Kikia to Poa (Pacific Playhouse) and Precious Things (Pacific Playhouse) all for Shaky Isles Theatre. Her solo show Breaststrokes was Time Out and Guardian Critic’s Choice.

Stella, who spent her childhood in New Zealand before returning to the UK, now embarks on her forth play with Shaky Isles, a company whose name is drawn for a nickname for New Zealand and which looks to give the country's writing a platform in the UK and abroad.

Stella directs Allen O'Leary's My Inner Orc which opens at the Pleasance Theatre on Wednesday 13 October for a limited run until 24 October 2010.

I first started making work on the London fringe almost twenty five years ago. Then, as now, we rehearsed in borrowed spaces, worked around paid work to fund our shows, and we mostly made money for our efforts. Not quite a weekly wage, but a good enough chunk to make us feel it had been worthwhile, financially as well as artistically. These past two months I’ve been doing the same, working for the fourth time with Shaky Isles, a company dedicated to presenting New Zealand writing to a wider audience.  We’ve had the enormous good fortune of donated rehearsal space.  We’ve worked around the cast’s paid jobs, some of them in other acting work, others working in production for two of our major theatre companies, others in ‘proper’ jobs. It’s a company of thirteen and we open our magical-comical farce this Wednesday at the Pleasance.

So far, so much like the old days of fringe and making work without funding, purely because we believed in it, because it was about the craft and not the mortgage. But the real difference is that twenty-five, or even just fifteen years ago, the venue was on a door split. The company made the piece, the venue provided the space and some equipment, occasionally they even organized a little publicity, then the company took 70% and the venue 30%. Now the companies still do all the work to make the piece, the venues provide the same as they ever did – and they charge a fee, a thousand pounds a week, or more. Often, this fee isn’t for the venue as a whole, it’s for a slot, with venues renting out their stage space during the day, booking a 7.30pm show in the same space, and perhaps even squeezing in a late night show on at 10pm.

I have no problem with venues charging, the owners are not in it for the art any more (it’s dubious they ever were), they’re running a business. All well and good. And I accept that venues often pay big rents themselves, so it makes sense to get in more than one show a night – though this means we’re developing a year-round Edinburgh-festival ethos of getting in short shows with little or no set, minimal lighting and a quick turnaround, so few companies are attempting anything really big any more. And yes, we can all make work in the empty space, but that should be a choice, not a necessity imposed by the venue’s scheduling.

But … in a time where the arts are facing even less funding  (and how many truly fringe companies are regularly funded anyway?), when fringe venues are all about the cash, when subsidized theatres are top-heavy with literary departments who prefer to commission individual writers rather than companies with a company ethos and a company way of working, where will the new Complicité, Improbable or Told by an Idiot come from? Yes, there are companies using ‘found’ spaces, but too many found-space companies are all about the physical and the space, and in the process are throwing the baby of story out with the bathwater of the proscenium arch.

So: no money, narrative theatre in serious danger, and hoardes of young and not-so-young companies wanting to make work, share work, with venues charging them an arm and a leg to rent a room for three hours. Charging them, in fact, about as much as it now costs to make a short film. No wonder so many theatre-makers are becoming film-makers.  Film’s gain is theatre’s serious loss.

My Inner Orc runs at the Pleasance Theatre from 13 October until 24 October 2010.


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