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On being fringe-y
Greetings from the Transpeak service to Buxton!
Well, I’m currently typing this from the back seat of a bus filled with the outdoor-voiced elderly of Derbyshire, but I’ll probably schedule the newsletter for release when I’m travelling again this weekend. It’s my ‘knee-deep in festivals’ era, as the trendy people of Twitter might say.
Actually, summers tend to see me knee-deep in festivals. Not Glastonbury, mind; I can think of nothing worse than having merry, mud-caked Brits hurling bottles of piss at Dua Lipa (or whatever). I mean the fringe theatre festivals that have shaped my life for almost 15 years.
I’ll be performing the last show in my Buxton Fringe run of I Was A Teenage Bisexual, the thing for which I was recently awarded Develop Your Creative Practice funding from the Arts Council. It’s a truth universally ignored by gatekeepers that money is a huge factor in creative practice. Before anyone feels their inner Twitter Reply Guy emerging: yes, I know what it means to be creative on a shoestring and yes, necessity is often the mother of invention. But fruitless toiling is often the child of scant opportunity (or something). In short: artists need money to make work.
This Arts Council funding marks the first time I’ve ever had funding for a project, and it’s intended solely for my development. I had this vague but ambitious idea but needed guidance, resources and —most importantly for me, always— time in which to develop and combine my skill set in order to realise it. Part of the funding is going towards tickets, travel and accommodation costs for storytelling festivals (such as Festival at the Edge, a day before my Buxton performance). Part of it is for workshops and feedback sessions; learning from other artists also requires paying them, because no artist can pay the bills with work ethic and gumption alone, regardless of what clueless romantics might try to sell you.
Every time I return to Buxton (in the Peak District, for those who don’t know the place), I feel a pang. Mostly, I miss the company of my Off-Off-Off-Broadway Company cohorts, with whom I’ve taken many a show to the annual festival.
But I also feel a warming gratitude for what it gave me: Buxton Fringe became an unexpected lifeline when, as an unpaid but much-exploited film graduate, I was asked by my pal to write and direct him in a one-man show. That’s how our group was formed, on a phone call during the most desperately hopeless period of my life. Making small-scale fringe theatre with my friends became a way for me to channel my creativity in a relatively inexpensive way — and even though it does cost money to do fringe festivals (let’s not start on the increasing extortion of Edinburgh), I like getting to present my work in this way. Especially during that otherwise-bleak time when I first started doing it, doing fringe felt like a way to take control of our creative careers; ‘Nobody’s giving us work, so let’s make our own.’
Though we’ve since won awards and sold out a number of performances across the land (you have to say this sort of things, because people respond well to success stories and think being a loser is contagious, or something), it remains a graft. To be frank, it’s a downright struggle. So many of us spend our precious free time around day jobs simply trying to get the word out about our other work, be these books or shows, records, etc. And usually, this involves battling either apathy from the doomscrollers or the interference of algorithms constantly prioritising shirtless white men with abs or Barbenheimer memes.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking ‘Mr Fox’ to Edinburgh Fringe. Even though it’s an award-winning show that audiences have loved (see previous humblebrag), I know that the battle is filling those seats in the first place. Sleepless nights due to waking nightmares about empty theatres is not exactly inducive to making art. Much as we may love it, us fringe-theatre types can’t do it for love alone. Nor should we be expected to.
Someone recently DMed me on Twitter to ask how I got into writing books. The answer is simple: babes and money. OK, real answer: love and poverty. I’ve always written, and even wrote novels before and during my film degree. But the truth is that writing novels was the cheapest way for me to be creative, and make work on my terms, in my own time. The fact that, after years of failed attempts, some of them went on to be published was an unexpected bonus. Whether their being published means anything more than they’re now available for a handful of interested strangers to read… let’s not go there.
It’s not lost on me that one of the shows I’m about to catch is an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the iconic essay in which Woolf argues that earning a living from writing is a luxury of the privileged. She was talking about the privilege of being a man, at least the comfortable ones who have historically had the time and space to develop their creative practice.
Some people get it. Strike A Light recently offered a brilliant opportunity to ‘let artists be artists’. More of this would allow so many creatives to make work and, crucially, for a wider variety of voices to be heard.
Even as I write my current book, I’m caught between two incessant questions: ‘Is this good enough?’ and ‘Will the result be worth my efforts?’ I know that the answer to both is probably no, because books don’t really make money even when they are published, and nothing is ever going to be ‘good enough’. And I’m disturbed to find myself increasingly thinking of my creative output as something that should have some quanitifable value. When what I want to live by is this, from Virginia herself:
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”
Why I do any of it — the writing, the fringe festivals — I don’t know. But it sure beats going to Glastonbury.