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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
Zoo - A venue director's story - Part One
by Matt Beer
(Matt's Part Two article is here)
Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue management has now dominated the last six years of my life, but the experience didn't exactly come highly recommended.
In August 2002, having decided to form a fairly shambolic theatre company while between universities and recovering from a dash of Lyme Disease, I mentioned in passing to James Mackenzie – manager of our Edinburgh hosts Zoo Venues – that running a venue was next on my ambitions list.
James stared at me with the ashen, haggard face that I now understand to be the standard mid-August venue manager look, grimaced and replied 'you'll need a lot of ****ing money....'
That was something that James, his brother Peter and their close friend Mike Singleton - Zoo's founding triumvirate – certainly didn’t possess. All they had was a desire to progress from sub-letting The Subway Club to other shows when it wasn't needed by the Harland Hamstrings group that they had originally come to Edinburgh with, plus an AA car loan for a car that didn't actually exist, and infinite reserves of bloody-minded stubbornness and determination.
Those assets proved sufficient to rent a building attached to Kirk O'Field Parish Church for the 2002 Festival Fringe. They turned a cosy downstairs room into the beautiful studio theatre now known as the Monkey House, and upstairs opened the cheapest and most gorgeously-lit (James being a lighting designer by trade) cafe on the Edinburgh Fringe. Inspired by the café in Hull where they had spent much of their formative years, they named the venue The Zoo, and christened their company Zoo Venues – the plural being a statement of intent.
These days, tales from that first year are endlessly recounted to new staff members so they approach how humble Zoo Venues' origins were. The Zoo hosted a handful of shows, which were mostly seen by only a handful of people. My cast and a few Scotsman journalists were pretty much the entire clientele of the cafe. The staff was comprised almost entirely of technicians from Hull, who multi-tasked as box office staff, chefs, waiters and press officers. The project was run on a shoestring that was always on the brink of snapping.
Somehow they survived that first year, looked after their companies well enough to gain a positive reputation, and pleased the landlords at the church sufficiently to hang on to the space for 2003.
The initial hurdles conquered, James started to put his plans into action. The under-appreciated café was ditched and the space used for a second studio theatre, doubling Zoo’s capacity and ending the need for the directors to peel potatoes for strangers. Having initially tried to dissuade me from going near venue management, he recruited me as press and marketing manager, on the basis that the paltry audience for my shows had included a reasonable number of journalists. Dedicated box office staff were hired, and technicians were left to concentrate on technical things rather than having to brave the public – which was much healthier for all concerned. The number of shows in the programme rose from single figures to near 20, and a respectable number of people came to see most of them.
If 2003 is fondly remembered as the year Zoo Venues started to really take shape, then 2004 is the year that we all want to erase from our memories forever. We justified our plural by opening a cabaret venue above a pub, which proved to be thoroughly unsuitable and an abject disaster. Doubling the size of our programme while only taking on two extra members of staff wasn’t too wise, and difficulties achieving the right level of co-operative with the pub staff, plus the number of compromises required to try and turn the pub into a performance space, and the fact that it was in a phone and internet black spot so effectively marooned from the management office at The Zoo, didn’t help.
To add to the misery, it rained excessively even by Edinburgh standards, to the extent that underground water levels caused the floor of The Zoo to buckle. Audiences were down, our programme didn’t catch the imagination of the press, and misery reigned in the office.
But while we were pondering hurling ourselves from the top of the building, it turned out things had gone rather better than we had realised. In between wringing our hands in frustration over the pub, we’d managed to keep the Zoo companies happy enough to get very promising ratings in the Fringe’s feedback survey. That meant a rush of high quality applications for 2005, when we decided it was time to go back to basics and focus on making The Zoo as good as it could possibly be.
It was the rebuilding year that we needed, and led to our big breakthrough. Our slimmed down programme was much more successful, and that winter Komedia – who were reducing their three-venue operation to focus solely on Aurora Nova - asked if we would like to take over their spaces at Southside Community Centre.
Zoo Southside, as it became, was not only a convenient two minute walk from The Zoo, but gave us three new and distinct spaces in one go: a Cabaret Bar in the building's café, a third studio space, and most importantly the majestic 240-seater Main House. We could probably have filled this space with musicals and made a healthy profit, but James had a different vision - deciding that the Main House would become our centre for high quality international dance and physical theatre.
He then pulled off the critical feat of convincing Scottish Dance Theatre to come on board, both bringing a show and providing assistance with programming. Their presence gave Zoo Southside not only an outstanding headline act, but the artistic respectability that encouraged others to join our dance and physical theatre project.
Ever since then, interest in our dance programme has skyrocketed – to the extent that this year we were spoilt for choice and simply ran out of space to accommodate all the applications from companies we wanted. In week two, we'll be offering non-stop dance from 10am to midnight in the Main House, and several companies have re-worked their piece for studio spaces because they were so determined to be part of our programme even if they couldn’t get in the Main House.
Meanwhile the other four spaces are also jam-packed with new writing, classic drama, a steadily growing children's programme (one of our main targets for future expansion), plus a smattering of comedy and magic.
The days when almost everything about Zoo Venues could be measured in single figures are long gone: this year (2008) we will host around 1,000 performances of 53 separate shows, and have recruited around 30 temporary staff to join the core year-round management sextet of James, Mike, Peter, myself, our box office manager Mina Nakamura and technical manager Matt Evans.
2007 saw a total audience tally of approximately 23,000 people over the three weeks, and with advance sales up a very pleasing 122% over last year at this point, we’re feeling cautiously optimistic – although there is no room for complacency.
The challenge now is to keep growing without losing what we feel makes us special. The aim is to offer the excitement and buzz of being part of a large venue, while retaining a close-knit, 'family' atmosphere amongst our staff and our companies. Attracting bigger, higher-profile acts is fantastic and we're keen to have more of them, but we’ve also ach'eved great success with performers who came to Edinburgh as absolute unknowns and having never performed outside their local area, yet managed to sell-out and get great reviews with Zoo.
It’s that incredible variety of genres, performers and levels of experience, budget and ambition that makes running an Edinburgh Fringe venue so satisfying - and keeps us so busy in the build-up.
We're normally planning a full year ahead, so for instance we've already had approaches regarding 2009 slots and will get a lot more when the Festival starts. Programme really starts in earnest around the time of the Fringe Roadshows in February, though.
Although we're now on an even keel financially and spend far less time weeping over the bank balance than we did in our formative years, we all need to sustain separate careers around our venue commitments to avoid homelessness and starvation. Several of our key staff work in education so have well-timed Easter and summer holidays, others freelance (in my slightly incongruous case, as a sub-editor for motorsport websites, while James slots his lighting design and technician commitments around peak Edinburgh preparation times), and some just have particularly understanding employers willing to let them escape for a less-than-relaxing summer 'break' in Edinburgh. That also means we're scattered all over the country until August, with the core of the management now based in Hereford, but Peter still in Hull and me running the press office from our south-western outpost in Totnes, Devon.
So as the avalanche of applications pours in during the spring, it's down to James to juggle the schedule and make most of the decisions on who to pick and how much venue rent (in the form of a guarantee sum payable up front, with any sales over this amount split 60/40 in the performers’ favour) to charge. Last year one awards judge complimented us on our 'curatorial eye', and indeed when scheduling we try to aim for high artistic standards, but with a healthy dose of pragmatism.
We want to have a reputation for high quality work, our venues to be busy, and we want to generate as much of a crossover audience as possible. Few go to the Fringe simply to enjoy one niche genre, and we have to capitalise on people’s desire for new experiences. We heavily encourage shows to cross-promote to each other so that audiences who come for comedy or magic suddenly feel the need to check out dance, or vice versa. We need to make sure that we have enough accessible shows for a casual audience who might not consider themselves the theatre-goers between September and July. So the programming months see curatorial ambitions tempered by commercial reality. Will the press like it? Will it sell tickets? Will we like it? Two of the three will normally suffice.
It's the ideas and concepts that we go for, so equal priority is given to shows that supply preview DVDs and full-length scripts, and companies who might not even write their show until July, but who can convincingly encapsulate their plans on an application form. A great idea doesn’t always need a lengthy explanation.
As soon as each company is confirmed, they are handed over to me so I can put their Fringe programme entry together on their behalf and start advising them on their press campaigns, and to my technical counterpart Matt Evans, who has the more arduous task of accommodating as many of the performers' technical requests as possible within the limitations of our temporary spaces.
We have to always bear in mind that while some of our performers are Fringe veterans, for others this will be completely and utterly new and terrifying. There really is no such thing as a stupid question for a Fringe debutant to ask, for this event is so much more competitive and convoluted than any other. So from April to July, we alternate between trying to achieve the nearly impossible for the more ambitious shows, and reassuring the more tentative and inexperienced that everything will be just fine and we’ll be right there behind them.
With a small team and so much to do, job titles can get rather stretched. In my case 'press and marketing' means not only liaising with journalists, overseeing artwork, press releases and programme copy, organising our street distribution team, and negotiating discounted advertising space, but recruiting bar staff, buying tablecloths, working out if we can fit 6,500 pieces of luxury chocolate, 54 shows' posters and flyers, and a lot of alcohol (for the bar, not the staff) in a single portacabin, booking the cheapest train tickets possible for the 28 of us not travelling up in the equipment vans (and then collecting all the tickets in one lengthy early morning trip to Totnes station's fast ticket machine), and constructing scale models of all the display spaces at both venues so I can create a poster allocation masterplan that gives everyone equal prominence. A borderline-psychotic level of attention to detail is a pre-requisite for this job, as is a willingness to go without a day off from Easter to the start of September.
That may not sound logical, especially as we're not even making a full living from it. But when you walk through a packed and bustling venue full of successful and critically-respected shows, and reflect on how far we’ve come with minimal financial resources, it really is worth every sleepless night spent frowning at a sales spreadsheet, a show planner, or a programme copy form. And there have been a lot of those nights already, with many more to come.
In Part Two in a fortnight's time: The 'now or never' fortnight of final preparations, getting the temporary staff up to speed, and unhealthy obsessing over sales projections.
(c) Matt Beer 7 July 08
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