Each summer, while the rest of the world thinks about beaches, beer, and baloney sandwiches, the fair city of Edinburgh turns its mind to more stimulating matters. Maybe it’s the weather—unseasonably wet—maybe it’s the whiskey—always hot—whatever it is, it’s not to be missed. This is a festival in the true sense of the word, a ‘feast’ival’ so to speak, and there are dishes here to suit every palette.
For example, it’s around 2pm on Friday afternoon when I arrive, and already 60% of the shows that day are sold out. "Don’t worry," I’m told. "Go see something else, anything else; you’ll still have a good time. Then come back tomorrow, early, and see what you want." I wanted Emo Philips—weird I know—yet he appeals to my Anglo Saxon sensibilities. But my friendly ticket vendor was right, I saw two shows at random instead, and neither disappointed.
To make things clear, the Edinburgh Festival proper embraces all the arts: there are special exhibitions of painting and sculpture at Edinburgh’s two fine galleries, while opera, drama, dance, and poetry are dotted about the established concert halls and theatres of the city. And then there’s the Fringe, an eclectic collection of performances staged anywhere possible, and feeding off the ready-made audience already attracted to the city.
If there is a problem with the Fringe Festival, which is what this article will focus upon, then it’s sheer overload. With such a huge agglomeration of talent, it’s simply not possible to see it all. And, I was surprised to discover, there are many recognizable faces from the US here. I just wonder, where else in the world can you see Joan Rivers in a room that seats less than a thousand? Similarly, Rich Hall (winner of last year’s coveted Perrier Award) and Margaret Cho perform in even more diminutive rooms.
In fact most of the Fringe venues—and they run into hundreds if you include the unofficial sites—hover below the 500 capacity mark. It’s not unknown for performances to take place in laundromats and storefront windows; such is the clamor for space. And therein lies the challenge of the Fringe; somewhere in this melee of talent is a group of people trying to attach some sense of professionalism to the performances.
Sebastian Frost from Orbital Sound is a London-based sound designer better known for his work in West End theatres, but has been coming here for nine years. "I started at the Pleasance in 1992," he explains. The Pleasance, a temporary extension of Christopher Richardson’s Pleasance in London, is one of the four core Fringe venues. "It’s a collection of 27 performance areas spread over four sites," explains Frost, "and it’s typical Fringe. When I first came here, there were six performance rooms here on the main Courtyard site; now that’s grown to 10, and we’re still looking for more rooms." Frost is responsible for all things audio at all the venues. "It’s all very basic: what we are doing is making it simple but as effective as possible," he adds.
Sebastian Frost (in black shirt)
Which makes perfect sense when theatre consultant Dan Watkins from V Group Creative Management, who for want of a better term oversees all aspects of production across all the Pleasance venues, explains the primary drive behind production: "Its time," he says. "The Fringe runs just over four weeks. For the main Pleasance buildings, we start technical load-in on the Saturday, rehearsals start two days later, and final inspection from the fire and health and safety authorities will be at the same time, with a view to opening Wednesday."
Dan Watkins at the Courtyard ticket booth (blacked-out sections indicate sold-out shows that day).
Frankly, from the outside it looks like total chaos; the Friday I arrived was just two days into the previews (the official opening is Saturday, but demand is so high that all previews tend to be sold out), and it was hard to imagine that all the disparate demands of so many stages could be serviced properly in such a compressed time frame.
Frost singles out a typical install: "In detail, most stages have somewhere between two and 20 mics (all Shure SM58s) with a simple left-right PA, no delays, and small-frame mixers (Soundcraft Spirit). Playback machines used to be cassette, but we’re now weaning them onto CD and minidisk."
The demand on the systems is varied; style of performance can range from single standup comic to dance troupe to full-blown theatrical show. And that doesn’t even include the truly weird and wonderful. Last year at the nearby Assembly Rooms, one of the other main Fringe venues, a man performed naked with an iron hanging from his scrotum. (This was comedy, apparently. Funny? Maybe. It certainly brings tears to the eyes.)
But I digress. Sound and lighting are operated by a "volunteer staff," as Frost would have it. "We just put it in, give some training, and leave them to it," he says—hence the simple systems. "But quality, reliability, and clarity are essential." Which gives Frost a slight conundrum, "Sometimes the levels are low, and the input simple, sometimes it needs to be loud, even rock-and-roll levels, so you have to provide a system that can do both, and do it well."
The choice of systems is surprisingly consistent. I visited three of the main Fringe sites and looked at over 30 stages therein, talking to the two pro-audio suppliers responsible. Both installed pretty much the same kit, "about 85% d&b speakers, a bit of EV, and one or two others," according to Frost. Desks were the same, he adds: "Soundcraft, and the odd Midas here and there."
When you consider that the Assembly Rooms stage over 60 performances a week for four weeks to a potential 100,000 people, and the Pleasance venues are easily three times that on both counts, you can begin to grapple with the scale of just what's going on here. It might be a diffuse situation, but these two companies, Orbital (a leading West End Theatre supplier) and Delta, (a company of similar stature more oriented towards the special event and corporate market), are between them covering for an astonishing variety of heavy demands
"We’ve basically built 27 venues in two weeks," continues Watkins. "We do have to deal with some unreasonable expectations," adds Frost. "During the lead up, as procedure we contact all the acts ahead of the run to get their audio requirements. Sometimes you get acts who want to use radio mics, not knowing they’re going to be on a stage just 10' wide. Even on bigger stages, it’s simply not realistic to re-EQ the system just for them, even if they bring their own radios." And why should that be? "The shows start at 10 most mornings, changeover every hour, and run until one or two o’clock the following morning, sometimes as late as three."
t’s a punishing schedule, but Frost has chosen well. "The kits are well prepared at Orbital before shipping up to Scotland. The d&b stuff especially has never let us down; it’s well protected, and is one of the few systems that performs exceptionally well with both speech and music source material."
It’s a similar story for lighting, tending to the basic; the requirement is to be well lit. Stage light is not so much designed, as generically well illuminated. Blacklight provided all equipment for the Pleasance venues apart from those on the University campus, where the students union provides a fair bit from its own stock.
Stage Electrics provided lighting for the eight stages at the Assembly Rooms. As with audio, the install follows the same routine: a group of professionals come with the gear to do the fit-up, and then volunteers take over the operating on a day-to-day basis. Ian Nichols, LD for all stages at the Assembly Rooms, explains his choice: "No moving heads at all. I keep it really simple, but we do try new stuff. For years we’ve put in Strand—the desks still are, but this year as well as truckloads of Strand lights, we’re trying out a bunch of new stuff from Selecon in New Zealand, the Acclaim range. They’re excellent. Otherwise it’s mainly 650W and 1,200W fresnels, and a variety of profiles and not many PARs."
Desks are similarly varied, Nichols adds: "I’ve got a pair of Strand 300s, two GSXs, and we’re trying out a couple of the new Fat Frogs from Zero 88, which so far seem to be OK. This festival is a great soak test for new gear."
Like Orbital down the road, Stage Electrics sends out questionnaires to the performers ahead of the festival. "Some companies do like to hire in extra lights, but most find what we provide as standard covers most things. Contacting them ahead of time is probably my biggest job," Nichols adds a bit ruefully. Sitting watching a rehearsal of Antigone, performed in the native tongue of the Georgian (as in Russian) cast, it was easy to imagine the difficulty of Nichols’ task.
In the Pleasance, LD Jono Kenyon has a broader lighting selection; over the P1 stage I saw Vari*Lite VL5s and Martin Mac 500s, "This is the largest room and as such has greater demands," he explains. "The need for something that can change color and re-position is essential. For this length of run it makes far more sense to use a full color-changing lamp than the hassle of dealing with color scrollers and re-focusing up a ladder. There tends to be less need for maintenance." P1 apart, most other stages in the Pleasance complex tend to conform to the same generic principals as outlined by Nicholas above. The only exception is the production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, staged across the road in the Pleasance Chapel, which boasted completely self-contained, totally subcontracted lights and sound.
Sound for the Assembly Rooms stages is essentially the same as for the Pleasance; Tristian Bickerton is the man responsible for the Delta sound installation. "The smallest room seats just under 100, the largest 750. I allow roughly 20 channels for each, a Midas Heritage 1000 desk in one, and a bunch of Soundcraft K1s for the others. The PA is all d&b systems, E3, E9, and C6s, with a pair of EAW JF200s in the smallest room; the design for each room is put together by myself and Olaf Mackenzie." Mackenzie is audio production manager at the Assembly Rooms for the Festival. While Bickerton, like Frost, heads home once the install is safely bedded in, Mackenzie stays and runs the operation.
(left to right): Ian Nichols, Olaf MacKenzie, and Tristan Nichols
"Turning the building into something is the big challenge for me," said Mackenzie. "The Assembly Rooms is absolutely feature-free, just walls and floors." That’s a bit of an understatement; it’s an elaborate two–story Romanesque public meeting hall built by the Victorians. "We erect false walls, install seating, and build the stages." (All the false walls are lovingly matched to the existing Victorian plaster detailed cornicing and coving). "Forty-five shows are rehearsed, teched, and set in just six days; we peak at 68 shows in one week." It’s a breathtaking schedule, and places high demands on all involved. The Assembly Rooms technical director, New Zealander David Inns, explains just how they pull it off: "You have to keep high-quality staff on the job, that’s critical. We do try to introduce new people, maybe in the third man position, and you do have to move people along, develop their skills. Most will work an eight–hour shift; we split them into two teams to run 10 in the morning to one the following morning. We make it as comfortable for the technicians as possible and provide good accommodation for them all."
I discovered a similar concern toward technicians at the other venues; Mandy Castile is production manager at another Pleasance site on the University Campus. "We hire basically 100 crew, and we’re oversubscribed fourfold," she says. "I interview them all, selecting the person first, rather than their technical ability. Technical you can teach, personality is built-in. I need people who are not precious, can mix a show at midnight, and then clear up some punter’s puke afterwards. So we look after them very well. Monitoring the crew and making sure they’re happy is one of my most important jobs."
Castile is big on making psychology work for her and has some useful insights that could be applied almost anywhere. "The safety authorities inspect at random here every week. They will tolerate mistakes at the time, maybe some overcrowding for example, but you’d better make sure you’ve fixed it by the next visit. We take positive steps to involve the safety people; if we have difficult or unusual shows coming in, we ask their advice on how to deal with it. That flatters their knowledge, saves us a lot of time, and is good psychology for all concerned."
That’s arguably the most important skill at the Fringe, finding what’s "good for all concerned." Without the immense amount of forward planning put in by the likes of Nichols and Frost, it would be easy for this event to descend into a maelstrom. But it doesn’t. Everything I saw and heard looked great, and sounded even better. Much of that is down to choosing the right equipment and setting it up properly, but there’s a big contribution from those unsung volunteers. With so many stages and productions in progress, it’s simply not possible to do justice to them all, but one thing you can say; after such total immersion training compressed into four weeks: these people are probably some of the most experienced and employable in the business.
Photos: Steve Moles