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Will Edinburgh continue to be a marketplace for European theatre?

Tuesday 19 September 2017, Lyn Gardner, Britisgh

'Acclaimed companies from Europe, such as Ontroerend Goed and Aurora Nova, have built their international reputations at the Edinburgh Fringe. Producers from Belgium, Germany, Finland and the Czech Republic tell Lyn Gardner why the Fringe is a crucial date for them – and whether they will continue to head there after Brexit.

"Look at this," says David Bauwens, the producer of Flemish company Ontroerend Goed, and one of the forces behind the Big in Belgium platform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He waves his arm around the Summerhall courtyard on a sunny lunchtime in the last week of the Fringe. "This little square is one of the tightest theatre networking spaces in the world. Over the last 20 minutes I've met three directors of the biggest arts festivals in the world. It's one of the reasons for being in Edinburgh in August."

Bauwens should know. When he first brought Ontroerend Goed to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, with a groundbreaking show called The Smile Off Your Face, few had heard of the company outside of Flanders. But Bauwens understood that if the company wanted to grow and allow director Alexander Devrienot to make the work that he wanted to make, then touring Flanders and the Netherlands was not a sufficiently big stage. He had to find international co-producers. This would mean the company could tour to big cities around the world, reaching more audiences and enabling the team to work all year round.

Bauwens didn't know for certain that the Edinburgh Fringe would do that for Ontroerend Goed, but he had a hunch that it might. He was right.

"In the three years after first coming to the Fringe we went from a company that not many people knew about, even in Flanders, to a company that everyone knew. By the third year when Internal was on here during August, the show we brought in the second year – Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen – was on a world tour." Bauwens and the company also built crucial relationships with UK producer Richard Jordan and the Theatre Royal in Plymouth that helped to facilitate its development as a player on the international stage.

Bauwens started to get calls from other Flemish companies eager to see whether the Edinburgh Fringe could do for them what it had done for Ontroerend Goed. In 2013 Big in Belgium was born, a platform of shows created by independent companies and supported by the Flemish government. It has presented many successes that have gone on to tour internationally, including last year's hit Us/Them – Bronks's piece about the Beslan siege – that got a transfer to the National Theatre.

International companies arriving in Edinburgh for the first time may find themselves working in pressured conditions and some are puzzled to discover that they have to not just perform the show, but sell it in a crowded marketplace. However, if they get it right, the benefits are huge.

"Yes, we could go elsewhere such as the New York Fringe", says Bauwens "but it would cost more and give the work less visibility."

Bauwens is not alone in seeing the advantages of bringing shows to the Edinburgh Fringe. Despite the uncertainties of Brexit, international participation in the Fringe was up by 30% this year. Chief Executive Shona McCarthy celebrates the festival as "the biggest platform for creative freedom on the planet", pointing out that "our original founding principle was open access, a space where anyone who had a voice could use that space."

Berlin-based Wolfgang Hoffmann has been doing that since 1999 with Aurora Nova at St Stephen's, a well known Fringe venue. He not only upped the amount of European work on stages during the festival but also made the Fringe a destination for those interested in physical and dance based work. Hoffmann no longer runs a venue but he has a significant presence at the Fringe with his company, which is still called Aurora Nova. He's both a presenter of international work – it was Hoffmann who first brought the work of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour to worldwide attention with White Rabbit, Red Rabbit  – and also a producer on the look-out for shows and companies who he can develop work with for international touring.

"For Aurora Nova, Edinburgh is definitely the most important showcase platform in the year in terms of presenting work, because often the conversations that you have with people here are more fruitful and result in more tours, but it's also a place for finding shows." He saw Australian circus company Gravity and Other Myths's piece, A Simple Space, in Edinburgh in 2013, made an offer to take them on, asked every producer he knew to see it in the final few days. and succeeded in booking a 100-date international tour for the company in their first year.

That’s the potential power of the Fringe, but it’s not all about booking multi-date international tours. For many international companies, the Fringe provides an opportunity to raise the profile of its performance offering.  The Czech Showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe began back in 2008 and producer Tereza Porybna thinks that it has been invaluable. This isn’t just because it connects work by Czech artists to international programmers, but also because when the work returns home with great reviews and awards, it creates pride and excitement in the Czech Republic and gets a higher profile.  

“It’s not just that the Czech Showcase at the Fringe makes Czech theatre better known in the UK or on the international stage, it makes it more appreciated back home too, “ says Porybna.

Even the prospect of Brexit doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm for continuing to showcase Czech theatre in Edinburgh.

“It may make things more difficult, but in terms of our goals it doesn’t make a difference. We will continue to come if we can, and we will continue to operate as a cultural institute in the UK. We will work hard to make Britain part of Europe culturally. Paradoxically you sometimes start to appreciate things more when you are losing them.”

Porybna points to the fact that in the past Czech companies have sometimes found large British cultural institutions unapproachable, but she has recently noticed a greater willingness to engage, perhaps because they are more aware of the need to foster links with Europe as Brexit approaches.

“I like to think that the next few years will be inspiring and interesting, and that while some things will be lost by the UK leaving the EU there are possibilities for cultural links and a harnessing of all that energy and anger felt by those in the arts.”

Hongjia Qi, producer with the Start to Finnish showcase, which has been a presence on the Edinburgh Fringe since 2010, agrees that while Brexit will inevitably pose challenges, it adds to the arguments about why Finland with its thriving theatre culture, both amateur and professional, will want to retain its links to UK arts and particularly its presence on the Edinburgh Fringe. In fact the showcase is already considering work for next year’s edition.

“When we first considered looking for a platform for our showcase we looked at other places besides Edinburgh, including Avignon and Adelaide. But the advantages of Edinburgh in terms of costs, being English-speaking and close to Finland were evident and it has delivered for us. In the first three years of the showcase it resulted in tours of England, Germany and China as well as invitations to international festivals. There is no reason why it shouldn’t continue because post-Brexit there feels more of a need to keep the conversation going.”

Like Porybna, Qi thinks that frustrations around Brexit felt by artists in the UK and in Europe may actually make dialogue more proactive and collaborations stronger.

One of the issues that international producers raised with me in Edinburgh over and over was the lack of clarity around what Brexit will mean for those trying to collaborate with UK organisations, tour here or bring work to the Edinburgh Fringe – particularly in terms of mobility, visa applications, work permits, tax issues and touring costs.

At the moment nobody knows the answer to these questions, but everyone I spoke to was adamant that the two-way traffic between the arts in the UK and Europe – of which the Edinburgh Fringe is such a significant part – has benefits, both cultural and economic, for all parties.

“I know that to be the case,” says Hoffmann, “and I also know the Edinburgh Fringe is the place where the UK market and the global market intersects. I’ve built my business internationally off the back of Edinburgh. The fact that it has been a work permit free festival which makes it easy to come here has helped its growth enormously. That’s worth preserving. If after Brexit, the rules were changed, it would cut off access to the festival and slam a door on the rest of the world. I don’t think it will happen, but if it did it would be truly tragic.”

Lyn Gardner is Theatre Critic for The Guardian, Associate Editor of The Stage and an author of children’s books. @lyngardner

Watch Lyn Gardner on Facebook Live as she discusses what's happening in UK theatre and dance from the Edinburgh Festivals, with Laura Cameron-Lewis and Andrew Jones.

This feature is part of Culture after Brexit – a conversation, curated by the British Council, about the future of the cultural relationship between the UK and the European Union after Britain exits the EU. To this conversation we will invite journalists, artists, arts professionals and policy makers to join a robust discussion about what Brexit means for the creative and cultural industries, and what a new post-Brexit cultural relationship could, and should, look like.'

Read the article on British Council website here.