Why You Should Come to Edinburgh Fringe 2018 with Pleasance Theatre's Anthony Alderson

Why new voices are the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe: A discussion with Anthony Alderson, Artistic Director of Pleasance Theatre

The Fringe is nearly over for 2017, but before you pack away your Fringe programme, here’s a chat with the Pleasance’s Artistic Director Anthony Alderson, where he explains why you must absolutely come to the Fringe in 2018…  

Nobody’s doing it the “right” way. Nobody’s play is the “best” one. Or saying that’s the only way to do it, that’s not the way to do it. That’s not what this is about.
Anthony Alderson
Artistic Director, Pleasance

How did you come to work at Pleasance?

Like most people in this industry, I think, I got here by accident. My brother worked at Pleasance in its first year, and the founder of Pleasance was a school teacher where I went to school. I lived in Edinburgh, grew up here. My brother worked here when it was only 2 theatres and 11 shows. But it was still a very exciting place to be and I loved the theatre. I completely fell in love with theatre when I was little and I knew that was what I wanted to do. There’s a note from my dad to say, “Yes, he’s 16 and has my permission to work, so long as you don’t let him drink.” I did a bit of everything then – a bit of crew, box office, front of house. It was a very small team. And it was really a family thing. I don’t think it’s a case of sticking around long enough until they put you in charge – at least I hope it’s not. I progressed to Stage Manager, Production Manager, went off and did lots of other things, went to drama school. Realised pretty quickly that what I didn’t want to do was be a Stage Manager. So, I became a carpenter. I was a scenery builder. I think it’s true of anybody in this industry that you need a trade. Something to sit alongside the other work, because it’s not always going to be there. Every now and again, you need to get the tools out again.

I did lots of touring work, worked and travelled for 8 years all over the world, in loads of different theatres. I met thousands of people. I think that love of meeting people and the international flavour of it has stuck. I became the Associate Producer for ‘Stomp’. Met this huge network of promoters working on large scale commercial theatre, and we realised it is a small world – a very tight knit group of people. Then Christopher who I’ve known since I was a boy said he was standing down [as Artistic Director of Pleasance] and asked if I would consider doing it. At the start I wasn’t interested, I didn’t want to come back. But there’s something about doing 16 weeks of touring that made me think, “Actually I want to settle down.” 

I think it’s true of anybody in this industry that you need a trade. Something to sit alongside the other work, because it’s not always going to be there. Every now and again, you need to get the tools out again.
Anthony Alderson
Artistic Director, Pleasance

What made you want to return to the Fringe over more commercial work?

I wasn’t interested so much in the commercial stuff– I worked with those companies and enjoyed it, but there’s something about this world of new writing, the risk-taking, the bright ideas. Again, it came back to the people. There’s such an incredible energy here. I love the fact that you meet the same people as if you’ve just gotten up from the table and you come back in August and sit back down at the table. The Pleasance is a platform, it is here for people to take their ideas and try to give them some life, a step up, whatever it is. This is absolutely at our core. That person might be at the box office, they might be on stage, they might be crew – you look at festivals all over the world and you will find Pleasance t-shirts at all of them. There’s something about the spirit of this place. The important thing to me is that success isn’t measured by the number of tickets sold. Yes, we are the largest venue, but success should be measured by the people who come out the other side of it. Performers get a chance to perform for 27 straight performances – it’s incredible what that does.

Do you think there’s a certain quality that is common to the productions you see at Pleasance? What is it that attracts you to a piece of new writing?

We love scripts and we love words, and I like invention. Shows with simplicity about them. My favourite pieces this year, like Flesh & Bone – well, that’s only 3 props. Just that sense of adventure. They have to move you. This is the world’s greatest pressure valve, where we as a society get to look at each other, look back at ourselves, re-examine what the hell we are doing and sit back a little taller. Those are the things that make me passionate, and excite me.

What advice would you give to those coming to the Fringe in terms of making the most of their time here?

Do something you believe in. I think it’s very difficult for young actors, as we don’t have the rep system any more – there are small places, but otherwise it’s gone. You have to create your own luck. There’s no point sitting by the phone, you’ve got to get out there. We haven’t worked out how to support journalism in the arts, so it’s more difficult for your profile to be exposed. Therefore, you’ve got to find another way. Learn how to do Twitter, Facebook, Instagram - learn all the social media skills, because you need them. Find yourself a one-woman or one-man piece that you can roll out when you need it. Find that trade. Things that you can do in your down time. Find groups of people that allow you to stay ‘match fit’ – why don’t we do more readings? Why aren’t we reading more plays? Actors can stay sharp, be introduced to new texts – there should be readings all the time, in a room with other actors.

As soon as you create those opportunities, what I like about this industry is that someone says, “I’ve got an idea,” and someone else says, “I’m working on something too.” Before you know it, you’re creating things [together]. Before you know it, you’ve formed a theatre company. Before you know it, you’ve won an award. These guys from Flesh & Bone are a case in point – two actors coming together, one of them writing a brilliant piece, started workshopping it, and everyone went, “This is really good.” It’s obvious why, it’s cleverly written.

This is the world’s greatest pressure valve, where we as a society get to look at each other, look back at ourselves, re-examine what the hell we are doing and sit back a little taller. Those are the things that make me passionate, and excite me.
Anthony Alderson
Artistic Director, Pleasance

And they did win this year’s Charlie Hartill - what’s the intent behind the Charlie Hartill Award? Do you think it encourages risky new works to be made?

Charlie was one of us, he died in 2004. He was my friend. So it is very personal, as it is still in his honour. There is a judging panel but the whole of the office comes as well [to select a winner]. A lot of [shortlisted shows] are here anyway. It’s the only fund of its kind that gives that level of support for the Fringe. But it’s just one way to get here, it’s not the only way to get here. It is about taking a risk. We have to be realistic about how things are funded. There is no money, we have to be very careful about what we choose. People have to be careful about what they put on. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take fantastic artistic risks.

In the days of ‘too much funding’ art tends to stagnate a bit. In these times where things are really tough, we’re finding some incredible performers – wonderful pieces of work. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. I’d like to see those things snapped up, captured and taken on. It’s all about getting your head above the parapet and being seen. This is by far the most exciting place to do it, and it’s the only place you can do it for that amount of money. When people talk about Edinburgh being expensive, yes, it is expensive, but not as expensive as anywhere else. The world is here, it’s come to see and discover work. And if you’re clever and know what you’re doing, and you know how to go out and find those people [who can help].

Have there been any highlights for you in terms of shows that Pleasance has put on or supported?

We did a play called ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’ about veterans returning from the Iraq war and from Afghanistan, who had lost limbs. It was about the process of putting a human being back together, and it was performed by actual veterans. They were real. They rehearsed at the Pleasance in London. These men and women had spoken to the staff, they became friends with the locals. We produced it in association, as the presenting theatre, but it moved everybody in the Pleasance. It didn’t do that many performances as they couldn’t physically do [that many], but it was a remarkable piece of theatre. The reaction was extraordinary. They changed – they became professional performers, they achieved something they never thought that they would do.

Would you say there are common pitfalls to those who are less successful at the Fringe?

You’ve got to come and understand it. One thing about this festival is you’ve got to know what you want to get out of it. You have to know – there has to be a purpose. There has to be an understanding of the mechanisms, because they are peculiar, particular to the Fringe. Every year I meet with companies that say, “It’s not working.” And you get the impression that they’re doing the wrong thing, treating it like a run in a regional theatre. You have to switch the way you work.

You have to create your own luck. There’s no point sitting by the phone, you’ve got to get out there.
Anthony Alderson
Artistic Director, Pleasance

Finally, what would you say to performers thinking of taking a show here in 2018?

Start talking to us now if you’re keen on next year. I love young people’s enthusiasm, but there’s no rush. If you are not ready, don’t come. If 11 months comes quickly, 23 months will come quickly enough too. We’re already programming now – come in and meet us. Yes, read the forms etc., but just come in and talk to us. Show us something – it’s not enough to just send the application in. There are no rules to this. I think people get stuck by that. We’re trying to find the new voices.

It’s fine to doubt, we all doubt – every time I step onto a stage to give a speech or give an interview, I have doubts, but I think you’ve got to have the old 20 seconds of courage. Once you’ve made the decision, then actually you find it’s alright. Nobody’s doing it the “right” way. Nobody’s play is the “best” one. Or saying that’s the only way to do it, that’s not the way to do it. That’s not what this is about. Just take the first step of courage and go for it, because you never know. You might fall flat on your face, but that’s what it’s for. That’s why we’re here. That’s what the Pleasance is for. To allow people with a little bit of a safety net to take that risk and we want to hold their hands while they do it. Even if you fail, you’ll have learned something. Perhaps the second time is the hardest because you know then what it takes, and the question is, are you willing to do it again? Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is? That’s a brave thing to do. Take the risk.

Thank you to Anthony for giving us his time, and for these encouraging words! See more stories about some of the talent that passed through the Fringe this year including Evelyn Mok, Unpolished Theatre, In Bed With My Brother, and Graeae.