Rolling up for Fringe benefits

August 23, 1996

Student drama companies have been making the pilgrimage to Edinburgh for the three-week extravaganza that is the Edinburgh Fringe every August for 50 years.

This year, more than 100 companies are presenting shows that run the gamut: silly revues such as Oxford's No British Please, We're Sexy; contemporary pieces such as Alex R. Evans's Making Love, performed by Edinburgh University's Prominent Features; adaptations of the classics such as Birmingham University's 20 to Theatre production of Sophocles's Antigone; and, of course, plenty of Shakespeare.

For students performing at the fringe, life is not all beer and fun. Productions are expensive. Selling enough Pounds 5 tickets to cover the cost of theatre hire for a 14-day season is tough and then there is accommodation and living expenses.

The Old School Theatre Company, formed last year by second-years at Manchester University, is performing an upbeat production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, and subsidising its fringe season with income from a tour of Kent schools. Designer Ed Beard will also cycle from Cape Wrath to Dover after the festival to raise more cash.

The students from Oxford Brookes Drama, are working part-time as ushers at their venue, in return for half-price theatre hire and free digs. With three shows running during the fringe, it is the only way to fund the venture. Even so, the nine cast and crew of Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance are living in a small two-bedroom flat during their ten-day stay.

With more than 1,200 other shows to compete with, standing out from the crowd is not easy. Getting reviewed, ideally in The Scotsman, draws good audiences and even a poor review is not a disaster.

Apart from press coverage, the only other way to get noticed is through publicity. Dozens of performers thrust flyers towards passers-by outside the ticket office on The Royal Mile. Sales pitches are delivered with such gusto, or perhaps desperation, that you almost feel shamed into attending.

Manchester's Old School company learned the importance of publicity the hard way on day three despite their eye-catching production, which features James Rawlings as Touchstone zooming around on rollerblades and Caroline Wilton (Rosalind) in a wedding dress. The first two days' performances of As You Like It, preceded by a morning of leafletting, drew a respectable 30 to 40 punters. But the next day the company took the morning off to catch another show and ended up playing to just four people.

For Oxford Brookes, the cast's shifts at the venue made arranging a publicity roster more difficult. Nevertheless the students have also been treading the cobblestones in their costumes and wigs.

One company that has not had to strive quite so hard to attract an audience is Edinburgh's Queen Margaret College. Although it is located about 15 minutes out of town, it attracts locals who do not want to battle the fringe crowds. One show, John Godber's Up 'N' Under, also has local appeal - director and QMC lecturer Andy Mackie has tartanised the tale of a hopeless rugby team almost made good.

The college has revived the hit 1995 version of another Godber play, Bouncers (which competes with three other versions but still earned five stars from The Scotsman), and last week presented a joint QMC/Ohio Northern University production of Oleanna, David Mamet's work about a student who accuses her professor of sexual harassment. Despite the fringe's hardships the students from all three companies say they will do it again.

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